After a year of minimal lawmaking, the public is disappointed with Congress. And the members don’t seem very happy either, but they are not changing their behavior. How much has Congress deteriorated and why? Alex Theodoridis has a new survey of former members of Congress to explore their insights on what ails Congress. We discuss January 6th and polarization and their favorite presidents and leaders from the past. The former Republicans seem to recognize their party’s plight and everyone sees dysfunction.
Guests: Alex Theodoridis, UMass-Amherst
Studies: Survey of Former Members of Congress
Matt Grossmann: Views on the deterioration of Congress, this week on The Science Of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
After a year of minimal lawmaking, the public and the media are disappointed with Congress again. And the members don’t seem very happy either, but they keep acting the same. How much has Congress deteriorated and why? This week we hear from former members of Congress on their views of the institution in American politics. They have the experience of seeing it firsthand with a real basis of historical comparison, but also some distance from the electoral incentives that may make current members run scared.
This week I talked to Alex Theodoridis of UMass Amherst about his new survey of former members of Congress. You’ll hear their insights on January 6th and polarization, and their favorite presidents and leaders from the past. The former Republicans seem to recognize their party’s plight and everyone sees dysfunction. Alex also compares their views to his research on the nature of partisanship in the mass public. I think you’ll enjoy our conversation.
So what were the biggest findings and takeaways from your new survey of former members of Congress?
Alex Theodoridis: Well, we found a bunch of things that I think are interesting, and this in some sense right now is just the tip of the iceberg because we had a few different objectives for this. And the first objective that we’re addressing is sort of things that are interesting to the broader conversation in the media about politics. So those are really the first things we’ve analyzed and we found a bunch of different things.
I think one of the findings that has really stood out is this gap between Republican former members of Congress in our survey and the Republican electorate, and then obviously not based on polling information, but based on public stances taken, the gap between these former Republican members of Congress and current Republican members of Congress and elected officials more broadly.
We find over 80% saying Biden’s election was legitimate. 64% think Trump’s claims to have won the 2022 election threatened American democracy. Big differences on opinion about January 6th. So that’s one big area of findings, but we have some really interesting results related to threats, political violence generally.
Members, more than half of them say that during their time in office or their family received threats, a lot of them say their staff received threats. Those numbers are increasing over time based on when they served. And sadly, the numbers are much higher for women, African-Americans and Latinos.
We have a lot of stuff about Congress. So these former members tell us that Congress is not functioning very well. In fact, the top word used by far was “Dysfunctional,” and then that’s followed by. “Partisan,” “Polarized,” “Divided,” “Mess.” So not a very positive take on the current state of affairs in Congress.
And then we had some questions about women candidates, and we saw some interesting divides there, namely that men in our sample, former members of Congress who are men, we’re much less likely to recognize and note that women candidates face certain challenges when running for office.
So we covered a lot of ground in the survey. This, as I said, is just a tiny little snapshot of what we have put out there, and the hope is that this will continue to provide fodder for the general public discourse, but also as a next step, start producing some real academic findings with a pretty wide-ranging survey that we got this elite sample to fill out.
Matt Grossmann: So you normally survey voters. So how did you get into this? What’s the backstory here? And what were you hoping to achieve?
Alex Theodoridis: Yeah, so this is, as you know, a departure for me for sure. I am mostly a political behavior, political psychology guy, and I work at the Umass Poll as one of the co-directors, and we mostly focus on the mass public, polls of the mass public. And that’s sort of been my bread and butter, and that still is the thing that brought me into this.
But the way this emerged is sort of through the serendipity that you kind of often rely on in science, and that is that a current mentor of mine, but a really, a good friend of mine who I worked for actually when I was in college, who was my former member of Congress, a guy named L.F. Payne who was a Democrat from the 5th District of Virginia, actually not the last Democrat to represent there, but the second to last Democrat to represent that district.
