Our jobs shape our politics, including whether we run for office and which side of the political spectrum makes us feel most comfortable. Just as we are polarizing geographically, even our workplaces are now more likely to be filled with those who agree with us about politics. And our politicians come from these workplaces, often taking the specific concerns of their occupations with them. Max Kagan finds that you are most likely to encounter fellow partisans in your workplaces, partly because metro areas, occupations, and industries are politically homogeneous, and partly because we select into workplaces that share our politics. Jack Landry finds that state legislators bring their occupational concerns with them to legislating, shaping their committee assignments, campaign contributions, and personal financial interests. They both say it’s a complicated causal chain: we may segregate our work interests because of factors related to politics but we could also be socialized into the norms and interests of the places where we work.

Guests: Max Kagan, University of California, Berkeley; Jack Landry, Jain Family Institute

Studies: “Office Parties”; “How Politicians’ Occupational Backgrounds Structure Politics


Matt Grossmann: The politics of our jobs, this week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Our jobs shape our politics, including whether we run for office and which side of the political spectrum makes us feel most comfortable. Just as we’re polarizing geographically, even our workplaces are now more likely to be filled with those who agree with us about politics. And our politicians come from these workplaces, often taking the specific concerns of their occupations with them.

This week, I talked to Max Kagan of the University of California Berkeley about his paper with Justin Frake and Reuben Hurst, Office Parties. He finds that you’re most likely to encounter fellow partisans in your workplaces, partly because metro areas, occupations and industries are politically homogenous, and partly because we select into workplaces that share our politics. I also talk to Jack Landry of the Jain Family Institute about his paper, How Politicians’ Occupational Backgrounds Structure Politics. He finds that state legislators bring their occupational concerns with them to legislating, shaping their committee assignments, campaign contributions, and personal financial interests. They both say it’s a complicated causal chain. We may segregate our work interests because of factors related to politics, but we can also be socialized into the norms and interests of the places where we work.

Let’s start with Kagan, who’s been linking our political data with our job histories. Tell us about the findings of your new paper on partisan sorting in American workplaces.

Max Kagan: Thanks so much for the question. I’m very excited to be here. In the paper, we look at the extent of partisan sorting within companies and specifically within what we call workplaces, which are the people who… And when an individual goes to work, the people who they might be likely to encounter. So these are people who work at the same company and in the same metropolitan area. And we’re interested in the extent to which people are exposed to members of both parties, an even mix, or whether they might exist in these partisan bubbles. What we do find is that, and we’ll talk about the magnitude of these findings, but we do find some evidence that people are sorted. So in a world where there was no sorting, you would expect that the ratio of Democrats to Republicans at your place of work would be exactly the same as it is in the underlying population, perhaps the population of your area. And that’s not what we find.

In thinking about why this is an interesting question or why we set out to study this piece, we were motivated by two big questions in political science, as well as in management and some other disciplines. The first is this idea that intergroup contact or inter-partisan, cross-partisan contact is an important thing. This is a longstanding part of democratic theory, the idea being that if you talk to someone who thinks differently than you, maybe you deliberate, maybe your own political views are sharpened, but even if you’re not necessarily engaged in intellectual political discussions, just the fact that you see this person on a day-to-day basis might make you a little less prejudiced. It’s a lot harder to hate someone if they sit next to you at work and you celebrate birthdays and you talk about your kids, so there’s this idea that intergroup contact and specifically cross-partisan contact is a nice thing to have.

But at the same time, there’s this long-standing or there’s this rising trend in polarization in many social spaces and even geographic spaces, so there’s good literature suggesting that Democrats and Republicans tend to live in different areas. If they go to church, they may be less likely to attend religious services. If they do, they may be aligned with their partisanship. I know you’ve had guests on recently talking about education polarization. So there are all these ways in which maybe this cross-partisan contact is less likely to happen now, and one place where people still hold out a lot of hope is in the workplace. So you might be able to choose where you want to live, the neighborhood where you are. You might choose if you go to church or mosque or temple, which one you want to go to. If you participate in a club or civic life, you might decide to participate or not. But most people don’t really get to choose so much where they work and they don’t really get to choose their coworkers, so it’s this involuntary exposure.

