Government professors prep for the election
Three different books by CMC professors showcase their expertise, while offering three distinct ways of looking at the upcoming presidential election in November.
Jack Pitney serves up a provocative point-of-view; while Jon Shields and co-author Stephanie Muravchik share what they learned traveling to working-class communities in three states, and Ken Miller analyzes national politics by examining the rivalry between “Red-Republican Texas” and “Blue-Democratic California.”
Ken Miller’s new book examines two-state rivalry
Prof. Ken Miller views his new book, Texas vs. California: A History of Their Struggle for the Future of America, as a biography of two rivals, states which are similar in size and origin, yet widely divergent when it comes to their current political identities.
In Miller’s perspective, an in-depth comparison of “Red-Republican Texas” with “Blue -Democratic California,” sheds light on the nation’s increasing polarization, which Miller calls “one of the defining political developments of our day.”
Miller, who is Rose Associate Professor of State and Local Government, teaches American politics, including a class devoted exclusively to California politics.
“It intrigues me that state politics are under rated,” said Miller a fifth-generation Californian, who once worked in the state capitol as a Senate Fellow. “Everyone focuses on Washington, D.C., but a lot of important policy is determined at the state level. It’s especially true in California, which is such a powerful state, economically and politically. Other states follow California’s lead, for example in environmental policy.”
To further understand what was happening in California, Miller began seeking a state to compare it to, specifically a state with a competing vision to California’s. “The second most populous and economically powerful state is Texas,” he said. “And it’s the mirror opposite of California, which makes it a natural, fascinating comparison.”Read more
With the nation about to take sides in the November 2020 election, Miller discussed what he learned from exploring the rivalry between Texas and California from both a historical and public policy perspective.
How did you decide to write his book, and why at this particular moment?
As California gravitated to the left, Texas was on its way to becoming more consistently conservative, with Republicans taking over in the 1990s. During this time, the contrast between the two states became clearer and more pronounced.
Texans see California as a foil, oftentimes citing the state as the example of what they don’t want to become. A rivalry was stoked and the national media picked up on it, and that rivalry emerged as a great topic for a book.
I wanted to give the strongest arguments for the two states and the two models of governing, and to do it in a sympathetic way, not to bash one state or the other. I wanted to understand their underlying values, how they became what they are, and how their orientations play out in the policy arena, such as taxation; labor and employment; energy and the environment; as well as social policy.
In looking at their histories, what adds dramatic interest, is that, even though Texas has a more conservative orientation, that orientation didn’t translate into Republican partisan identity until fairly recently. For almost all of its history, Texas has been an overwhelmingly Democratic state and only became Republican in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, for most of its history, California was aligned in the opposite direction. It was predominantly Republican, producing prominent national figures such as Herbert Hoover, Earl Warren, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. What is completely surprising is that until Kamala Harris, California had never produced a Democratic nominee for president or vice president.
Analyzing these states, their different orientations, and how polarized they are, shows how the national political party system has changed. There used to be more overlap between the two sides. With the parties sorting along geographic and ideological lines, Texas government is now dominated by Republicans, and California has become one of the nation’s most solidly Democratic states.
How does exploring each state’s origins help us understand how they are now?
The first half of the book is about how the two states divided, and begins with each state’s origin story. Texas and California are like siblings. Their origins are similar, with roots in New Spain and Mexico. The Hispanic presence is part of both of their DNAs. Both states were targets of America’s westward expansion and both joined the Union at nearly the same time.
But the central difference between the origins of the two states is that Texas was settled by southerners, from states such as Tennessee, Mississippi and Virginia; while California had a much more diverse mix of immigrants due to the Gold Rush, and was more oriented toward the North.
As a result, Texas has a legacy of slavery while California doesn’t, although California has its own history of racial injustices. In addition, Texas retained a more traditional culture and economy, while California industrialized and urbanized more quickly and became more of an international center early on. Until oil was discovered in 1901, Texas was agrarian like the rest of the South. These differences affected the politics of both places.