And he was a blue dog Democrat. I got to know him, worked, interned in his office when I was in college, worked on his lieutenant gubernatorial campaign while I was also still in college. He actually happened to mention to me one time when we were talking that he was the president for a two-year term of this organization called the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress. And sort of a light bulb went off over my head because I’m always looking for ways to leverage those sorts of connections for the sake of research.
And the first thought that popped into my head is that maybe there would be a mutually beneficial opportunity here to conduct a survey of their membership. And they were created by an act of Congress. Their membership is this broad, broad base of really all former members. There are a few people that aren’t on the email list for various reasons, like Barack Obama and people like that whose emails are probably not just particularly easy to get, including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, all sorts of people like that.
But they have an incredible email list that became our sample frame, and they have just a great reputation among these former members. And so that allowed us to get, I think, a really great response to this survey and end up with 293 former members starting the survey and doing at least part of it, and 237 making it all the way to the end. And this was a long survey, it was almost an hour. The median time filling it out was forty-seven minutes.
So this was a big time commitment. We covered a lot of ground. And I think without that connection to the association of former members of Congress, we wouldn’t have had that access, certainly just from a practical perspective, but also in terms of their reputation being part of it.
So what was I hoping to accomplish? My main goal with all of our surveys, and really our main goal at the UMass Poll is number one, to serve scholarly pursuit of knowledge. So one of my big goals with this was for these data to inform our understanding of Congress, of electoral politics from the perspective of this elite sample. And then we also like to be public-facing, and so we want to include things in there that are going to be relevant to the discourse that the media are engaging in and be able to inform and enrich that discourse beyond the sort of horse race kind of thing that polling often contributes to.
And so those were my two big goals. And then the organization itself was very interested in finding out some things about what their members cared about and what programs they were particularly into, and those sorts of things.
Matt Grossmann: So you found that Republican members of Congress were much less supportive of Trump’s actions than Republican voters, and especially that their views of January 6th were a lot different than what it seems like current Republican officeholders think. So what were the big indicators of that, and what were the big comparisons that stood out for you?
Alex Theodoridis: So as I mentioned before, this is the thing that has most informed the dialogue in the media is this sort of disconnect between the answers of these former members and the answers that you get from Republican voters, which are just incredibly different.
So as I mentioned, if you ask Republican voters whether Joe Biden’s election is legitimate, you only get about a quarter saying that his election was legitimate. 82% of the Republican former members are willing to say that in this poll.
We asked them whether Trump’s efforts to claim he won the election threatened American democracy, so that’s a stronger position than just that the election was legitimate, and a full 64% of Republican former members of Congress believe that; only 18% of Republican voting age population tells us that.
“Do you support the law enforcement efforts to punish January 6th participants?” 72% of Republican former members tell us they do. Again, less than 30%, 29% of rank-and-file Republicans say the same thing.
And then just in terms of the way they describe January 6th, we get 67% of Republican former members describing January 6th as a riot, 53% describing it as an insurrection. So these are both negative terms to describe what happened at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021. So those are the top vote getters among former members of Congress.
Whereas if you ask Republican voters, 74% will tell you it was a protest, which, again, reflects a lot of the rhetoric that you hear that this was just a normal protest and efforts to downplay January 6th. So really striking differences there. And I guess a big question that people ask is, “Why is this so different?”
And one answer to that would be that this is just not your mother or father’s Republican Party anymore, that these are former members of Congress. So the current composition of Republican elites just doesn’t look the same as this group in some sort of dimension that predicts support for these sorts of ideas.
I can tell you, having run the survey, this is a Republican group in the sample that skews conservative. These are definitely not what most people would think of, and certainly would’ve thought of when they were serving in office… RINOs. This includes lots of people who are still very active Republicans. Certainly the Republican Party has changed, so I have no doubt that that would still be the case.
Another explanation would be that there’s this electoral pressure being felt by current Republican elected officials, and I suspect it’s a little bit of both. I suspect that if you were to be able to run a survey like this among current Republican members of Congress and actually get them to fill it out and not their staff, and assure them of absolute anonymity, I suspect the numbers would look a lot closer to what our sample of former members of Congress looks like.
