Daniel Laurison ’99’s research focuses on deep inequalities in political participation and engagement and inequalities in “who gets listened to by politicians and political parties.”
“Figuring out why that is and what can be done about it seems to be a path to getting politics to be more responsive to the needs and concerns of poor and working-class communities, and communities of color,” says Laurison, an associate professor of sociology at Swarthmore.
Laurison recently published his second book, Producing Politics: Inside the Exclusive Campaign World Where the Privileged Few Shape Politics for All of Us (Beacon Press). The book focuses on the ways in which campaign staffers, both (to varying degrees) on Democratic and Republican campaigns, are unrepresentative of voters: Overall, campaign staffers are more likely to be white, male, to have attended elite colleges, and to have come from middle- to upper middle-class backgrounds. Only seven of the 72 politicos Laurison interviewed told him they came from working-class families. Only one said he’d grown up “poor.”
All this adds up to a political class whose members “are producing politics for people from whom they are not only geographically, but also socially, quite distant,” as Laurison writes in the book. The book explores the ways this relatively insular group of people, concentrated in political hubs like Washington, D.C., shape the choices campaigns make. “A campaign could be a conversation between political elites and regular people,” Laurison writes.
“But only a very small portion of contemporary campaign budgets are dedicated to talking with potential voters. Instead, contemporary campaigns tend to be performances more than conversations: one-way communications in which consultants, staff, and candidates send the messages they think will be most effective to the people they believe are most likely to be determinative for election results.”
“The takeaway for me is we could have a more democratic — not in the party sense but in the small ‘d’ sense — democracy if campaigns had different people in them and made different choices,” Laurison says.
Laurison, who won a $200,000 fellowship from the Carnegie Corporation in 2021 to advance this research, and is on research leave through January 2024, now directs the Politics and Equal Participation Lab, which is affiliated with the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. He’s working with Swarthmore students and community-based researchers to conduct interviews with low-income, poor and working-class people about their relationship with politics. “If the book is called Producing Politics, this [next] book could be called ‘Receiving Politics,’ or ‘Consuming Politics,’” he says.
“A lot of people we talk to basically see politics as a game that elites or people unlike themselves are playing, or a fight or something nasty or unappealing that they’re not involved in,” he says. “One person said people were watching the 2020 election like it’s the Super Bowl, like you’re on a team and you’re rooting for one team or another and it’s entertainment. It's not as much about people's lives as it ought to be."