At least that was the hope, and we were interested in seeing whether or not that’s still the case in 2024. That’s the first big question. And then there’s a second big question, which is just more directly related to the workplace, which is looking at the extent to which companies are aligned or associated with a particular party and how we measure that. So typically, social scientists try to measure this using campaign finance records. You can look at employees of a company and whether they donate mostly to Republicans or mostly to Democrats, and you can try to infer either some organizational ideology like something to do with the company’s culture, or you can just look more directly and say, if the CEO donates to mostly Democrats, then you think that the CEO is probably a Democrat. And that might affect the way the company acts, the way it behaves, and its political reputation.

There are a lot of great studies using these data, but as we know, not everyone donates to political campaigns, and indeed most people don’t. So there are questions really that we think that this study raises about how representative those data are and whether they’re measuring an elite subset of people within a company who might happen to donate to political campaigns, or whether they’re reflective of the broader population of employees, which is what we think our data are better equipped to cover.

Matt Grossmann: The main finding is that the average Democrat has 15 percentage points more Democrats working at their company in the same area than the average Republican. On the one hand, that’s a pretty big effect for social science. On the other hand, it maybe is not so homogenous that we might expect people to feel out of sorts if they’re in that kind of workplace. So how should we think about how big these differences are?

Max Kagan: Once again, a great question, and thanks, Matt, for the question. In talking with some colleagues and presenting this paper, in some ways this has become a little bit of maybe a Rorschach test. We think this, as you say, is a pretty big finding, but I think maybe some people are very pessimistic and they think 15%, they might’ve expected it to be much worse. So it’s a little bit maybe of a glass half full, glass half empty. But as you say, 15 percentage points is not nothing. It’s very far from zero, which is what we would expect in a world where there is no sorting. And you can also think about this, there are other studies of sorting in other aspects like geography for instance. And for some technical reasons, we’re not measuring it in exactly the same way, so it’s a little bit of an apples to orange comparison. But if you take that caveat, it does appear a little bigger than that.

We also think it’s very important, just given what I said earlier about the importance of the workplace as maybe this place where there’s less opportunity for partisan sorting, so the fact that we observe partisan sorting at all is maybe a cautionary note given the potential for the workplace to really be maybe the one avenue in society or the one location in society where this intergroup contact may still occur.

Matt Grossmann: So another nice feature is that you’re able to decompose how much of this is just related to geography, people tend to live in Democratic or Republican places, how much is due to occupation, people tend to work with people who are in the same field as them, and industry. And you do find that a lot of this 15-percentage-point difference is accounted for by these factors, but that there’s still some residual even beyond that. So what does it mean that we still have that residual and how would you think about these three big types of sorting?

Max Kagan: Yeah, so that was an interesting thing we were able to do in these data is you might think, as you said, that if you’re just hiring from your local area and your local industry, that it’s not necessarily the case that you have an equal portion of Democrats and Republicans. And so indeed we look, and most people probably know that metro areas differ in their proportion of Democrats and Republicans. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is very Democratic, and if I lived somewhere else, there would probably be a lot more Republicans. We’re also able to use our data to look at the partisanship of industries and occupations. So something like Hollywood, motion pictures, higher education. These tend to be very Democratic. Professions associated with natural resources, so minerals, mining, oil and gas. Interestingly, actually, commercial airline pilots, because there are so many military veterans, that’s another very Republican occupation. And when you account for all of those factors, a lot of the sorting tends to go away. We go from that 15-percentage-point estimate to something around two percentage points, depending on exactly the model specification we use.

Matt Grossmann: Obviously, there’s the distribution and there are some people who work at UC Berkeley who are surrounded by Democrats and other people that may have more differentiated networks at work. So what are the big factors driving people to be more homogenous in their workplaces?

