Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

When Do Legislators Defy Popular Sovereignty? Testing Theories of Minority Representation Using DOMA

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

When Do Legislators Defy Popular Sovereignty? Testing Theories of Minority Representation Using DOMA

Article excerpt


What explains the behavior of legislators on bills that restrict the rights of marginalized minorities? Studies of representation typically focus on factors like party or public opinion but seldom account for theories of minority representation like electoral capture or subconstituency politics. One reason for this is that data allowing for the comparison of these theories are seldom available for U.S. House districts. We overcome this hurdle by implementing multilevel regression with post-stratification to estimate opinion on gay marriage during the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act vote. We show that subconstituency politics explains legislators' behavior better than electoral capture, party, or public opinion.


representation, LGBT politics, congress, elections, DOMA


On September 21, 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton signed into law The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which allows states to avoid recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states and pro- hibits the federal government from recognizing these marriages at all. Denying gays the right to marry pre- cludes them from receiving more than 1,000 federal benefits, including, for example, the right to social secu- rity survivor benefits. In so doing, Clinton joined with a majority of the Democrats in the House (118/198) and Senate (32/47) to deny a basic civil right to one of their party's staunchest allies, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.1

The passage of this bill during an era of Republican ascendancy is perhaps unsurprising. In 1996, Republicans had solid majorities in both the House and Senate, and the Democratic president had won with only 43 percent of the vote. Since the mid-1960s, Republicans have opposed extending civil rights to disadvantaged groups at least partly because, as Hillygus and Shields (2008) note, much of the Grand Old Party (GOP)'s southern strategy was predicated on making race-based appeals to recruit Democratic white southern voters to the GOP (Phillips 1969). Specifically, Republicans stonewalled advances in civil rights by propounding "states' rights" arguments that asserted that these decisions should be left to the individual states (e.g., Karol 2009). This approach served to delay the extension of federal law to states and thereby impeded the large national majorities that favored extending civil rights to African Americans.

More surprising is the opposition of leading Democrats to gay marriage. DOMA was passed with the support of a Democratic president and by a majority of Democrats in each chamber. Democrats had, since the civil rights battles of the 1960s, been the party of and for the extension of civil rights to virtually all disenfranchised groups whether based on race, ethnicity, gender, or age. On issues of gay rights, however, many Democrats embraced the states' rights arguments most frequently advanced by Republicans. Democrats' unwillingness to extend a basic right to the LGBT community raises important questions about the representation process in the United States. Specifically, why is it that on an issue so important to such a loyal group, Democrats rejected their philosophical principles of strong federal control and expansive civil rights to support legis- lation that was harmful to their supporters?

One possible answer is that Democrats voted as a majority of their constituents preferred. After all, at the time DOMA was passed, gay marriage was highly unpopular nationally with only 27 percent supporting it (Gallup 2011). Limiting gays' rights could be a simple case of Democrats spurning their base to oppose unpop- ular policy. This explanation would square with the bed- rock of democratic theory, majoritarianism, which is grounded in the notion of popular sovereignty. Majoritarianism holds that elected officials act to advance constituents' majority-preferred opinion. Increasingly, however, scholars have begun to demon- strate that elected officials frequently take positions contrary to those preferred by the majority and diverge from the position held by the median voter (e. …

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