Photos by John Russell and Steve Green
The economy is floundering. The housing industry is in crisis. Gas and energy prices are skyrocketing. The country is faced with immigration issues, burgeoning debt, an unpopular war, and an unprecedented election year in which an African American, a woman, and a former P.O.W. emerged as the top competitors for the presidency. It’s both an unsettling and an inspiring time to be an American.
It’s also a terrific time to be an American political scientist. More and more often, faculty members in Vanderbilt’s political science department are contributing to the public debate, adding an academic’s perspective about political events, both here and abroad. From The Washington Post to The Los Angeles Times, it’s a rare day in this election year when at least one Vanderbilt political science faculty member isn’t called upon for insight and analysis.
And given the current backdrop of change, tension and expectation, Vanderbilt political science students are more engaged in politics than they have been in decades. Professors are using the current election as a teaching tool to examine fundamental political science theory in real time.
Christian Grose has taught at Vanderbilt since 2005, and every year he delivers lectures about conventions and delegates. Often students find the subject matter dry. “But now it’s very exciting,” says the assistant professor of political science. “They’re asking probing and detailed questions about past Democratic and Republican conventions.”
Political science scholars offer perspectives that students don’t get by watching network news programs or reading popular blogs.
Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of political science, follows political races all across the country and, using empirical models, makes predictions about election outcomes. “Conventional wisdom isn’t always right,” he says, citing the 2006 congressional elections as an example. Election watchers claimed that Democrats had a chance to win control of the House of Representatives because of the declining popularity of the Bush administration–but they wouldn’t win control of the Senate.
“I said that the Democrats had a good chance of winning both the House and the Senate,” Oppenheimer recalls. “That was based on an analysis of the totality of all the things that were going on. And I was right.”
While the media tend to look at the larger numbers in opinion polls, Oppenheimer and his colleagues often focus on the smaller numbers. Suppose, for example, that 80 percent of polled voters say they don’t have a problem voting for an African American or a woman. News outlets will overwhelmingly tout the majority opinion. Oppenheimer, however, is more curious about the minority of voters who say they won’t support those candidates.
“In a landslide election it’s not a big deal,” he says, “but in a close election, you’d better find out who that 20 percent is.”
Academicians are particularly adept at teasing out the subtle factors that influence people’s behavior. Oppenheimer and Christian Grose published research in the Legislative Studies Quarterly (November 2007) correlating how the number of casualties among hometown soldiers worked against Republicans running in congressional districts–including formerly popular incumbents running in Republican strongholds.
“We examined the impact of Iraq war deaths on the congressional vote in the November 2006 elections,” Grose explains. “We found that the majority of the American public had moved against the war in Iraq, and thus this issue helped the Democrats. … Specifically, for every two local soldier deaths in a congressional district, the Republican candidate did about 1 percent worse in the 2006 election compared to the 2004 election in the same district.”
The 24-hour news cycle has altered the blueprint for political races, which means that students are actually helping professors form a clearer vision of the modern political process. Vanderbilt undergraduates provide a window into the attitudes of their generation, particularly when it comes to accessing communication channels like television, alternative radio and the Internet.
“They’re much more savvy than I am at using those resources,” Grose says. “Which is good for me, because they clue me in on things that are appearing on YouTube and Web blogs. Then I’ll hear about it in the mainstream news a month later.”
Political science has been one of the most popular majors on the Vanderbilt campus for decades, and for many years it has been the second most popular major (after economics) in the College of Arts and Science. Currently, between 275 and 300 undergraduates are majoring in political science. Many will use the experience as a foundation for law school or careers in the public arena.
Since as early as the 1920s, Vanderbilt political science professors have been weighing in on the most important issues of the day: the League of Nations, World War II, the Cold War, the Middle East. Vanderbilt’s fifth chancellor, Alexander Heard, was considered a brilliant political scientist who was named by President John F. Kennedy to serve on the Commission on Campaign Costs.
In 1940 political science, which previously had been part of the same department as history at Vanderbilt, became a department in its own right. In the 1950s and ’60s, under the leadership of renowned political theorist Avery Leiserson, the political science department at Vanderbilt was considered among the top 20 in the nation, going head-to-head in prestige against much bigger programs at Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Michigan.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the department became increasingly embroiled in an internal battle on a variety of issues, including the merits of applying quantitative and mathematical methods to an essentially soft science. Personalities clashed, feelings were hurt, egos were bruised.