At the same time, I suspect that if you took our sample of former members of Congress, and they were still in office, still facing the electoral pressures that some of the current members face, they might be a little more reticent to take these sorts of positions.
So I suspect it’s partly composition, but also partly just the dynamics of the pressures that people face when they’re in office.
I would add that that’s really problematic because these current members are responding to pressures that they perceive from voters, from their electorate, and that electorate doesn’t have these opinions in a vacuum. They’re generating these opinions partly because they’re hearing either pro-Trump rhetoric from Trump himself and elites, other elites, or just crickets. They’re not hearing anything. There isn’t a big voice out there of current Republican members of Congress saying, “No, this election was fair, we lost. We’re going to try to win again. We don’t engage in violence, those sorts of things.
Matt Grossmann: So as you mentioned, another big finding was that they were taking threats of electoral violence pretty seriously, and that they or their staffs had faced a lot of threats and this was bipartisan. So what were the big findings that stood out there and how did you interpret that?
Alex Theodoridis: I mean, this is bipartisan, and this is something that I think it may be underappreciated. So we’ve actually recently heard members of Congress, and this certainly came up during the whole speaker issue. I think people were saying that they were receiving threats if they didn’t support Jim Jordan. And some people responded, “Well, you wouldn’t receive those threats if you supported Jim Jordan.” And so I think there is… We just talked about electoral pressure, and that certainly is a big dynamic, especially when you think about being primaried and things like that.
As we learned in grad school, all politicians run scared, even generally when they’re pretty safe. But the threat of violence and just the discomfort of receiving threats can really shape what people are willing to do and say in the public sphere. And so I think it’s important to recognize threats to elected officials, but also to election workers, et cetera, as a real problem. And certainly it’s discouraging that there’s been this upward trend.
So more than half of members overall told us that they or their family received threats, but the rate of those threats seems to increase over time based on when the members were either elected or the last Congress in which they served. And then of course, the fact that it’s probably not surprising sadly, but the fact that members of Congress who are women and especially women of color, men of color, tend to receive more of these threats. These are just very troubling things and they’re not just problematic.
If those threats become violence, they’re problematic because they can shape behavior. And again, this is not limited to one side or the other. People from both parties tell us they receive threats. And certainly you would think that it shapes attitudes and behavior when these kinds of threats are out there. You don’t want elected officials thinking, “Well, is it worth threats to my family for me to take this stand?”
People will often not choose. We have the expression, “This is not the hill I’m going to die on.” Well, that’s not how we want elected officials to be thinking about how they represent the public.
Matt Grossmann: You also asked them in open-ended responses to describe both Congress and the political environment. And here they sounded a lot more like other political observers and maybe the public in that they were pretty negative about the institutions in which they served. They said Congress was dysfunctional and the political environment was polarized. What else stood out in there in the more textured responses that you received?
Alex Theodoridis: So we did a lot of things with open-ended questions. We tend to do some of that with the general public, but I felt like for this survey with this elite sample, it really made sense to let them run with it a little bit on some of these things rather than structuring their responses. And we’ve gotten better and better at being able to interpret open-ended responses with the advancements in Texas data, techniques, et cetera.
And what we found both through just kind of the visual evidence that you can find with word clouds, which the news media like and a lot of times work well on social media, but don’t always tell you that much. In this case, some of them really did. I mean, the responses both about Congress and about politics generally were just overwhelmingly negative, almost exclusively negative. And actually the ones that weren’t negative were in some ways more informative. You’d get a few people who would say, “Oh, it’s not quite as bad as people think.”
There was nobody saying, “Okay, things are actually working pretty well.” So it was almost more striking when you would read one of the responses that sort of tried to downplay it. But in downplaying it basically said, “Okay, if our expectations are that it’s at 11, maybe it’s at nine in terms of dysfunction.” And so dysfunction, polarization, partisanship, these are all things that the members talked about. And some of them went more into specifics. So sort of reading them individually was fascinating for me.
