When we know what policies are likely to be successful or bring about improvements and change, why don’t we have the political will to implement them? Peter Enns, Government, was teaching high school in Baltimore when this question occurred to him. He saw that teachers and leaders knew what made schools effective, but the necessary political will to make required changes often did not exist. Enns wanted to study why.
In his PhD work, Enns realized the importance of public opinion. How do you measure public opinion over time? How responsive is the political system to the public’s mood? Why does public opinion change? Is support for specific policies based on objective information or is it based on being misled?
In his most recent book, Incarceration Nation (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Enns examined these questions in relation to the criminal justice system. The United States is the most punitive democracy in the world, and in the last four decades, incarceration rates in the country have increased 500 percent. With 60 years of data analysis, Enns found that politicians in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s did, in fact, respond to an increasingly punitive public with punitive policy. He argues that media coverage of rising crime led to this increasingly punitive public opinion.
Using Data to Answer Questions on Mass Incarceration
In recent years Enns says that the public has become less punitive. This shift has influenced the criminal justice system, making it important now to better understand and implement calls for criminal justice reform. Enns is working with Christopher Wildeman (Duke University) and other collaborators on a massive-scale survey (more than 5000 respondents) to better understand how incarceration affects families in the United States.
“Existing studies on mass incarceration have not had access to this much data, which has limited the ability to fully understand the family component,” Enns says. “One of the key driving questions is, what proportion of individuals have had a family member in jail or prison? While we know a lot about incarceration rates, we don’t have a complete sense of how this connects to families.”
The team has designed and implemented a complex survey in order to produce estimates, one national and four states’ share—Arizona, Mississippi, New York, and Oklahoma—of the population with a history of family incarceration in the United States. In addition, respondents will be asked a set of questions about political participation, health, interaction with police, and views of criminal justice system. The researchers will then be able to do a comparative analysis between families affected and families not affected by incarceration.
“It’s coming up with the first estimates of how many people have a family member who has experienced incarceration,” Enns says. “And then that leads to a host of other potential research, because we will have data on both sides of the equation—those with immediate family who have and have not spent time in prison or jail.”
Being able to quantify the scope of how the criminal justice system has affected families will be especially important in policy advocacy. The research could also reframe the dialogue around criminal justice reform. “It doesn’t only involve police and those who are incarcerated,” says Enns. “There are over two million kids in the United States who have a parent incarcerated. The data will help illustrate this broad scope of impact of the criminal justice system.”
The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, for which Enns is the executive director, will house the data so that other researchers will have access for future projects.
How Money Influences What Politicians Say
In another project, Enns is looking at how money affects what politicians say, particularly around an issue like economic inequality, which receives less media coverage.
Enns, with collaborators at University of Tennessee and Penn State, is tracking what individual members of Congress say on the congressional record and linking that data to their campaign donations. The researchers are looking to see if members’ campaign donations affect what issues they speak about in Congress.
The researchers have divided campaign donations into two categories: corporate funding and labor donations. Labor donations act as a proxy for working class interest, while corporate donations signal corporate interest.
So far, Enns says they’ve found clear evidence that mentions topics such as inequality and wage increases where a Congress member has more money from labor. And they found that talk about upper class interests correspond more with higher corporate donations.
“If politicians are not talking about it, it’s not nearly as much on the public’s mind.”
This is particularly important because what politicians talk about influences the political agenda. “If something is never spoken about, nothing can happen,” says Enns. “If something is spoken about a lot, it doesn’t guarantee something will happen, but it’s more likely to get the initial momentum to start something and carry it through.”
Enns is interested in how this feeds into public opinion and political will. Unlike crime, an issue such as rising inequality is more difficult to report on and appears less in the news. This gives politicians more influence in how the public perceives this type of economic issue.
“If politicians are not talking about it, it’s not nearly as much on the public’s mind,” says Enns. “It’s all back to this original question: Why don’t we implement the policies we know to work? Where is the political will? And how does public opinion fit into that?”
Cornell’s Collaborative Research in the Social Sciences
For much of Enns’s research, Cornell institutions have been critical in facilitating collaboration. For example, Enns’ and Wildeman’s research originated from an Institute for Social Science theme project on the causes and consequences of mass incarceration. Enns also continues to work with Jonathon Schuldt, Communication, who he first met years ago through Cornell’s University Courses program. They run a joint public opinion course, as well as have a grant from the Cornell Study of Inequality to conduct a 2018 midterm election survey.
“My first answer about collaboration is that it just sort of happens. We bump into each other and find common interests,” says Enns. “But no, the university is investing money to facilitate this. It wouldn’t have happened without a major institutional investment.”