Political Powerlessness

November
2015
Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos

There is a hole at the heart of equal protection law. According to long-established doctrine, one of the factors that determine whether a group is a suspect class is the group’s political powerlessness. But neither courts nor scholars have reached any kind of agreement as to the meaning of powerlessness. Instead, they have advanced an array of conflicting conceptions: numerical size, access to the franchise, financial resources, descriptive representation, and so on.

My primary goal in this Article, then, is to offer a definition of political powerlessness that makes theoretical sense. The definition I propose is this: A group is relatively powerless if its aggregate policy preferences are less likely to be enacted than those of similarly sized and classified groups. I arrive at this definition in three steps. First, the powerlessness doctrine stems from Carolene Products’s account of “those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities.” Second, “those political processes” refer to pluralism: the idea that society is divided into countless overlapping groups, from whose shifting coalitions public policy emerges. And third, pluralism implies a particular notion of group power— one that (1) is continuous rather than binary, (2) spans all issues, (3) focuses on policy enactment, and (4) controls for group size, and (5) type. These are precisely the elements of my suggested definition.

But I aim not just to theorize but also to operationalize in this Article. In the last few years, datasets have become available on groups’ policy preferences at the federal and state levels. Merging these datasets with information on policy outcomes, I am able to quantify my conception of group power. I find that blacks, women, and the poor are relatively powerless at both governmental levels; while whites, men, and the non-poor wield more influence. These results both support and subvert the current taxonomy of suspect classes.

This article appears in the November 2015 Issue: Volume 90, Number 5