Congressional Leaders focus on the Pandemic, but what about Racial Issues?

Wednesday, September 30 2020 Joicee Lu Categories:

One of the many interesting ways we use Narrative Analytics is to reveal Policymaker Insights — in this newsletter we focus on Members of Congress. Elected officials comprise a unique position in our society, sometimes reacting to public sentiment and sometimes leading the public forward. What these leaders choose to focus on is a reflection of where we’ve been in the last several months, and potentially where we’re going.

As we looked at the Narrative Landscape among Members of Congress this year, we saw what we expected — the set of topics they had been focusing on in the beginning of 2020 was soon overwhelmed by the focus on the pandemic and then, a couple months later, racial justice issues. We used Narrative Analytics to categorize over 405,000 tweets from US Senators and Representatives to reveal how their attention naturally shifted from a balanced set of multiple issues in January and February to a more narrowly focused discourse once the pandemic and racial justice movements started to dominate news cycles. 

We were curious to explore how the focus on COVID-19 and racial justice affected other topics. Did they all decrease in prominence equally, or did some topics take more of a hit than others? As it turns out, there was significant variability among the topics.

Issues that had previously garnered major Congressional and societal attention, including Climate Change and Gun Rights, were all but eclipsed by COVID-19 and Racial Issues. As the country concentrated on dealing with the domestic issues of the pandemic and demonstrations, internationally focused topics, like Foreign Affairs and Military, took a back seat. Interestingly, the Housing conversation decreased the least as the conversation shifted from general housing issues to COVID-specific challenges, such as evictions.  

We were also curious to understand how the nature of each topic’s expressions changed. Both the pandemic and the racial justice movement are monumental shifts in society, signaling potentially permanent changes in our country. Were those dominant topics changing how Members of Congress talked about other topics?

Our Co-Occurrence Analysis revealed significant differences between COVID-19 and the racial justice movement. Before March, neither of these topics were occurring in Congressional tweets alongside other topics. Once the pandemic hit hard, nearly every topic — from Housing to Education to Taxation to Immigration — became a COVID-19 related topic much of the time. Members of Congress seem to believe that every aspect of society is affected by COVID-19. One might expect the same would be true for Racial Issues — certainly Housing, Education, Public Health and many other topics have an equity dimension to them. But the Congressional discourse does not bear out that interconnectedness. So far, only Police & Crime has significant co-occurrence with Racial Issues in Congressional tweets.

Does the lack of connection between Racial Issues and other topics signal a less sustained impact among Members of Congress, and society more broadly? Or will we see the racial justice movement permeate other topic discussions over time and eventually influence policy and society in a lasting way? These are the questions we will continue to ask as we monitor the Congressional Narrative Landscape.

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