Max Kagan: Yeah, so this actually goes nicely with the previous question and why we think that there might actually be some deliberate sorting here, that this is not just a mechanical factor that comes from there just being more Democrats or Republicans in a certain area or a certain occupation. So because we have a pretty large data set, we’re able to actually explore heterogeneity or how this sorting differs across different groups and different types of people. And we find two conclusions. And to be clear, this is early analysis. I wouldn’t say this is a super robust causal story yet, but this is descriptive and we think interesting and worth highlighting. The first finding is that people who seem like they have more power in the labor market appear more sorted. So this is consistent with the idea that if people like to work alongside people who think similarly to the way they do, the people who have more labor market power are better able to indulge this taste.

Specifically, what we find is that people who have more senior titles, so people who have a job title like CEO or Vice President or Chief Something Officer, are more sorted than people who have a more junior title like analyst or associate. We also find that people who are in jobs that require more training, so something like a surgeon or a lawyer, those people are also more sorted, and these people may have more socioeconomic status and may have more job market options. And finally, and relatedly, we find that white workers are more politically sorted, which again is consistent. Due to long-term historical developments, white workers tend to have more labor market power than workers of color. So that’s the first thing is we find that labor market power is associated with higher sorting or a greater likelihood that you work alongside people who share your partisanship.

We also find that people who seem more politically involved, so people who vote more often in political primaries and who donate to political campaigns, those are people who probably care more about politics, who are more aware and involved in politics, and they are also more sorted. Again, if you care more about politics, you probably care more about being surrounded by people who share your politics and are more sensitive to that at work.

Matt Grossmann: So without getting too far into the weeds, this was a pretty big project to merge commercial databases of work histories with the voter file. So what were the big sources of error that we should be worried about in this, and how is it that you’re able to follow us into our workplaces in the voting booth?

Max Kagan: Yes, so I will try my best not to get too far into the weeds. We do describe this in the working paper, so if you’re curious, if any of the listeners are curious, they’re welcome to pursue that. Basically, we merge between two data sources. The first of these is the voter file, which I think many listeners to this podcast may be familiar with. If you register to vote and if you vote in the United States, that is a matter of public record. So obviously who you vote for, that is secret. But if and when you turn out to vote in a given election, as well as if you choose to register with a political party, at least in most states, that is a matter of public record, and researchers have ways of using these data for a variety of purposes. So that’s the relatively easy part, at least for people who study these sort of things.

The other data source is this company called Revelio. That is a workforce intelligence company that mostly I think works with HR folks at companies to do various employment tracking. But basically, what they do is they are able to harvest all sorts of data from the internet, from public job postings, from sites like LinkedIn and other online profiles, to construct these individual employment histories for folks who have some sort of online presence. They cover a significant portion of the US workforce, I think it’s something like 90 million in the ballpark people in the US. We merge that with the voter file, which is somewhat difficult and involved, but fortunately, we have some great help and some great computing resources to help us do that.

Now, some listeners may have already thought of one of the obvious sources of coverage potential bias or gaps here is that not everyone has some sort of online profile, whether it’s on LinkedIn or whether it’s some other online website that suggests something about where they work. Specifically, people who work in something like an office job and professional services are probably a lot more likely to show up than people who work in other professions. And we do, in the paper, we benchmark this against various, what we think are pretty high quality survey samples to quantify this. Fortunately, this is something that is relatively, there’s not a ton we can do about this, other than quantify and measure this. We do think it’s worth drawing attention to the fact that existing ways of studying this, using campaign finance data, whatever problems we have, those are multiplied many factors over in campaign finance.

Another potential source of bias, that I think we feel fairly comfortable is not a huge issue, but we were very concerned about, is in the matching process. So we match mostly based on name, and certain types of people have more unique names than others, which can make it easier or harder to match. So you can think about certain racial or ethnic groups have more or less unique names, as well as gender, and you might think that these things correlate with partisanship. And we do find that this is a little bit the case, but the magnitude of the gap is smaller than the gap we find in sorting. And so, again, we do a bunch of exercises in the appendix and in the main body of the paper to reassure ourselves, and hopefully our readers as well, that this is not a huge problem. But it is something that we’re very aware of, and I think we do what we think is the best effort with the data that exists currently.

Matt Grossmann: So there are some signs elsewhere that political sorting may be increasing, at least geographically. You don’t have a huge time series, but you have enough to do some analysis that is suggestive that it is increasing in the workplace. So talk about that, and how much you expect it to continue to increase.