But the general tone I think was just a real takeaway. And this is from people who a lot of them have been part of this not that long ago. We do have people back to the sixties, but we have people in there who served in the most recent Congress before this one. We didn’t had George Santos yet. He wasn’t former when I was doing this poll. Maybe I’ll reach out to him. But so you’ve got a lot of people who were part of this and they just see it as incredibly, incredibly dysfunctional.
Matt Grossmann: So one institutional concern they might have is that the legislative branch is losing power. And you did ask them directly and most saw both the executive branch and the judicial branch is gaining power relative to the legislative branch. I think Republicans were a little bit less likely to have concerns about the judicial branch gaining maybe for obvious reasons. But what do you think they have in mind there? And how would you compare that to our view of the institutions?
Is this something that if you interviewed people who worked in the executive branch, they would say it’s losing power in the judicial branch? Or do you think that there might be something we’re missing here in scholarship about the decline of the legislative branch?
Alex Theodoridis: I don’t know how much we’re missing it. I mean, there certainly has been some work out there suggesting this actually for a long time. I mean, there’s all this talk about the imperial presidency that dates back decades. And I think obviously these individuals, this was their institution. I can say without messing up confidentiality, that nobody in this sample has been President of the United States. Actually, I don’t know if any of them have been on the judicial side of things, but this is their institution and they care about the reputation of the institution.
They care about the power of the institution, the esteem of the institution. And so yes, when they look at it, certainly with regard to the executive, they feel like it’s lost power on average. And there’s a little bit of a moving target because it says it’s lost power since they served was the question we asked. So for some of them, that’s a pretty high bar actually to have lost power in four to six years or whatever. But they mostly say that. And then a lot of them say it about the judicial branch too. And I think that that largely reflects what a lot of observers have talked about.
I think there is scholarship on this, and there is sort of a back and forth. But part of what happens, I think, is that in polarized times like this, when Congress has a very hard time getting anything done, the executive just grabs onto things. And then you have this sort of judicial review that has always been the case. That if the Congress can’t respond to things that get sent back by the courts, the perception would be at least that Congress gets weakened.
Now, a lot of people would say that Congress hasn’t necessarily lost power, it just isn’t using power that it has. And I suppose that’s true, and that may be a bit of nuance that these former members don’t particularly see as relevant. But it’s very hard, especially with the filibuster in place for Congress to maintain its power, certainly relative to the executive, but also relative to the judiciary.
Matt Grossmann: So you also asked about potential reforms, and here there may have been a little bit less consensus. And to my eye, it was a bit of a disconnect between all of the difficulties that they mentioned and the kinds of reforms that they had in mind. It didn’t seem quite up to the task. Things like campaign finance reform, maybe filibuster reform, but not a lot of re-envisioning the institutions.
So what did you think about their perspective on reforms? Where were they in agreement and disagreement? And how does that compare to our own view of what Congress needs?
Alex Theodoridis: And this is another one where we let them roam somewhat. We asked this as an open-ended question, and if I were going back to the sample, I would want to take these responses and sort of use them to develop something more close-ended. Because you do have some… Part of the reason that there just wasn’t consensus is that there’s a range of interpretations of what reform. So we asked them about congressional rules or procedure. But yet even asking the question that way, 8% talked about campaign finance reform, which is sort of not exactly a congressional rule or procedure, but obviously something that was at the top of their minds.
The filibuster, I think that was something that really stood out. You did get some people in different directions there, but the majority were sort of in favor of making it so that cloture rules couldn’t be used to stonewall legislation, at least not so easily as they are. The most common category, although it included responses in multiple directions, was reforming the committee system. So they were very focused on that, how granting committee chairs power, how committee members are chosen, imposing term limits for committee chairs, things like that.
And there were several who mentioned following regular order, more common, more often. So that category generally was the biggest category. So it’s a big area of reform that they are focused on, something that a lot of them seemingly experienced as something that detracts from the ability of the organization of Congress to function effectively. So I think that’s something that… That’s a general area of reforms that people should look at. I do think the filibuster, that standing out, I think that reflects what most people would say.
