A Faculty Perspective on the Upcoming Elections
By: Alexis McCaffrey, Mason Votes Special Contributor
Dr. Jennifer Victor, an Associate Professor of Political Science from Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government helped provide some insight into what this year’s election may look like. After 40-minute conversations with the professor, I was able better understand how her love for political science and election thoughts tie together.
Thoughts on Midterms & Voting
Q: What are your thoughts on the 2022 elections?
A: “The general wisdom is that in the lead-up to or in a midterm congressional election the party of the President will lose seats (usually). It’s seen as sort of a referendum on the President and people often are more motivated by being the “out party” or wanting to express criticism than when they are the party in power. Some of those sentiments contribute to the party of the President which typically is losing seats in the midterm election. President Biden’s popularity numbers have been on the low side so we expect this to be a pretty tough electoral year for Democrats. But the thing that is really interesting about the primaries is some of the surprise outcomes that Democrats have done quite a bit better than we might have expected otherwise. I am thinking particularly of the Kansas election which wasn’t technically a primary, but essentially what we so there was a whole bunch of Kansans voters who got extremely motivated to vote as a reaction to the Dobbs Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. It was an abortion measure on the ballot and a whole bunch of voters came out and voted to try to protect abortion rights. Kansas is a pretty conservative state so this actually ended up helping a bunch of Democratic candidates do better than they thought otherwise. We are seeing the backlash of the Dobbs decision play out in a number of elections. I expect this still be a stronger year for Republicans, [but] watching the primaries and special elections that have occurred this spring and summer suggest that there is reason to think that Democrats will do better than would have otherwise. It means more contests are going to be more competitive than they might have been otherwise.”
Q: What do you think about the phrase: “choice is on the ballot this fall”?
A: “What Democrats have learned is that abortion rights and the fragility of abortion rights can be motivators for voters. This is interesting because we don’t usually think of specific policy issues as being the thing or the thing that really motivates a lot of voters. It’s often a post-hoc narrative we tell about who won an election and why. Mostly those explanations are wrong and voters are usually motivated by much more complex coalition building through each party. The polling data suggests that there is pretty sizable amount of data depending on how you ask the question and where you are located but, a majority about 50% to 80% of Americans believe in abortion rights and some kind of access to medical care that includes abortion services. The Supreme Court decision and legal status across the United States has motivated a whole bunch of people to get activated on that issue in way they haven’t been because it hasn’t ever been situation like this since 1973 in variation of legality in abortion rights across states. That set back in abortion rights is potentially strong motivator for a lot of voters.”
Q: Do you encourage students to vote?
A: “Absolutely. I do a lot of work with student voting. The 18-29 year old voting population is one of the most tenuous and they tend to vote at much lower rates than older folks. There is whole bunch of good reasons for that. College students in particular are interesting and very important population to encourage to vote. Some of the things we know with encourage voting are things like: if you voted in the past you are more likely to vote in the future, somebody asks you to vote your more likely to vote, any way in which the barriers to voting are lower they are more likely to vote, when you feel really embedded and deeply connected to your community you are more likely to vote. All of those are things that are often not true for college students. Like you may have never voted before because you just turned 18 or maybe nobody has campaigned to you and asked you to vote or maybe you just moved and you don’t even know how to vote or register or how to verify that your registered and because you perhaps just moved to college your not deeply embedded in a community you just moved to community where everyone was a stranger just a few months ago. It’s a population that sorta of statistical shouldn’t vote since they don’t have the characteristics that make people more likely to vote, but we also know people’s habits about voting get established when they are young. So if we can encourage voting in the younger population and help people to develop that sense of priority or habit with voting. It’s likely to be habit that will last their entire lifetime.”
Q: How did you get into your line of work?
A: “When I was in college I was pretty sure I wanted to go to law school because I was very interested in politics and government. I wanted to be a professional and do something that I thought would impact the world in some way and I thought law school was the way to do that. I was kinda on that track and I took LSAT classes and worked for a lawyer one summer. I selected activities that I thought were aiming me toward that career. I didn’t like it that much and the lawyer I worked for wasn’t a great experience and I didn’t find it very rewarding. Around the same time (summer between junior/senior year) I got an offer to work as a research assistant for a political science professor (Matt McCubbins) and I started doing more academic political science-type stuff. It hadn’t really occurred to me to pursue academia rather than law school as a secondary educational path after college. But that particular professor his name was Matt McCubbins, actually passed away earlier this year, big time political scientist in the study of congress. He was very encouraging of my research skills and pushed me towards grad school so in the end, I decided to go apply to Ph.D. programs instead of law schools (senior year). I was accepted to a number of places, I ended up going to Washington University in Saint Louis. I went straight from undergrad into a Ph.D. program. They gave me a great financial package, and usually, when you go do a Ph.D. in social sciences it is all funded. They will pay your tuition and give you a small stipend to do graduate studies. So I did that at WASHU and it took me about 6 years to finish all my education there and I ended up with a Master’s Degree and Ph.D. At the end of all that is to help prepare you to look for a job as professor and they support you going on the job market which can be absolutely brutal. I happened to be in the market for the first time in 2003 which at the time in political science was a pretty decent job market. I had really good support at WASHU and experiences that allowed me to get a bunch of job interviews. My first job was at the University of Pittsburg where I became an assistant professor of political science. I moved over to Mason in 2012.”
Q: What are your passions in life?