Max Kagan: Sure. So we do two analyses on this. As you said, the data, because of the nature of the online data collection, it doesn’t go back so far, but we can go back about a decade. What we find is that if we look overall at all jobs, the stock, if you will, of people who work, we don’t see a huge increase in sorting. But if we look only at people who turn over their jobs, so people who change jobs or enter the workforce, we do find that the sorting has increased, and actually, it has increased quite a bit. So in the model where we include controls for things like geography, industry, and occupation, it goes from about two percentage points to almost four percentage points, which is a very dramatic increase. In percentage terms, it almost doubles, in percentage point terms, it’s a little more modest.

But I think this might be consistent at least with some reporting, and maybe some anecdotes we’ve seen, about people, especially younger people, who are entering the workforce may care a lot more about political factors that older generations may have thought were less important, or they cared less about, when it comes to where they work.

Matt Grossmann: So both Democrats and Republicans have concerns about politics in the workplace. The Democratic concern has traditionally been that employers try to mobilize their employees to support the interests of the company. The Republican concern has become that political practices are making their way into the workplace, and it’s discussed in terms of woke capitalism at the moment. But the more generic idea there is that you might have workplaces that were trying to instill diversity and equity inclusion or sustainability policies, moving people in a more culturally leftward direction.

So on the one hand, this evidence, your evidence, might seem consistent with these theories, or these concerns, on both the left and the right, that the workplaces are politicized. And so, these kinds of practices might more directly be invoked, or work more easily, by companies that wanted to do so. On the other hand, it also suggests that maybe it isn’t the company itself, but just the company responding to the dynamics of its own workplace. So how should we think about those theories or concerns in relation to your findings?

Max Kagan: Yeah, there’s a lot to unpack there, and it’s really related to a lot of what I study and what animates my research more broadly, is this question of so-called corporate activism, and what happens, and when and why companies take stances on controversial political issues. Maybe to deal with some of the parts of the question in turn, as you note, I do think there is this long-standing concern, especially on the left, that companies can somehow influence their employees to advocate for policies that are not necessarily in their interest.

I think that might be happening, it’s not really what animates a lot of my research, and I think that many of those policies are things that are very parochial, things that are in somewhat narrow corporate self-interest. If a company is pushing its employees to push for a tax bill or a tariff exemption, that’s an important thing to study, but I’m not sure it’s going to be front page news or controversy in the same way that something like Disney’s DEI policy and advocacy, or opposition to the policies of Governor Ron DeSantis on LGBTQ rights, that just seems like something that is really front and center right now in American politics, and something that I’m really interested in.

Another, and maybe this takes the question in a slightly different way, is I think that this idea that companies can, or should, be places where there is political diversity is worth thinking about. So there is this idea that I started by talking about, this long-standing democratic notion that it’s good for people to be exposed to different kinds of people and different viewpoints, and I think that’s probably right. But at the same time, most people don’t necessarily want that. Maybe cross-partisan exposure is a little bit like eating your vegetables, where we think it’s good for you, but most people would rather eat the pizza, which, in this analogy, would be just hanging out with people who already agree with you, or perhaps not even talking about politics whatsoever.

You could imagine a model where people are just happier if they get to work alongside people who agree with them on everything, and maybe there’s some models of the world in which that’s a good thing, or it’s just a reflection of people having more information and getting to exercise their choice. And if that’s the case, then maybe it’s not concerning that companies are taking more stances on these things. There is a viewpoint that maybe if we believe in free choice, and there’s nothing wrong with the fact that some companies will say, “We are a company that supports whatever the issue is,” whether it’s gun violence, or LGBT, or abortion, or immigration, some companies will take stances on the left and some companies on the right. If that were the case, I don’t know that that’s necessarily the best world I would want to live in, but you could imagine a world where that’s all happening.

But I think a lot of the concern, from both left and right, is the concern that you won’t get a free marketplace of ideas, where some companies take stances they like and some they dislike, but that somehow, you’ll end up where all the companies are on the side that you don’t like. So that’s not directly answering the question, but it is something that I think is interesting and maybe worth thinking about.