Administrators eventually took the dramatic step of placing the department in receivership, meaning that an outside chairman ran the department and faculty members were not allowed to make hiring or firing decisions. Amid the turmoil, several respected faculty members departed for calmer waters. Some believed university administrators had overreacted to the kinds of problems political science departments were experiencing nationwide.
In 2003, Neal Tate, who had been dean of the graduate school at the University of North Texas in Denton, accepted the challenge to take the helm of the unruly political science program at Vanderbilt. “The faculty members who remained, both tenured and tenure-track, were very supportive of me,” Tate says. “So we started out trying to recruit new and excellent faculty as our first priority,” not only to fill in the existing gaps, but also to expand.
By the end of that academic year, they had signed three new faculty members. Three years later they had increased that number to eight. By the fall of 2008, an additional seven new faculty members will be on board, arriving from Duke, Princeton, Stanford, and the Universities of California at Berkeley and Davis. Their research interests span the spectrum from minority politics to international relations to the presidency and executive policy.
“We could hire seven people in a year. That’s not hard,” says John Geer, Distinguished Professor of Political Science. “But hiring seven people of this caliber is unprecedented.”
Brokering peace agreements and growing the political science department by more than 50 percent in such a short period of time has been both exhilarating and exhausting. Tate will take a sabbatical year beginning in the fall to focus on his comparative research interests, examining the judicial processes in foreign countries. Geer will serve as acting chair in Tate’s absence.
Even during its most obstreperous days, the political science faculty continued to maintain a high standard of excellence. Geer, for example, became editor of the Journal of Politics, one of the most respected publications in the discipline, and he continues in that role today.
Faculty members also have become open to creative teaching strategies. Over the last few years, the department has enlisted any number of outside experts to serve as adjunct professors. Roy Neel, BA’72, former chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore; Harold Ford Jr., former U.S. representative and current chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council; and Republican party strategist Vin Weber, who spearheaded policy for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, have taught (or team-taught with Geer) political science courses and special seminars. During the spring 2008 semester, for example, Roy Neel taught a course on presidential transitions.
“Mr. Neel should know that subject matter better than anybody,” Tate says. “He had the chance to plan a transition in great detail and begin executing it, before Al Gore was ultimately declared to have lost the 2000 election.”
Scholars are playing an important role in proffering nonpartisan evidence, theories and conversations about the issues central to our country, particularly as the United States grows increasingly polarized between red and blue voters and between the haves and have-nots.
“Because tempers are running so high, evidence that political scientists gather, analyze and discuss becomes even more important, because oftentimes conventional wisdom is off,” says Geer. “For example, people are claiming that the Democrats are going to tear themselves apart and McCain is holding a slight lead in the polls. As political scientists, we know this isn’t true. This is not a partisan statement, but the state of the economy structures the campaign at the presidential level. The economy is struggling, and that means John McCain faces more of an uphill battle than any poll is suggesting.”
Geer is in familiar territory when making claims that contradict conventional wisdom. Author of In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns (University of Chicago Press, 2006), he sees attack ads as usually doing more good than harm by stirring up fresh ideas and generating essential debates. Sometimes, he says, the most qualified candidate will only get traction if he or she raises doubts about the other side. “Rather than hand-wringing about the ill effects, this strikes me as a good thing,” he insists.
The men and women of Vanderbilt’s department are jumping feet-forward into the fray, trying to weigh in objectively on many of the flashpoint issues that affect us all. Whether they are studying American elections, foreign judiciaries, immigration issues or floor-fights at nominating conventions, political scientists essentially illuminate the “science” part of political science, providing data and nonpartisan analysis that may make us all better citizens. And that, perhaps, is the most valuable contribution an academic political science department can make.
“We think this is one of the best places in the country to work if you’re a political scientist,” says Neal Tate. “Which means it’s one of the best places to study if you’re a political science major or a political science graduate student. And we’re very proud of that.”
© 2014 Vanderbilt University
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