This is something that has changed. That’s not part of the constitution that has changed tremendously over time in recent history in terms of how much it’s used and in what ways it’s used. And then there were a lot who talked about the budgeting or appropriations process changing that. And there were some that about 10% talked about incentivizing bipartisanship. And then there were a lot… And these are connected people who wanted to open the agenda and the floor to rank and file members and have a little less party discipline in that regard.
So there’s a wide range of reform proposals, but they did sort of organize themselves into a set of categories that you could really sort of code them into. And I think that current members of Congress consider reforming their institution, these are views that hopefully they will take seriously.
Matt Grossmann: So you also asked them about presidents. And one of the most interesting things here was to name the best or most effective president in their own parties since World War II. And interestingly, the Democrats liked Bill Clinton the best with LBJ second, and the Republicans liked Reagan by an overwhelming margin. And you asked them about congressional leaders, and here you also… Pelosi was popular but… but you had definitely on the Republican side favoring the old guard there. So this made me think that maybe these Members of Congress really are a different breed than the people that you interviewed. So what do you think there? What did you make of their perceptions of the presidents and Congressional leaders?
Alex Theodoridis: Yeah, the dynamics of this were really interesting. So we asked each member to pick who they thought was the best. And we made it since the end of World War II because we didn’t want it to just everybody to say Lincoln or whatever, or FDR, people like that. We wanted to make it more relevant to the rough timeframe during which they’ve been around. And so we asked them each to give us the best from their party, from the other party, both in terms of president and Congressional leaders. And it’s interesting how these formed. The one, as you mentioned, that surprised me a little bit, was just how popular Bill Clinton was among Democrats, especially since I think he’s probably lost popularity among rank and file Democrats over the years and seemingly not so among this group.
And also, what was interesting is that if you had asked me in the 90s, I’m old enough to remember the Clinton administration, and if you had asked me in the 90s, “Would Bill Clinton be a bipartisan choice on something like this?” I would’ve suspected, no. But I guess it shows you how polarization has grown over time, that that is a period where the people look back on as a safe pick for Republicans as a Democratic president. So he does well among Republicans, and as you said, he did the best among Democrats.
I think part of that may be that a lot of these people probably served under Bill Clinton, probably appreciated the way he dealt with Congress, which is different from… I don’t think Obama’s reputation was as somebody who was spending a lot of time working Members of Congress, obviously Biden probably would be because he’s very much a creature of Congress, but he is the current president and also probably more polarizing just because of the fact that he’s the president right now. I was a little surprised that Lyndon Johnson was more popular among Democrats than say John F. Kennedy. That surprised me a little bit, and I think that probably reflects the waning import of the Vietnam War in terms of as a disqualifier by these elected officials, formerly elected Democrats, and a recognition because he also very much a creature of Congress, somebody who really worked with Congress to pass some really big legislation on the domestic front. So I think that’s probably the source of his popularity.
And Harry Truman was, I think the safe choice for Republicans, and John F. Kennedy also. They viewed as a safe choice for Republican members. In terms of the Republican President, by far, Republicans chose Ronald Reagan and Democrats chose Eisenhower. Those are the great conviction about Ronald Reagan from this group, and I guess willingness to say that Ike was okay among Democrats, who also actually, meaningful numbers of Democrats chose George HW Bush. So those were the two default choices.
On the leaders, I think the popularity of Nancy Pelosi was pretty striking among Democrats. And again, I think part of it is just how many of them served with her at various points, but she does very much have a reputation among Democrats as being a very, very effective Congressional leader in the party. And then Bob Michael and John Boehner up near the top for Republicans. You got a decent number of new Gingrich actually among Republicans, but Bob Michael benefiting a lot from Democratic votes in terms of that rank ordering.
So those were done for fun. Those were among the less academic scholarly questions we asked them, but it was interesting. I think it was interesting. And I think actually, there’s probably some stuff that could be done from a scholarly perspective looking at the different dimensions that they seem to have used in judging these Congressional leaders and presidents.