What did you learn from comparing the governing models of California and Texas? What are the implications for the nation as a whole?
There are good and rational reasons for supporting both the conservative and progressive perspectives in the blue and red state models, and I have a deeper appreciation for the value of our differences. I also have a deeper appreciation for the federal system, which allows different states with different political cultures and economic needs to pursue different approaches to how they want to organize their political community and the kinds of policies they want to pursue.
States retain enough sovereign power to create these competing models. For instance, California has the ability to raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour; while the federal minimum wage is only half of that. In doing so, California is creating a standard for progressive goals, a model for other states to follow. And Texans have absolutely created an experiment to see if they can fund their government with zero income tax.
However, these state models have limits. California’s vision for moving toward a carbon-free energy system makes sense only if the rest of the country and the world also moves in that direction. California can be the model, but it can’t move the needle by itself. And Texas, which depends on the maintenance of a robust oil and gas industry, can’t continue to do so if the nation’s regulatory environment makes it impossible.
You see these battles playing out in federal court, when the two states feel like they can’t control their own destinies if the national government is hostile to them. Each state is competing within the federal system to protect and advance its model. As the national election approaches, both states and both models clearly have a big stake in the outcome.
- Anne Bergman
Jack Pitney’s latest book targets the president’s public posturing
“As far as I can tell, my family has been Republican since the Civil War on both sides,” said Jack Pitney, Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics.
And like his forebears—dairy farmers, shopkeepers, small-town political functionaries—Pitney was a GOP enthusiast from a tender age. By 13, he was leafletting for presidential candidate Richard Nixon in his hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York. On the morning of his 18th birthday, Pitney made a special trip to the county seat in Ballston Spa to register as a Republican. That was in 1973, the height of the Watergate scandal.
With Nixon’s resignation and Gerald Ford’s pardon, Pitney soldiered through GOP disgrace. He went on to work as a full-time staffer for Republican officials and organizations in Albany, New York City, and Washington, D.C. But for Pitney, the rise of Donald J. Trump as his party’s leader broke 40 years of good faith.
“I voted for every Republican presidential nominee between 1976 and 2012,” Pitney wrote in the preface to his new book, Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald J. Trump. “When Donald Trump clinched the nomination in 2016, however, I knew that the streak would end.”Read more
On the morning of Nov. 9, shortly after Trump claimed victory in the presidential election, Pitney opened his laptop and solemnly changed his voter registration to independent.
“Trump is a mashup of all the sorriest parts of Republican history: Herbert Hoover’s trade policy, Warren Harding’s incompetence, Charles Lindbergh’s dictator worship, and Joseph McCarthy’s dishonesty,” he wrote in a May 23, 2017 op-ed for USA Today.
Un-American is an encyclopedia of the current president’s character shortcomings. The 200-page “polemic”—Pitney’s word—lays out a raft of evidence gathered from Trump’s own speeches, interviews, and tweets.
“It’s very different from my other books, which have been academic, scholarly: bending over backward to provide alternative points of view,” said Pitney, who joined CMC’s faculty in 1986, shortly after earning his Ph.D. at Yale.
The title itself is deliberately provocative. After all, how can a president whose slogan is “Make America Great Again,” a president who cradles Old Glory at rallies while the loudspeakers blare “God Bless America,” be called unpatriotic?
Pitney’s answer: “Trump’s display of patriotism is a reality show—not reality.”
Divided into seven chapters, Un-American juxtaposes key phrases from the Declaration of Independence with Trumpian statements and conduct unbecoming of a patriot, Pitney said. A chapter titled “We Hold These Truths” inventories the president’s lies; another titled “Created Equal” investigates Trump’s flirtations with white supremacists and scorn for the disabled.
The book ends in 65 pages of endnotes. “I wanted to ground everything in citable sources,” Pitney said. “If people question my evidence, I give them the breadcrumbs. Essentially the notes are a way of telling people, ‘You don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself.’”