Matt Grossmann: You’re able to compare the degree of segregation to segregation by race and gender and find it somewhat comparable, and in those areas, we have inherently thought that it’s bad, any kind of segregation is bad and we should try to correct it. So how should we think about that comparison, given that this is a pretty similar level of segregation, but that people have different views about just how normatively suspect that is?

Max Kagan: Yeah. We do that in the paper, as you note. So we use the same data that we use to measure partisan sorting, and we look at the extent of sorting in the workplace, between men and women, and between white folks and people of color, or workers of color, we should say. And we find that it’s more or less roughly the same magnitude, including once we control for things like geography, industry, and occupation.

And frequently, there’s a debate, sometimes, when you think about the economics of discrimination along those factors, around whether it makes sense to control for things like industry and occupation choice, so there’s this longstanding debate around things like the gender wage gap, and if you control for industry and occupation choice, a lot of that goes away, so some people say, “Aha, there’s no gender discrimination.” And then, other folks come in and say, “Yes, but women know that, and the fact that they may choose to go into lower paid occupations perhaps to avoid discrimination is actually a symptom of the problem and not really something you can, or should, control for.”

So again, even among my co-authors, I don’t know that we would necessarily agree on the normative, whether this is good or bad. But we throw that detail in the benchmarking by sorting by gender and by race as a way to help people think about the magnitude, as well as the extent to which they think it is problematic. I think some of this may be driven by things that do look a lot like discrimination, at least on the partisan side. There is some experimental evidence that shows that when people get a resume, when hiring managers get a resume, that clearly indicates that someone belongs to the opposite party, that person is less likely to get a job. Incidentally, in many states, that’s not illegal, although we may think it is bad, it is not illegal, at least not in all states. So if that’s what’s going on, then maybe that is very problematic and it’s something we should be worried about.

On the other hand, most hiring is done through local networks, a lot of hiring is not done just by posting a job, but it’s someone knows someone and they recommend them, and if people are recommending people who are more like them, then maybe the workplace is more harmonious and maybe that’s a good thing. So I think here, it really depends on whether we should think about partisanship as just a choice, or something that people believe, or whether we should think about it as a protected class akin to gender and to race, and that’s probably a different paper and maybe a question that someone else can take up, but it’s not one that we necessarily have strong feelings about in this paper.

Matt Grossmann: So you are working with two people at business schools, and you’re headed to a business school yourself, so you’re living in this space between political science and business schools, and I have made fun of how business schools have to call everything that has politics non-market strategy. But despite the name, there does seem to be increasing interest and a lot of overlap in what we’re studying, so reflect a little bit on how you see that connection and its trajectory.

Max Kagan: Yes. So I am, for better or for worse, becoming a non-market strategy scholar myself, as I head off to do a postdoc next year in the business school world. I think there is increasing attention, both on political scientists looking at business and management folks also thinking about politics in new ways. I’ll speak, because I am a political scientist and I’ve spent my last five years in a political science department, I’ll speak a little bit more to that side.

There is, I think, a lot of growing interest in business and politics, there are some excellent scholars, many of whom you’ve had on this very podcast, highlighting this. Maybe just from my lowly position as a graduate student, if I can hop on the soapbox for a second. I think that political scientists have really been missing out by not making business a more core aspect of what we study. Commonly, we look at things like lobbying and campaign contributions because those have a direct impact on things that we traditionally study, like elections and legislation. But really, I think, as political scientists, what we study or how we should think about ourselves is we study power and we study how power is exercised in organizations. And as scholars of American politics, we have 50 states to work with. If you study countries, you have 190 odd countries. But those are not the only organizations where power is exercised, where you have things like voting and interest groups and lobbying and all the formal and informal ways where people make decisions in groups happen inside companies. Indeed, as well as other types of organizations, nonprofits, unions, churches. You could think of many different types of organizations.

But businesses, they’re out there. There’s often really good data. I think that studying businesses just for the sake of understanding the way people make decisions in groups, I think is something that I would love to see political science move in that direction. But maybe a little bit less ambitiously, I think even if you’re someone who says, I just mostly care about the things that political scientists traditionally are focused on, elections, legislation, things like that, business is increasingly important.