Matt Grossmann: Just to follow up there, it might be a blind spot among scholars that were just not necessarily on the political science side, maybe on the historian side, more interested in the individuals and their effectiveness, but I was struck that there did seem to be a desire to get things done and picking the people who had that history rather than necessarily just the fire brands alone or the most recent people.
Alex Theodoridis: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think also striking is the role of polarization in this, which for most of these things tended… That’s why I think Clinton is such a bipartisan choice, whereas again, you wouldn’t have expected that if you had taken this survey in 1999 by any means.
Matt Grossmann: So in the release announcing these results, you say that members of both parties recognize the five alarm fire for our democracy. There might be some hesitation to see that in these results and to see more of just people who used to be there thinking it was better in their day and it’s gone downhill since they left. So convince us that that isn’t what this is, and they’re recognizing something big happening in American politics?
Alex Theodoridis: Yeah, I think both things can be true. I do think there is a tendency to pine for the good old days in terms of Congress especially, right? There’s a lot of this sort of, “Oh, they travel more now. They don’t live in DC. They don’t hang out with each other. Things were better when everybody was buddy-buddy and would go grab a drink before.” And of course, those are also periods where you had very few women and just less diversity in Congress, but I do think they point to some things that have changed over time.
So I mentioned that a lot of them talked about the filibuster, and this is despite the fact that obviously just by composition, more of these individuals served in the House than in the Senate. So a lot of them went out of their way to talk about something that was about the other chamber. And that’s something that has just empirically… You can just observe that the way the filibuster is used has changed dramatically. It’s just not the same thing as it once was. And it’s not in the Constitution, it’s just a rule. It’s just the way the Senate has chosen to operate.
And there’s a lot of reluctance to change it, as we’ve seen, to get rid of it. Even among people who in the current moment, whose side would benefit in the current moment and whose side probably like a Joe Manchin or a Sinema, the Democratic side, I would venture to say as the party that’s probably less inclined to obstructionism, just by the nature of this… Refers to your work too, just by the nature of what Democrats typically are trying to accomplish as opposed to what Republicans are typically trying to accomplish. The filibuster probably is asymmetric in its impact, but still, members are reluctant to get rid of this thing that they’re used to and that they feel like they might use in the future.
And so I think that there are specific things that they talk about. Certainly things like threats of violence that pertain to changes in the way politics exists today as opposed to a long time ago, but also not so long ago. The ramp up has been tremendous. A lot of people thought things were pretty polarized in the 80s under Reagan. We certainly thought things were polarized in the 90s with the Lewinsky stuff and all the stuff about Hillary Care and the Republican Revolution under Newt Gingrich. All of that seemed very polarized, and then things seemed just impossibly polarized under Bush, and then it just keeps going.
We’re both Berkeley PhDs. So we spent a lot of time reading and probably in the Jack Citrin orbit to some extent, spent a lot of time reading about Prop 13. The whole polarization thing reminds me of California housing prices, where in the 70s people thought they had skyrocketed. And if you look at the chart now, it’s like there was this tiny little blip that produced this reaction to property taxes. And I think that’s just the way polarization is. We keep thinking things are so polarized.
And so I, as somebody who studies polarization more than Congress… In fact, as you noted, I’m not really a Congress scholar. I’m a public opinion scholar and somebody who focuses on partisanship and polarization, that obviously connects to Congress in some very big ways as a lot of the literature like work by Francis Lee has pointed out. I just think they’re on to things that make a lot of sense, and I think we should take seriously the opinions of these people who have been involved at the very, very highest levels of American politics and know how Congress can work and see the ways in which in a lot of cases it doesn’t work, and in aggregate can speak and maybe prompt some changes. So I generally think that some of their takes on Congress specifically might be a little bit like longing for a pass that never really existed, but their takes on politics generally very much align with what I think I and pretty much all other observers have seen.
Matt Grossmann: So despite all of these complaints, they still say that they would run for office again. This got me thinking about who would actually say that they wouldn’t do it? Is that about regretting an important part of your life with John Boehner, who seems to be really enjoying his post-political life much more? Still say he would run again. What did you make of that result?
