A Conversation with Theda Skocpol

A Conversation with Theda Skocpol


– Welcome, I’m Eric Schickler, Professor of Political Science, at the University of California, Berkeley. And on behalf of the Annual
Review of Political Science Editorial Board, it’s my pleasure today to be here
interviewing Theda Skocpol. Theda is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology
at Harvard University. First, thank you, Theda, for… – Thank you, Eric, it’s really a pleasure to be here with you.
– Great thanks. I guess I want to start out with a little bit about your background. I know you were an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I guess I want to get a sense for how that influenced your
intellectual development. – Booyou we called it (laughs). At Michigan State University is the huge land grant university in
the state of Michigan. I grew up in Michigan,
my parents were teachers and my grandparents farmers
from different parts of the state and there
was a tussle in my family. My Mother wanted me to go to a small, liberal arts college,
and study home economics. And my Father, who was
a high school teacher, was worried how much it was gonna cost to send me to any college. And so when I was admitted
to Michigan State University, I got my Father on my
side because at that time, it was certainly less
expensive in terms of tuition and cost to go to the major
state university in Michigan. I already knew what Michigan
State and east Lansing, Michigan was like before I
tried to lobby my parents to let me go to (laughs) one
particular college over another. – Great, and so you
were a sociology major– – I was. – At Michigan State, what
brought you to sociology? – Well, I was admitted into
an honors program there, which meant that from the beginning, I was part of a fairly
small group of students within the tens of thousands
(laughs) at Michigan State, who were allowed to put
together their own program. So I had a lot of freedom,
sociology attracted me. I had some charismatic
professors early on. It just looked like a
social science discipline where I could do a lot
of different things. Where I would be free to move around. And in retrospect, I think if I’d picked political science, I
would have been slotted into comparative or American
or theory or empiricism. I could major in sociology
but not be too tied down to any particular part of it,
and I could also take classes in a lot of different
disciplines, which I did. – So where there any particular authors that influenced you especially when you’re studying
sociology at Michigan State? – Well, by the time I was a senior, I was in some small seminar type classes with a man named James McKee, he taught things like
Barrington Moore’s books and C. Wright Mills and I was very taken with C. Wright Mills, I have to admit. The whole argument that
you can marry the study of empirics with history and
understand power dynamics. We remember, this was the time of the Civil Rights
Movement, the Vietnam War, so I wanted to understand
real world things, and I thought sociology,
particularly as practiced by those giants was the way to do it. – Great, you brought up the
political events of the 1960s. So were you involved as an activist? – (laughs) I was, I was, yes. I was involved in the
anti-war movement, although, I have to admit, I never
went as far as some people. But I think the more important one was the Civil Rights Movement. I met my husband, and we
just celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary
recently, last June of 2017. I wouldn’t have met him
necessarily at Michigan State because he was a physics major from Texas. And I was a sociology major from Michigan. But we were both in the
Methodist Student Organization. And at that time, the
leader of Methodist Student Organization was very taken
by Martin Luther King, who had come to speak
in Lansing, Michigan, a year before we started
at Michigan State. And that minister, and a couple
of other Methodist minsters, talked themselves into the
idea that it would be great to send a delegation of
Michigan State undergraduates to Mississippi, to participate
in an education project at an all black college in
Holly Springs Rust College. And Bill and I were in the
Methodist Student group that went, and that was a
life changing experience because we didn’t necessarily get involved with any of the demonstrations
that led to violence in Mississippi, because
you had to have your parents permission to leave the campus. And my parents would not give permission. But we were in Mississippi
and we were teaching English skills and math
skills to entering freshman at Rust College, who were
the first people in their often sharecropper
families to go to college. So we saw, along with all
the other white students from Michigan State who went down there, we saw first hand what segregation and racial oppression in
the pre-Civil Rights south was like, and that was a life
changing experience, for sure. – Right, so it’s actually interesting that you spent your academic career at the most elite private universities, Harvard and University of Chicago, but you started out at
a big public university, and had this formative
experience in Mississippi. How do you think having that background has affected your approach as a scholar? – I think it keeps me grounded. I have been at Harvard
University for a long time and I was a graduate student here and I love the place and I
think it is the embodiment in many, many ways of excellence. But I think it’s very important that I came from the
Midwest, and I never feel as comfortable as when I am in the Midwest, and I know what the vast heartland of the country looks like and feels like. My grandfather, who was a farmer in Michigan on my Mother’s
side, would have been a tea party Republican
if he were still alive, and so I have all those pictures of my mind of those
kinds of relationships, and that has helped me never
be taken in too far by the elitist propaganda of a place
like Harvard University. – Given your background,
given your interests, your interest in real politics, as well as learning about
society and politics. How did you decide that academia
was where you wanted to go? – Boy, that’s a good question. I feel as if I always wanted to be around books and research and college. I was very unpopular