I would love to see in the profession, I was just at the Midwest Political Science Association annual meeting, and I conducted an informal… I wouldn’t even call it a poll. I just talked to my friends and people who I happened to see, and I asked people if anyone had ever, in their personal experience prior to starting graduate school, had how many people had ever worked for a for-profit company, and the answer was almost none. I think we have acknowledged in the profession that bringing in a diverse group of perspectives from people from all sorts of different backgrounds can really enrich our understandings of politics. And we, I think, have been lucky to live in an age where that’s increasingly recognized and we’ve got some really excellent scholarship. And I’d love to see more people who come in like myself from more business backgrounds. And I think they would bring a really interesting and unique perspective on foregrounding new research questions and coming up with interesting new ways to answer that.

Matt Grossmann: So our workplaces are growing more polarized, meaning our jobs increasingly reflect our politics, but what about our politicians? Do they take their job interests with them when they enter politics? Jack Landry finds that they do, but sees more of a story of special interest domination than polarization.

So tell us about the main findings in your paper on the occupational backgrounds of state legislators and their effects.

Jack Landry: Yeah, so by and large, my paper is basically saying that state legislators’ occupational backgrounds are important. And depending on your persuasion, there’s at least suggestive evidence that they’re biased towards the interest of their industries. So the biggest thing is that legislators serve on committees that are going to be related to their occupation, and that goes beyond the effects of district composition or partisanship or something like that. And then, when they’re on both those who aren’t serving on those committees and those who are, they’re going to get a lot of donations from PACS related to their industry. And that’s, I think, suggestive that they’re biased towards those industry preferences. Again, that’s going beyond the effects of partisanship or the function of them or being more likely to serve on the committee, like people, not for necessarily every occupation, but for a lot of the occupations, they both are more likely to serve on those committees and they get more industry-related donations than the other people sitting on those committees.

Matt Grossmann: So most Democrats are lawyers, most Republicans are small business people, and almost no one is a blue collar worker. True or false?

Jack Landry: At least in the data that I’m looking at, false rather than… Except for the blue collar worker thing. So there is some sorting business, agriculture, finance, banking, insurance, all more Republican leaning where education, medical professionals, more democratic leaning. But the differences are typically 60/40. I think the biggest is maybe 75/25 for education, not something like 90/10, but I should say my data is running through 1990 to 2010. So that might be some… Can’t speak to the very recent present.

Matt Grossmann: So your first step is to connect legislators’ occupations with their own financial interests. So how deep is that connection and what are the examples that we’re talking about here? Farmers who own their own farm or related financial assets? What are the connections there?

Jack Landry: Taking a step back, I think it’s just important to understand that most state legislatures are part-time, and people are both sitting in the legislature and often working at another job. It’s hard. There’s no uniformity. In some states, they’ll literally go down for a couple of weeks, and that’s the whole state legislative session. Others are more part-time. And there are some more full-time professionalized legislatures. That’s always tricky when talking about legislator or legislatures. But it’s very different from Congress where everyone’s basically full-time. There’s restrictions on outside employment. There was a case a couple years ago, a Hawaii congressman during COVID was taking all of these remote proxy votes while working as a airline pilot, but that was an unusual case.

So in general, this means that state legislators are potentially voting on bills or advancing bills that are very related to how they make their money. So the first step in my paper is just linking some financial disclosure data to occupations and showing that a legislators’ occupation is a decent proxy of a related financial interest. Now, a lot of people are retired, so the occupation was from the past. So it’s not a one-to-one. And of course, the 50 states different disclosures data sets are going to be very different and have different standards. So it’s not a perfect exercise. But in general, I show that occupation is a decent proxy for some related financial interest. And generally, it’s a lot of firm ownership, but it can just be getting a salary from a job.

Matt Grossmann: So you also connect legislators’ occupations to their committee assignments. One of the basic examples that turns out to be pretty strong in your data is that medical professionals are a lot more likely to be on health committees. How strong is that relationship overall and how should we interpret that?

