A Conversation with Eric Schickler

Eric Schickler
April 26, 2016

Eric Schickler is Professor and Department Chair of Political Science at UC Berkeley. His research interests include Congress, American political development, rational choice theory, political parties, and public opinion. Schickler is also an IGS Affiliated Faculty member. Here, he discusses his research and forthcoming work.

What are some of the larger themes and questions that inform your work?

One of the main questions is: what is the role the mass public and ordinary voters play in shaping big developments in American public policy and politics. To what extent are the outcomes you see the product of the preferences of political elites and political actors, and to what extent are they driven by the attitudes and participation of ordinary voters?

Who have been some of your pivotal intellectual influences?

David Mayhew, who was my advisor at Yale, taught me the importance of going out and collecting new data sources to answer questions instead of just relying on off-the-shelf, existing data. Oftentimes, you need to think about your question and come up with a strategy to collect the appropriate data, rather than starting with a data set that exists and finding a question that that data might answer. 

Can you talk about your most recent project?

I have a book coming out this spring called Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, which tries to understand why the Democrats and Republicans essentially change sides on civil rights and race issues. Prevailing interpretations have been that national leaders like Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater made pivotal decisions and the party followed along. The argument I make in the book is that this change actually built up very gradually starting in the 1930s, and was driven much more by grass roots activists, mass opinion, and what I refer to as locally rooted politicians: rank and file members of Congress and state parties that were responding to new black voters in their districts and states. The industrial labor movement was also a big force early on for incorporating civil rights into liberalism.

Do you see this project as a continuation of your previous work, or as departure in a new direction?

In my early work there have been two main streams. One is a very institutional work on Congress. I have a separate set of work on public opinion and that was on partisanship and party identification. This is the first project that integrates the two: telling a story that has a strong mass component, where public opinion analysis is important. It’s also an institutional story told through analyses of state party platforms, member of Congress’ behavior and other data sources. 

What are some of the most interesting things you’ve found working on this current book project?

I think in some ways the most interesting initial finding is that among ordinary white voters in the North, by 1940 being a Democrat, being economically liberal and being racially liberal were all related. We think of this as something that doesn’t happen until much, much later among ordinary voters. The argument I make in the book is that this had a lot to do with political battles on the ground with the CIO and African American voters and conservative Southerners who became identified as enemies of the New Deal in this early period. 

What do you enjoy the most about the work that you do?

I view the work as an exploratory process where you come in with your prior beliefs or hunches but data and archival evidence will teach you things you didn’t know. It’s that process of discovery and figuring out how to put these puzzle pieces together. 

What are some of the challenges that you face? 

One challenge is certainly that the data the world presents is never going to be exactly what you want: you don’t have that perfect data. A lot of my work is historical and when you are doing historical work you are kind of captive to the data that was being collected back then. 

Do you have other forthcoming work that you can share? 

I have another book that’s co-authored with Doug Kriner at Boston University on the politics of Congressional investigations. Conventional wisdom is that the President has all these advantages when battling Congress. What we argue is that Congressional investigations serve as an informal mechanism to check the Executive branch. Investigations get around a lot of collective action problems because the individual who leads the investigation both challenges the President and typically gets a personal political benefit. When Congress investigates it tends to impose political costs on the President. It also leads to policy change both through new legislation and through Presidents preempting legislation.

Can you talk about what you have done with the assistance of IGS? 

The infrastructural support of IGS was really critical for the forthcoming book. IGS workshops were a place where I presented early versions of the book project and got great feedback. As research assistants, IGS grad students played a great role throughout the project including some who are now faculty members like Kathryn Pearson at Minnesota, to Devin Caughey at MIT. I’m now working with Michael Dougal

Photo by Farrah Kazemi