as a young woman, girl, in high school because I was
what was called, a brain. That was not good in the big
high school that I went to. It meant that you weren’t
one of the popular ones and people really wanted
to make your acquaintance only when they wanted
to read your homework. So I handled that by reading a lot. And by the time I got to college, I was still a very good student, I was intrigued, I got involved in some professors research
projects very early on, and it’s hard to go back into that time, but people weren’t as worried about economic and careerist things then. The major worry I remember
my soon to be husband and I having, was how to
make sure he didn’t get shipped off to Vietnam War,
staying in college (laughs) was a practical as well a logical thing. But I think for me, I just liked it. It was beginning to be possible for women to have serious
careers, just beginning. My teachers encouraged me to apply for fellowships and I won them. That made it possible to go to Harvard. – So at Harvard, you mentioned
Barrington Moore’s book as an influence on you
as an undergraduate. So I know that he was one
of your teachers at Harvard though didn’t actually end up
on your dissertation (laughs). – No, he didn’t. – And so I want to hear
just a little bit about what it was like to work
with or learn from Moore and maybe a little bit
about that decision. – Well, one of the first
things that happened when I got to Harvard,
was that I found out that Barrington Moore, who I
thought was a young radical, I had read Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, well I found
out he was a crotchety, 18th century style (laughs),
fairly old fashioned authoritarian in the classroom. But he held a competition
to get into his seminar, it was a seminar on theory,
so the first weekend in graduate school at
Harvard, you had to write an essay to get into this seminar. And it was an essay of
what are the testable propositions in the communist manifesto — – Wow. – And how (laughs) would
you go about testing them? And Marxism was en vogue at that point. So I wrote my essay, I got in. He ran the thing with what he called, the Socratic totalitarian method. Which is he would throw out a
question about these readings, which were almost impossible to do to. We had to read Althusser
in French, for example– – In French (laughs), oh my gosh. – He doesn’t make sense in English, and in French it’s even worse
if it’s your second language. So he would go around the table until somebody said what he wanted and then he would accept that answer. But I came back for more,
after that first year, I applied for the seminar
that was basically Social Origins of
Dictatorship and Democracy type seminar, and I loved that. And that’s where I learned to do the kinds of things that led to my thesis
and book on the revolutions. – It seems hard to imagine
a thesis more ambitious than (laughs) Chinese, French
and Russian revolutions. – Yeah, it was actually crazy (laughs). – So what was the process
that led you to that project? – Well it’s important for
people to realize that at that time, sociology was just
a very exciting discipline. I was a sociologist, I
wasn’t a political scientist at that time, and I always
thought of myself as studying politics and social
movements, among other things, but I was a sociologist in my PHD program. And there you had Seymour Martin Lipset, you had Daniel Bell,
you had Tucker Parson’s, who died just as I was a
young graduate student, but still, he was there and
his mark was on the department. So these were sociologists
who thought big, and wrote big, and to some degree, they’d encouraged that
or at least allowed it in some of their graduate students. And I wrote a paper about revolutions, I think it was for some intermediate step in the process, drawing on what I learned in Moore’s seminar and
critiquing available theories. And Daniel Bell read the paper, and I can remember very clearly
sitting there in his office and he said, “Well, this is
a thesis in the best sense “of the word, why don’t you do that?” Now I glommed onto that, I
think I was a stubborn person, and I thought, yep,
I’ve got an insight here about how revolutions
work that it’s different from the theories that are out there. And so I launched into
it, it almost killed me because it was too big a project, I almost didn’t get it done in time. But in the end, I had an
argument, I had an insight, and I developed it about
two thirds of the way in the PHD thesis and
I finally got it done. And that turned out to
be a brilliant choice because I had done something new that I was passionate about
and that I could defend. – So the thesis and
the book is an exercise in comparative historical
research, right– – It is. – Which has become your Hallmark. How did historians respond
to you in some sense treading on their ground
in these canonical cases? – Not well, not well, it was actually pretty shocking for many historians. They didn’t understand
historical work in sociology and political science, and
they did see it as treading in their territory and
would particularly not like it if you didn’t know the language. So I knew French, but I did
not know Russian and Chinese. And I took a lot of flack for
that after the book came out. Not so much while the
thesis was being developed, because there were no
historians on the committee. I was working with what I’d
learned from Barrington Moore, taking advice from him, but
he wasn’t on my committee. Seymour Martin Lipset
was, he’s somebody who had already done comparative
historical work, he respected it. And they understood that I was using historians work to systematically develop and test hypothesis at a secondary level. After the book came out though, it took a lot of pot shots
from historians in every field, and I think the turning point
was at Berkeley, actually. It was maybe a year out
or so and the Berkeley History department
invited me to a colloquium where I was gonna present
the thesis of the book, and a historian of France,
a historian of Russia, and a historian of China
was gonna criticize it. And that happened, and
it was a packed room. I don’t remember where the room was, but I know there were