Alex Theodoridis: Yeah, I took it as a positive result that a lot of them… Now, of course, not all of them. You have to establish a baseline of what we think is what we would expect. But certainly most of them say if they were starting over today, starting their career today, would they run for office? And they disproportionately in 70 something percent say that they would. And so I think that’s positive that they’re not so discouraged, that they wouldn’t throw their hat in the ring right now. I think part of it is certainly what you say, the same psychology that leads all parents to say that they don’t regret for a second the choice to have kids.
If my kids are listening, I don’t regret for a second the choice to have kids, but it’s a well-known feature of psychology that it’s a very difficult thing to express regret about something, especially something so big as having kids or entering public service, and for a lot of these people serving for years and years in both Congress, but also other capacities, both before and after they served in Congress. So I think it’s some of a genuine hopefulness and some of what you mentioned, which is that general tendency to reaffirm choices that we’ve made in the past. I do worry about, and this is something that in the coverage of this survey that people have made this connection, there’s been quite a number of retirements recently. This is the season for that. This is not necessarily a year where you would expect a flood of retirements. You usually expect that a year when you know one side is just going to get throttled or you expect one side is going to get throttled and people just don’t like to go out on a loss, so they figure I might as well drop out now. This is not one of those years where there’s just a clear it’s going to be bad for one side. We don’t really know which way things are going to go.
So the numbers seem a little high, but a lot of the members in particular who have announced retirements say that it’s because it’s just not a productive, enjoyable place to be anymore. There’s a little bit of that you can take this job and shove it kind of tone to some of these announcements. And that, I think, is a really troubling trend because there’s work that’s been done by a number of people suggesting, including some great work by Danielle Thompson and others, Lee Drutman has written about this, about just when you get these sorts of people selecting out of Congress for the reasons that people seem to be selecting out, because it’s not a place that’s easy where you can get things done, where you can make an impact, well, you’re selecting out people who are probably the type of elected officials we ought to want more of and you’re possibly selecting for…
They’re still going to be a congress. We’re still going to have people run for office and get seated in Congress. And it may be that we’re selecting for a type of person who wants to be in an environment and that wanting to be in that environment is indicative of a disposition that maybe not what we ought to be selecting for in terms of our representatives in this representative democracy.
Matt Grossmann: So you said it’s a departure in the topic of your scholarship, but it’s definitely not a departure in your view of the role of a scholar. You have remained actively engaged in learning from practitioners through the whole time you’ve been in political science, and I know you’re still bringing them into the classroom. So you definitely have viewed that we have something to learn from them and they can be more directly engaged with what we’re finding in political science. So what is it that we should be paying attention to that political elites and practitioners know and what are some things that maybe they ignore that we know more?
Alex Theodoridis: Yeah, and you see this in the survey, actually, it’s not stuff that we’ve really analyzed yet. I think most elites still believe stuff that we think they must just be saying that like, “Oh, there’s this middle that’s going to rise up.” Things like that, or just that the things that matter are much… There’s a tendency to focus much more on the things that they can control and they can impact and that they’re involved in. So political scientists would say most of the game is what party you are and the fundamentals of the moment and what your district looks like and the things you do are just really only impacting things on the margins. And obviously elected officials are much more focused on the things that they can control and that’s a fairly reasonable thing. They don’t need to have a 30,000-foot view of politics, but they could also benefit from one sometimes.
So I think that those differences in vantage point can be useful. As you know, we went through decades of not thinking campaigns mattered at all, and there’s still people who think that in scholarship, and I think that often we can look to both voters but also especially elected officials who are observers of politics and participants in politics. We can learn from their experiences to maybe ask questions in a slightly different way than we do. So using that campaign example that we were essentially looking for persuasion. Can campaigns really take somebody from this side of the aisle and move them to this other side of the aisle? And generally we found not much of that. And so the answer was, hey, campaigns don’t matter. Let’s not study them for two or three decades. Whereas, I think there were some useful questions to be asked about the ways in which campaigns might matter and the other mechanisms for campaigns having an impact.
