Opinion Crafting and Policymaking in the U.S. States

Johnnie Lotesta, Appalachian State University

From 2010 to 2017, six states adopted right-to-work laws banning union security contracts that allow labor organizations to collect “fair share” fees from non-member employees. Notably, the states to adopt right-to-work laws in this time period included former industrial strongholds of the Rust Belt: Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and West Virginia. The adoption of right-to-work laws in the 2010s, and in the Rust Belt in particular, poses a striking empirical puzzle. Survey data shows that the majority of voting-age citizens did not know what right-to-work laws are, and public support for such laws was negligible. At the same time, right-to-work was a highly divisive issue among labor leaders and members, a small but nevertheless powerful voting bloc. Given these conditions, right-to-work advocates faced a two-fold challenge: 1) to 'educate' the public in ways that would generate support for right-to-work, and 2) to represent public opinion in ways that would reduce the law’s association with political risk among legislators. These two challenges are central to a particular type of political work I call "opinion crafting" – the process by which lawmakers, policy practitioners, and political strategists mold, analyze, and present public opinion in ways that make palatable the adoption of otherwise unpopular policy positions. To demonstrate the centrality of “opinion crafting” to state lawmaking, I trace the introduction, evaluation, and eventual passage of statewide right-to-work laws in Michigan and Indiana in 2012. In both cases, opinion crafting was essential to the establishment of legislative coalitions large enough to guarantee right-to-work’s passage, even under Republican control of both legislative houses.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 156. Who Governs?: Power and Policymaking in the States