hundreds of people there, lots of historians, but I
demonstrated in the discussion that I knew the work of the historians, and that I knew the work
of the previous generations of historians, and I came out
of that with their respect. Not necessarily with
everybody agreeing, but people understanding how I had used
the works of historians. – So the book also has
had an enduring influence in both sociology and political science. Did you have political science in mind as an audience when you were writing it? – I don’t think I cared about that at all. I cared about understanding
the similarities and differences and what had
happened in these revolutions and what that set them apart from things that weren’t social revolutions. So I was operating in the
Barrington Moore worldview, and remember, Barrington
Moore was in some ways, a political scientist
and sociologist both. So was Seymour Martin Lipset. He was in both disciplines, so in a way, my chief mentors, intellectual
mentors in any of that, were not people who particularly respected disciplinary boundaries. What they taught was ask a question, and pursue the answers using the resources and the methods of all disciplines. I think I could have only
done this in sociology. I think only sociology would have allowed that boundary crossing. I don’t think political
science would have. But it probably caught on more in political science after it came out. It came to be seen as a major
work in comparative politics. – So a little later in the conversation, I want to talk a bit more
about the current state of political science,
but I wanted to ask now about a project you did that was a field building project
involving collaboration with other sociologists that collimated in the bringing the state back in volume. And so I guess I want to
get a sense to what lead you to that goal of trying to
build up a approach, a field, that really did cross sociology
and political science? – Well yeah, it’s a good question in a way because that’s something that sets me apart completely from Barrington Moore. Barrington Moore never
was interested in building anything inside academia or disciplines. He thought disciplinary
politics was a waste of time. He didn’t even go to the
professional meetings. By the time I was young
professor at Harvard, I think I understood that
there was a need to work with other young facility
who were beginning to develop comparative historical methods. But it was really Peter
Evans who came to me. We only barely knew each other because he had graduated from the Harvard sociology department well
ahead of most of my time there. He and Dietrich Rueschemeyer came to me and said, let’s try to create a… I can’t remember what it was called, a working group at the Social
Science Research Council? Social Science Research
Council was encouraging field defining projects, and so
they were the ones that drew me into it and we drew up a plan. We really understood
that this book could help to define a way of
thinking about the state and society in politics that was new. In some ways, it was very
old, went back to earlier era of institutional political science. By that time, I was at
the University of Chicago, and I was in both sociology
and political science. So I saw this as an intellectual project in both disciplines, not just in one. – And so some of these ideas get applied in your work on the New Deal era that you’re working on at that time, and I guess, maybe be your first foray into American politics,
and what lead you to decide to work on the New Deal? – I never was one of these kinds of scholars that picks a subject matter and decides I’m gonna
work on that ’til death. I was interested in puzzles about things that happened in the real world. And so after writing what I
had to say about the causes and outcomes of social revolutions, I then became interested
in this whole question of reformism in democratic capitalism. What were the sources of
that, both inside government institutions and the
other part of bringing the state back in, was thinking about how organized social forces interact with a particular institutional
structure of government. So I was interested in those puzzles, and the New Deal seemed like
a good way to think about it. Because there were all kinds
of debates about what was the driver of reform, and it’s
limits, but I have to say, my primary commitment has
always been to understand the actual historical outcomes. To understand the variations
over time and across cases. And then the theoretical
gains are hopefully part of that process, but I don’t
sit down, read the APSR and say, what’s the next
squiggle in this theory, or for that matter, the
American Sociological Review, I don’t do those things,
so I’m not theoretically driven, I’m a theory user,
I use different theories to try to understand real
world patterns and outcomes. – Great, so this is also a
time when American political development is starting to come into– – It is. – I know vogue might be too strong a word, but becoming part of the
conversation at least. Did you see yourself as– – I did because Stephen Skowronek’s book had a big impact on me, I think I was beginning to move from the New Deal to try and understand the material
that would go into Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, the
insights that the Civil War pension system was a
defacto, early welfare state, and these programs for mothers and children at the turn of the… And his book about the
evolution of patronage, democracy and the United States and it’s transformation into
partially bureaucratized states of the 20th century
was very influential. The other big influence
was Marty Shefter’s work, and that explicitly comparative because in the early phases of his career, Shefter really outlined some ideas that I think remain to this day very powerful in thinking
about how the relative timing of the bureaucratization of states and the emergence of
mass political parties, shapes the way in which interests are organized into a nations politics. So I just saw the United States as a place where there were some
things I was noticing using that perspective that
nobody else had noticed. I’m always looking for
