How Much Did Race Dog the Shutdown Standoff?

Brown University political scientist measures just how much race figured into decision to shut down government.

By Brentin Mock Oct 24, 2013

Many pundits have surmised that race played a significant role in why Republicans allowed the federal government to shutdown over whether to fund Obamacare. Our own Imara Jones explored the racial impacts of the shutdown pointing out that people of color constituted a larger portion of the federal workforce than the general workforce, He also argued: "As the parts of the government affected by the shutdown disproportionately impact economic opportunity programs for the working poor, historically marginalized communities are likely to the feel the effects of a shutdown acutely as time goes on."

This week, Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler took a stab at quantifying just how much race was a factor in the actual decisions of lawmakers to let the government shutter. By utlizing the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study and the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project, which in combination surveyed almost 100,000 people on levels of racial resentment, Tesler was able to make a convincing case that some pro-shutdown Republicans may have been motivated by racism. The House members who represent districts with high levels of racial resentment were the least likely to vote for a deal that would have averted a shutdown, according to his study.

Even after controlling for things like partisanship, ideology and religion, Tesler found the same results. Alternately, high racial resentment levels per district did not stop those districts’ representatives from voting to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act. Tesler’s conclusion: "It appears, then, that the relationship between district-level racial resentment and the shutdown vote was not merely politics as usual."

Check the graph below, where the vertical axis shows the probability that a Republican House member voted to end the shutdown, while the horizontal axis shows the level of racial resentment found in congressional districts. It’s the bottom, right corner of the graph you want to pay attention to, showing low probability of voting to end the shut down and high levels of racial resentment.