Photo of Ryan EnosJuly 2020. GrowthPolicy’s Devjani Roy interviewed Ryan Enos, Professor of Government at Harvard, on the future of the U.S. judiciary, the political impact of public protests, and policy solutions to income inequality. | Click here for more interviews like this one.

Links: Professor Enos’s Harvard faculty page | Personal website | Twitter: @RyanDEnos | The Space between Us: Social Geography and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

GrowthPolicy: Your latest book, The Space between Us: Social Geography and Politics (2017), may be one of the most creative and methodologically rigorous works to emerge from both the behavioral and social sciences in the last ten years. You posit, through research that is staggering in range and originality, that social geography, or the spatial distribution of social groups in America, is underpinned by hidden forces that drive political life. In what ways, if any, have the last four years substantiated your arguments in this book, while also giving you new material and insights on the book’s original thesis?

Ryan Enos: The book argues that the segregation of social groups—say racial or religious groups—in geographic space separates those groups in psychological space and, as a result, in social and political space. This psychological separation distorts our perceptions of other groups—pushing them apart in our minds—and making it hard to come together to cooperate and solve the problems that diverse societies must solve to be successful. In essence, when groups identities align with geography, it is hard to get things done. To see examples of this, think about a segregated city like Chicago, and white people on the Northside and Black people on the Southside and the distrust and animosity caused by segregation and how they must come together to make a functioning city government, but often cannot. 

The book focused primarily on the balkanization of ethnic or racial groups, but the last four years reminds us of the importance of the balkanization of political identities.  Scholars are increasingly convinced that partisanship functions as a social identity in the United States, much in the way of race or religion. This may have been less so when partisanship was less tied to geography but today, even a casual observer of politics in the US knows that some places are “red” and some are “blue.” These observations are stereotypes but are also fairly accurate descriptions of a segregated world where Democrats are clustered into dense places of the country and Republicans into the less-dense places.  

You can see the parallels with race, where Americans living on different sides of a metro area looked with suspicion across geographic divides at other groups—filling their minds with stereotypes and fears—and often failed to come together to govern effectively. It seems obvious to me that the same phenomenon now plays out in our partisan geographic divide because our partisan identities now align with geography. Not only does the separation of Democrats and Republicans into different areas give them different interests but it creates fear, suspicion, and animosity—to the point where politics is less about policy accomplishments and more about utility from damaging the other side. 

The difficulty this presents is that politicians have an incentive to exploit these psychological tendencies. When Donald Trump appeals to a certain type of America, or when Hillary Clinton speaks of “deplorables,” these appeals are effective because voters can imagine the other side as separate and different from them. This can further reinforce these stereotypes and the psychological gulf between partisans. Ultimately, it makes it hard for American government to function effectively, especially on a large scale where these geographic divides are really apparent. 

The hopeful note though is that partisan attachments are more malleable than things like race and ethnicity; they can change and be shed in a way that race typically cannot. With this, we can imagine situations where enough people decide they don’t like a certain political party or incentives change for politicians and the political landscape changes too so that geography and partisanship may become misaligned. It is not impossible to think that the current economic and public health shocks could provide this opportunity. 

GrowthPolicy: Your research paper, “Can Violent Protest Change Local Policy Support? Evidence from the Aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles Riot” is extraordinarily timely. In the paper, you use “geocoded data to analyze measures of policy support before and after the 1992 Los Angeles riot […] that occurred just prior to an election” (p. 1012). As I write this in mid-June 2020, we are facing a situation in which a violent police force, prepared with full riot gear, has been used as a tool of repression. In what ways, do you believe, the current situation is analogous to that in 1992, given we are also, as in 1992, on the cusp of a primary election? Second, you note that “[t]he triggering event [in 1992] … was a video recording of police brutality.” In what ways do you believe that technology—specifically the internet, social media, and the preponderance of smart phones with advanced audio/video capabilities—has changed the nature of public protest?

Ryan Enos: The poignancy of protest has the ability to focus the attention of people on politics, to make them understand why it is important. There is good reason to believe that the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles is a useful model for how the unrest in 2020 might affect our politics. We found that in 1992, the protests were effective in moving local electoral support in a direction sympathetic to the protestors, primarily because the protests mobilized people to become involved in voting for the first time. In 2020, you have the 1992 situation in Los Angeles multiplied across the entire United States. If it has the same mobilizing effect, then this could dramatically effect election outcomes. 

Potentially, we are already seeing this in the polls as they have shifted towards Biden. It is also notable that we found that those mobilized by the protests in 1992 were still active as voters over 20 years later so it appears that the protests had a permanent effect on people’s involvement. In that sense, the 2020 protests have the potential to have a permanent impact on the country’s political landscape. 