A: “I am pretty passionate about politics. When I was younger I think I was more intrigued by politics as a sport and back in the 1990s and early 2000s politics seemed more like a sport for fun. It didn’t seem that serious and I don’t mean to belittle it. I found it to be stimulating and entertaining and consequential, but not existential. I always saw politics and government as a way that humans can make a difference in the world and change their society or try to make improvements for people who live around them as a way to contribute to the world or solve problems people face. I had always been fascinated with the limits and challenges of using political systems to achieve those types of goals. Which I think is what feeds my interest in the study of politics. As the US got more into the 20teens and Trump-era the whole study of politics changed a lot because my era of focus is on American politics. I think if I studied different parts of the world my perspective on this would have been different. But because my focus has been on American politics watching some of the massive democratic backslidings that the United States has experienced in the last five to six years and even 10 years depending on where you want to start. It has been jarring and upsetting and very disturbing at times it makes this job that I do much more serious and important and consequential for the future of the government of the country than I think it would be when I first got into it. Following all of that and being passionate about understanding democratic governments, how to defend it, the things that happen that weaken it, and being able to explain the various puzzling phenomenon in American politics. I think I feel a pretty strong sense of purpose in helping students understand the frailties and challenges in self-governance in the United States and working to help people come to improved decisions on how to make the world better. I do other things along the line of that like volunteer work for non-profits that are in good governance reform space. I enjoy that kind of work. I also have a family and we enjoy traveling. I grew up in Southern California and my husband’s family is from the Midwest so we travel to visit family, we enjoy international travel and have been to a bunch of places around the world. With COVID it has happened as much lately, but I really enjoy the experience of being in another place and experiencing another culture and learning the language and trying all the food. I am also a runner and practice yoga things like that keep me sane and healthy.”
Q: Favorite book? Or recommendations?
A: “I don’t think I have a favorite book. If you have been to my office you know that it has way too many books in it. I’m always surrounded by books with whatever I am working on or reading about. It’s pretty hard for me to pick one book that’s really impactful. I would say it sort of changes from year to year, different things that I read help me reshape the way that I think about the world, politics, or things that are important. Two books that I will mention have really influenced the way I think about things lately. One is called “Democracy for Realists” which is a political science book and its just sort of a philosophical way of thinking about what Democracy is and what it isn’t and as a system of government the limits that it can have. It has profoundly affected the way that I understand democracies and what I think they can and can’t do. It has affected the way that I write about and teach about it in the last five years or so. Another book that I find my mind returning to a lot in different things that I write about or talk about with students or teach, is a book called “The Sum of Us”. She is a kind of scholar, not a traditional one but she has done a lot of writing that is adjacent to scholarship and has a lot of the same qualities as scholarship. The book is about the collective costs of systemic racism and she focuses on the United States and she focuses on the aspects of black history in the United States. Her point that I think is so compelling and so important is that at all of these various instances in US history when the United States has experienced or regions in the United States have experienced extreme racism or discrimination or patterns where a community has really subjected a whole population it comes at the whole cost of the whole society, not just the cost of the population being subjected. So the idea of it is that the systemic racism that we have sorta embedded in US institutions and US history is not just affecting the populations that are targeted, but it actually profoundly sorta affects the whole population and the idea that people are willing to give up public goods in order to benefit the whole society or prevent some sub-populations from not gaining access to those public goods is an important realization people need to understand about US policymaking.”
Q: Favorite spot on campus?
A: “I would say it sorta depends on my mood, but I think I really like the spot near the benches between Horizon Hall and the Library in the quad area that is there. It’s just sorta a nice intersection of a bunch of different paths from different parts of campus and there’s often stuff going on in the lawn, different groups of students doing different things. The benches that are decorated by different student organizations or people will set up tables along that big walkway to promote whatever it is they are working on. The community that happens in that space is something that I appreciate even if I am just sorta walking through it.”
Advice for Students
Q: What is the best advice (in general) you can give to students pursuing their degrees (undergraduate and graduate)?
A: “One of them sounds very simple, but I think it’s actually quite hard for a lot of us to do and that is to simply read. We all live very fast-paced lives and constantly have things going on electronically that our demanding our attention. Competing for our attention and it can be really hard to turn that off and to find a quiet place and sit down with a book or an article. A lot of the reading a lot of us tend to do these days is “scroll reading” or short bits (headlines, blurbs, so forth). The struggle to turn that stimulus off and invest in the deeper concentration you get from reading a book or chapter can’t be replaced. It allows us to access parts of our brain and intelligence we can’t access without getting into that deep concentration space. It can be hard to find the time and personal commitment to giving ourselves permission into that sort of solitary place of concentration. It’s important for learning, teaching, or just expanding our brains and the way we think about almost anything in the world. The second thing I would say is don’t play it safe and get outside of your comfort zone. I think a lot of us come into scholarly or academic settings with a fair number of assumptions about how things are gonna work or what we are going to be exposed to or what we are good at or what we think we are going to like. Those assumptions create an incredible amount of barriers around what we are willing to try, expose ourselves to, or even learn about. I think students who hated math or hated it in high school can take statistics courses or logics courses or coding courses that turns out they like and with some effort can be good at it. Just making the commitment to do something that you thought wasn’t for you is good and takes courage. That courageousness feds creativity and leads to some of the best scholarly work people can do.”
Photo by: Ron Aira/Creative Services