And now we’ve started to do that and I think probably if we had listened to people in “real world politics” a little more, we might’ve looked for those things. And I think that’s just one example. I think there are other ways in which we can take cues, not necessarily just take at face value, but take cues from the things that people who are active on the ground think are important and learn about ways in which those things either are or aren’t important and maybe in some more nuanced ways than we normally would come up with ourselves. And at the same time, I think that it’s useful for practitioners to hear from people who are looking at things from a distance the way we are to borrow a phrase from Bette Midler or whoever wrote that song that sometimes if you can look at the broader dynamics, you might see something coming like the polarization that we are in right now or some of these bigger dynamics that really can be where your little actions, if you think of them in the broader context might be slightly different.
So I think there are things that can be learned in both directions, and I just think from a practical perspective, and I think this project is a great case of that, but there are lots of other ones. More and more we’re learning that engaging with partners in communities and organizations out there and politicians that there are just opportunities for conducting research in ways that we haven’t done before that can be very, very fruitful.
Matt Grossmann: So this was a project of the UMass poll, but I know that you are regularly engaged in surveying the public. So what trends should we know about in regular surveys that you’ve been conducting of the public?
Alex Theodoridis: Yeah. So we cover a lot of ground, and I think at the UMass poll, we see ourselves as bringing political science to political polling in a way that I think most other outlets, maybe all other outlets don’t really do. We’re a little less focused on the horse race. We put stuff in there because we want to track things and be able to use horse race type questions as controls, really, for other things. But what we see our purpose as bringing things like survey experiments and interesting ways of asking questions that are informed by our scholarship in political science to a broader discourse.
And so we’ve found all sorts of things. We’ve done a lot of stuff on things related to race, some interesting polling related to the payment of reparations and opinion about that. We’ve done a lot of polling on January 6th on political violence because obviously those are big interest areas of mine and found a lot of interesting things including adding to the, answering the question, do Republicans who are telling us they think Biden’s election is not legitimate? Do they actually believe that or is it just expressive? Kind of like we’re just telling you this because we want to tell you this responding. And it looks like they actually do believe it. All evidence at least suggests that actually they think that it’s not a legitimate election for a variety of reasons, but that it was not a legitimate victory.
So we have a lot of findings on things like that. And we’re about to run a new poll where we’re going to really try and dig into understanding thoughts about the economy because there seems to be sort of a disconnect right now between what most economists would look at as the numbers you ought to look at and public opinion about the current state of the economy. So we’re going to dig into that. We did the same thing with some open-ended questions looking at critical race theory and some of the opinions about that. So there’s those types of things. Trying to get a deeper sense of what public opinion means on some of these issues is what we see as our mission. And I think there are a number of cases in which we’ve been fairly successful in doing that.
Matt Grossmann: So what’s next for you? Anything you want to tout about what you’re working on now?
Alex Theodoridis: Yeah, I’ve got some stuff on violence and democratic backsliding, which I see violence, political violence, electoral violence as a subset of democratic backsliding actually. So I’m really interested in that. I’m really interested in the role of the broader constituency of both parties in terms of serving as a guardrail against their own side engaging in these things. So those are things that are more typical to the research that I’ve done on polarization and dehumanization and things like that. But also, I plan to do a lot, hopefully, including lots of other scholars, people who have been involved in this and then opening things up so that these data about these former members of Congress can really be an asset for scholars who study any of the topics that we covered. So I’ll be working in the next few months and maybe even years on trying to produce papers, but also make it possible for other people to produce papers using these data and informing what we know about this important elite sample.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from The Niskanen Center. And I’m your host Matt Grossmann. If you like this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next, all linked on our website, Policymakers Follow Informed Expertise, How Primary Elections Enable Polarized Amateurs, How Party Leaders Change Congress, Judging Biden and Congress, and Compromise Still Works in Congress and with Voters. Thanks to Alex Theodoridis for joining me. Please check out the UMass poll and then listen in next time.