The rise of “citizen journalism” has certainly changed the exposure that your typical citizen has to these events. The beating of Rodney King that precipitated the 1992 protests was so shocking to people because it brought home violence by agents of the state and it was undeniable and vivid, brought right to their living room; it brought home the legitimacy of the grievances of the protestors. There is a parallel here to the way that state-sanctioned violence against protestors in Birmingham in 1963 was a catalyst for political change on civil rights.

In 2020, there was also no denying the brutality of the police in some cities because police were unleashing violence against people who could broadcast that violence to the world in real-time. The experience is, therefore, no longer localized—it is multiplied throughout the country and world. This may help explain the widescale spread of these protests and could have significant implications for the long-term political impact. 

GrowthPolicy: I’d like to ask you about the future of the judiciary in the United States. The U.S. Senate, under Senator McConnell, has installed 193 of President Trump’s picks for the bench, including two Supreme Court justices, 138 district court judges, and two judges for the U.S. Court of International Trade. What is your opinion on the long-term impact of this decidedly conservative tilt in our courts system? What, if any, effects will we see in terms of legislation, both in the short term and over the course of a generation?

Ryan Enos: This is a good question.  One reason, perhaps, we focus so much on Trump’s judicial appointments is because we recognize that with the dysfunction of Congress as a lawmaking body, the courts play an extremely important role in public policy in this country. 

There is no doubt that Trump’s appointments will have a long-term impact, but it is also important not to overstate this. Jimmy Carter, for example, appointed 263 judges in just one term as President. Immediately after that, Reagan appointed 383 in his two terms and Clinton appointed almost as many. So Trump’s imprint is relatively large, but not as large as it is sometimes portrayed. 

Did the appointments by Carter, Reagan, and Clinton have a big impact on jurisprudence in this country? Absolutely, but that size and quality of that impact is going to be hard to sort out over the course of decades as the nominees of all these different Presidents sit on the same courts. It is important to remember too that it looks increasingly likely that Trump will be a one-term President and the impact of his appointments will be further diluted by the appointments of the next President. 

Finally, the ideology of a President is, of course, a good guide to how judges will behave on the court but it is not absolute. Judges are influenced by other judges, world events, and many other things. Just look at the current Supreme Court, with a majority appointed by Republican Presidents, yet recently handing down victories for progressives. It is hard to know why a majority of justices, including John Roberts went this direction, but if we would have predicted their votes merely by who appointed them, we would have been wrong about these outcomes. All of this is to say that the impact of Trump’s appointments is going to be difficult to predict. 

GrowthPolicy: What should we do about income inequality?

Ryan Enos: Income inequality should be considered a crisis of public policy; not only is it related to the many ways that the quality of life in the United States is falling behind other rich countries but it is a strong predictor of social and political unrest. It is hard to see a stable and prosperous future for the U.S. if inequality is not addressed.

Unfortunately, addressing it is not easy; while much is driven by policies at the federal level, such as our increasingly non-progressive tax schemes, much income inequality is also a result of local dynamics that may actually be harder to change. One of the most important of these is simply the housing supply. When housing is hard to build, as it is in many of the wealthiest parts of this country, it causes tremendous returns to existing wealth as homeowners see the value of their homes increases, but it also causes a cascade of problems for non-homeowners as they can’t afford to live where they work or enjoy the economic returns to homeownership. This is not to mention other issues like the environmental damage caused by urban sprawl as new housing is pushed onto open land—the only place it is able to be built. 

Nearly everybody agrees that this is a problem that needs to be solved, but it is also a classic collective action problem because homeowners, even if in favor of housing in theory, don’t want to pay the cost in practice—giving rise to the classic NIMBY problem.  Even in overwhelmingly progressive parts of the country that supposedly are concerned about inequality, like Boston, not enough housing is being built.

A solution to this is to reduce the collective action problem by moving the policy making away from the local level. States should be telling localities to build more housing so that this housing is more evenly allocated. In theory, the political will should be there because there are many people who would like to see more housing built in the wealthy and low-density areas of a state and these people will usually form a majority.

In reality, of course, it is more difficult because wealthy homeowners are disproportionately politically powerful. This reality can be seen in California, where Democrats have a supermajority in the legislature, and still can’t get more housing built because of the influence of homeowners in some communities. This makes change difficult in our current political system, but as others have noted, we should treat housing as a human right and demand that the wealthy make the sacrifices necessary to allow others to enjoy this right.