Jack Landry: Yeah. Medical professionals is the biggest thing. It’s about a 40, 45 percentage point jump. Insurance, agriculture, education, all about 20 percentage points more likely relative to someone who does not have that occupation than business and finance and banking is five to 10%. All of those, in terms of in interpretation, all of that is controlling for district fixed effects. So it’s basically holding district preferences constant.

So for instance, it’s not just the case that a rural district that has a lot of farmers or just happen to be more likely to elect farmers who then go on to serve on an agricultural committee. But it’s not because they elected a farmer, it’s because the district has a lot of farmers. Sometimes those districts elect people with other occupations who are less likely to sit on the agricultural committee. And just in general, thinking about occupations and district preferences, most districts are not going to be super homogenous with one particular occupation.

There’s some relationships, I don’t know, for instance, maybe college towns have more college professors or administrators who go on to be legislators. That’s not directly in my data, but just in general, using common sense, thinking about it, there’s not so much geographic occupational segregation that any given district is going to have huge interest concentrated in one particular thing. So I think the important thing to thinking about this is if you elect someone who has a given occupational background, you’re likely that that person’s going to work in the legislature on those issues via committee membership.

Matt Grossmann: And you are also able to connect it to campaign contributions. So you show that PAC contributions from the industry are related to the legislature’s previous occupation. The biggest example here is insurance professionals getting money from insurance-related industries. So how strong are those ties and how do you interpret those?

Jack Landry: In general, I’d say that they’re pretty strong. There’s a big increases in donations from industries where the legislator is sharing the occupation. How to interpret them is definitely trickier. I would say, in general, I’d describe them as influence seeking. Does it mean that these donations are buy off these legislators? While I can’t rule it out, I don’t think in general that’s what’s happening. I think it’s more this person is coming out of my industry and is likely to be supportive of my industry’s interests, and I want to support that.

And again, it’s important to note this goes beyond district characteristics or even the finding about committee membership. For a lot of occupations, if you are a legislator who has a given occupation and you’re sitting on, say, the insurance committee, you’re getting more insurance-related donations than other people sitting on that committee in the state in that given legislator.

Matt Grossmann: So it does seem possible to interpret all of these pretty charitably. Someone who has to have an… I guess, doesn’t have to have an occupation, but someone who had a previous occupation or has a current occupation is certainly going to be interested in issues surrounding that, is going to be more sympathetic to that occupation. And that might naturally make them want to sit on that committee, do legislative activity related to that industry. Or if you’re thinking of somebody who’s involved in a committee assignment process, like a leader, it might seem pretty natural to put somebody with expertise from their occupational background on those committees and solicit donations from people who are related to those folks.

And this isn’t generally something that legislators hide. A lot of people put their occupation in their campaign information. So is it that straightforward and should we say nothing untoward is happening here?

Jack Landry: Yeah. I’m very sympathetic to that interpretation. Well, there’s like 20,000 state legislators in my data. I’m sure there’s one who is getting elected and really just wants to funnel more money to their firm. Sure. But in general, I think, when you’re spending your career working in a given industry, you’re just going to be sympathetic to the interests of that industry. You’re going to have that expertise. Especially in a part-time legislature, you can’t necessarily be expected to-

Jack Landry: Legislature, you can’t necessarily be expected to all of a sudden get up to speed on something that you have no background in. So I think that the sorting is very natural. I just think the biggest thing is thinking about how that biases the political process when this sorting process is very natural, but it’s also going above and beyond the effect of district preferences and partisanship and putting a bunch of people on a committee who also work in that industry, like whose representing more common distributed interests versus kind of that special interest.

But the data I have in the paper can’t be just positive one way or the other, but I’m more favorable to a charitable interpretation where legislators aren’t just conniving for more profits for their industry that they may also personally benefit from. I think they probably think they’re advocating for things that are good policy on the merits.

Matt Grossmann: But even if we don’t think the legislators themselves are corruptly in office to benefit their own occupations, there still seem to be quite a few potential concerns here, especially about biases in the political system. We’re often studying things like lobbying or campaign contributions, thinking that it’s about influencing some external actor and the businesses are trying to influence the politicians who are separate. But the story you’re telling it says that those biases are already built into the political system. So the same kinds of industries and occupations that might be able to mobilize campaign contributions or lobbying dollars might also be the ones that get more people to run for office and have a role in the political system. They may not even need lobbying or campaign contributions because they already have these folks on their side especially, but not exclusively because they already have these campaign contributions. And there are industries, the Farm Bureau has a political mobilization program, insurance industry has something related. So it’s not like they don’t know that this is a potential advantage.