The intended audience for Un-American is “general readers, and more specifically, Republicans, former Republicans, or Republican-leaning independents who supported Trump out of party loyalty or a belief that it was a patriotic act,” Pitney said.
“My argument in the book is that Trump is neither patriotic nor is he consistent with Republican beliefs, which is why I changed my registration as soon as he was elected. It’s not that I left the party. The party left me.”
Historic 2016 election sent Jon Shields on a journey across America
In their new book, Trump’s Democrats, Jon Shields and co-author Stephanie Muravchik explore what compelled voters in consistently blue states to cast ballots for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016.
“The 2016 election was the most surprising political event in my lifetime,” said Shields, an associate professor of government at CMC. “Writing this book was really just borne of deep curiosity, and a sense that something big and historic had happened, something that will reshape the future of our politics.”
To find out why blue voters flipped red, Shields and Muravchik—who are married with three sons—spent months living in Johnston, a Rhode Island suburb; Kentucky’s rural Elliott County; and Ottumwa, Iowa, the site of a meat-packing plant. Muravchik also joined CMC as a part-time visiting professor this fall.
Shields said they focused on these distinct areas because “all three places have longstanding and deep loyalties to the Democratic party. Not only did they vote for Barack Obama, since the New Deal they had voted—almost without fail—for Democrats. After the election, we were just itching to get into some of these communities.”Read more
Overall, Shields found that the citizens of these communities are loyal to their town or county; their thinking and political allegiances informed by a sense of belonging. “All of these places have a long history of being run by political-machine bosses, who used to dominate the Democratic party,” Shields explained. “Some of their most beloved leaders resemble Trump. They are grandiose and promise to take care of their people by cutting deals.”
With the 2020 presidential election looming, Shields—whose work is focused, in part, on American politics—discussed the process of researching Trump’s Democrats and what he learned along the way.
How did you prepare to write this book? What were some challenges?
We started by talking with local journalists, as they are a great resource. They know the lay of the land, and the right people. They introduced us to the local elites, politicians, schoolteachers, union leaders, and members of the clergy, as well as more ordinary folks.
If you want to achieve social distance, tell working class Americans that you have a Ph.D. It’s an initial obstacle, but it’s a soft prejudice. If people see that you can be disarming, and a normal person despite the Ph.D. they won’t hold it against you. They’ll look past it when they see you are a three-dimensional person.
In Rhode Island, people really wanted to talk, they were engaging and warm. In Appalachia, it was more insular. People there have a distrust of outsiders, so it was a harder nut to crack.
What did you learn from researching this book? How did this research deepen your work as a whole?
I know a lot more than I did four years ago. We have a unique angle on it too, because no one else has done something quite like this. I feel like I have a much better sense of the political and cultural divide that now separates blue communities, places like Elliot County, versus places like Claremont. I have a richer sense of that. In the future, we’re likely to revisit these communities and refine our view of this divide.
We have a lot of survey data from elections, which we learn a lot from. But that data can be broad and shallow, and not very good at helping us understand the culture of particular places.
Survey data don’t help us to understand social norms in the small communities that we study. In a bigger way, surveys impose the researchers’ theories about people, and assume in advance what’s important. That’s always kind of problematic. It’s especially so now. Because the people who design surveys are so culturally removed from the people they are studying, deeper field work will allow us to build better surveys and ground our theories.
Now that we are navigating a pandemic, do you have a different perspective on the places you visited and the people you met?
After the lockdown here in California, I walked through the village in Claremont, and had a surreal experience. Very few cars were parked. The sidewalks were empty. It felt like a ghost town, like I was back on Main Street in Ottumwa, where there were lots of boarded-up shops and very few pedestrians. It gave me a chill. This plague could bridge the divide between my cushy college upper middle-class town and Ottumwa, Iowa. I do worry and wonder about the increasing social despair, which they were neck-deep in before COVID. I want to go back and answer that question.