Jack Landry: Yes, most definitely. And I think one way this becomes a bias process is even in the most part-time legislatures, it’s still pretty time intensive to be an elected representative. And getting the privilege to do that I think is disproportionate to upper class jobs. And think for instance, law firms. Law firms love to have say like, “Oh, one of our partners is elected in the legislature,” and they’re going to probably going to be fine with you, not necessarily having as many billable hours because that’s a very attractive thing, not only to potentially advocate on behalf of that law firm’s interest, but just as a general kind clout factor, if you may. So I think that’s one way this kind of bias materializes is that there’s certain occupations are much more flexible and much more upper-class bias than other occupations.

Matt Grossmann: But you did do one test to look at influence of this on insurance industry profits and don’t find much of an effect. So how much did that temper your views about these effects and how hard of a test was that relative to whether people vote on bills related or introduce bills related, where others have found more effects?

Jack Landry: Yes. So I study basically if more insurers are getting elected in a given state, are insurance industry profits or kind of proxies for insurance industry profits, like minimum required auto coverage, premiums, tax rate, things like that increase after more insurers get elected and I don’t find a significant relationship. And I would say that maybe tempers concerns a little bit, but I do think that it’s a very demanding test to say elect more people from this background and you get these downstream, not even policy outcomes, but things that are downstream of policy and probably the processes is more complicated than that and there’s a lot of bumps in the road. 

And I also think that it’s not super … I am going from having 20,000 state legislators and looking at committees where a lot of those tests have a lot more statistical power than 20 states or 50 states over 20 years. So while I do think insurance is very regulated at the state level, state regulations do have a very big impact on the insurance industry. And if there was this kind of occupation to state level profits relationship was going to be there, insurance would be one of the biggest industries you’d want to look at. And the fact that you don’t find a relationship there maybe should update your views a little bit, but I do think it’s a very demanding test.

Matt Grossmann: So you yourself have transitioned to a more think tanky role, but I assume you’ve brought your past occupational background to it. So how’s the transition going and what have you learned about the role of political science in informing the policy world and what we need to learn from the folks that are more directly involved?

Jack Landry: That’s a great question. This is kind of tangential, but when I was working on this paper and just in very more in the political science and social science world, I was very causal inference obsessed maybe. And this paper is kind of written in that tradition and I think that’s where a lot of political science is. And now working in politics, it’s not that I want political science to go back to a bunch of unidentified kitchen sink regressions, but I’m much more interested in more qualitative studies of the political process and think that’s kind of under provided.

And then another thing that I think about doing a little work in state policy is just how we could potentially, given the set of facts I try to put forward in this paper, what institutional reforms could potentially improve the situation. And I think elevating the role of nonpartisan staff would be a great solution. And, again, it’s hard to describe any, one state is not a representative. All 50 states are different. But I think generally speaking, nonpartisan staff are empowered to give cost estimates and basic background about policy and help legislators craft specific legislation. 

But what I’d love to see is nonpartisan staffers give the pros and cons of passing any given legislation to fight against that asymmetric information problem that I think is kind of a theme of my paper, that while the general process of how legislatures are set up, I think gives, naturally elevates special interests. And in some ways it’s good to have that expertise, especially it part-time state legislatures, but when there’s no one arguing the other side, that’s when I think it really gets problematic and I think kind of institutionalizing someone to argue the other side, which would be potentially a good solution.

Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The science of Politics is available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center, and I’m your host, Matt Grossman. If you like this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next, all links on our website. Has American Business Turned Left, Why Lawyers Rule American Politics, Have Conservatives Transformed the States? Can State Politicians be Held Accountable to the Public? And Are Claims That Social Media Polarizes us Overblown? Thanks to Max Kagan and Jack Landry for joining me. Please check out Office Parties and How Politicians Occupational Backgrounds Structure Politics. And then listen in next time.