something that I might develop that others have not already discovered, because I like to be a little contrarian. – So one, I think it’s fair to say, contrarian aspect of that book, is this idea that Civil War pensions were a form of social policy– – You bet. – And so how did you make that discovery? – Boy, it really was a discovery, because I was going to write
a book about the New Deal, and about the shaping of
the modern welfare state from the Social Security Act on, that was the original plan (laughs), that book has never been written. I thought, well, maybe
if you’re a historical institutionalist, which
is how I was thinking of myself by then because
I was political science rather than in political sociology, I thought, maybe you better go back and look at the earlier period, and I thought of it mainly in terms of things that hadn’t happened
in the progressive era, the attempts to create an early social insurance system
that were very important. But I was reading one particular book, I remember this very
clearly, it was the summer, I was not at the University
of Chicago at that point. I was in New Jersey for the summer, and I read Isaac Max Rubinow’s
Social Insurance book, which was a brilliant, comparative study of early social insurance
and social spending and welfare systems,
dated 1913, I believe. And I’m reading the book, and he says, “The United States is spending more “and covering more people
than any other country.” I thought, what can this man be saying, how can he be saying that
at a time when we all know the United States was
lagging and doing nothing. So I read the chapter, and he was talking about Civil War pensions, he
was talking about the amount of spending, the proportion
of the population covered the generosity of the old age benefits and disability benefits
compared to Germany and England at the time,
and I thought, wow, and just noticing that, set
me off on an investigation into what these were and
then I started asking why. How could this happen, and
that’s where I could marry it to some of the
insights that were coming from Skowronek’s work
and Shefter’s work about how patronage politics worked, and particularly about the
impact of the Civil War on American state
building, which I actually don’t think Skowronek says enough about. But that’s the Tilly influence once again, that comes out of my comparative politics, understanding that war is a major driver of state formation and so if
you’re gonna believe that, then you have to ask, well,
what wars has America fought? And it turns out that the
biggest one was about itself. – So one of the other
things that books noted for I think is this shift or apparent shift to a polity focused approach. How big a shift was that actually? Do you feel like in some ways your early work already had that or is it– – Yeah, it did, because if you go back to Bringing the State Back In, we talked not just state autonomy, but about how the institutions
of a political system can shape the ways in which
political alliances form and the ways in which social
groups understand their interests, and we call that
the Tolgolian side of things, rather than the Vabarian
or the Autohensa side. I felt a new term was
needed, and I’m kind of weary about terms, I’m not a discourse analyst, but it was clear at that
point that people were taking state senate as meaning
state as the only actor. And since that’s never what was meant, I wanted a term that would
enable me to reemphasis that both strands have to
be involved in the analysis, you have to ask, how
bureaucratic is the state, how independent is the resource
base, are there communities of officials like Dan Carpenter
studies that have their own world view and their own
capacity to act together, that’s state autonomy, it’s
a variable, it’s not a given. And then you have to ask
well what is the pattern of the party system and
the institutional structure of representation or authority,
and how does that privilege some kinds of social groups
and demands versus others. And so both of those entered into the analysis in Protecting
Soldiers and Mothers. – So Theda, a lot of your
recent work has drawn on historical materials and
other kinds of data collection efforts to study really
contemporary problems in American politics, so I want to talk
a little bit about that. Maybe start with the
work on civil engagement. What lead you to that topic
and also if you could talk a little about the distinctive
approach in terms of building these new data sets that
you took on in that work. – Well, there are different philosophies that I think scholars
have in their careers. Some develop an important insight and elaborate on it through
their entire career. And there are some advantages to that, we could think of people
who’ve done that very well. My approach is very, very different. The real world, and to some
degree academic debates, throw up issues, and I get
curious about explaining something or I think I’ve
got a better way to explain something other people are arguing about, and I try to move on to a
new substitutive question about new changes in history,
new ways in which government politics and society
interact, those are all there, but a new one, to explore
the next set of questions. So sometimes people say, how
do you get from revolutions to studying volunteer
groups in American history? Well, they’re all puzzles
about how organized political action unfolds and to what
end, and what shapes it. So in the case of the
civic engagement work, it was really the birth of the
whole social capital debate that my colleague, Bob Putnam, launched. He’s the sociologist in the pair, I’m the political scientist (laughs), he started in political science
and I started in sociology. We’re good friends and we work
on a lot of the same things, but he was launching the
whole social capital thing and he was treating in mainly in terms of individual attitudes
and local social networks. And I was coming off the
work on Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, and I was
aware from that work, that from the 19th century
on, they were vast voluntary associations in the field
in the United States. By vast I mean millions of
people across the whole country, hundreds of thousands to millions, operating organizationally
at the national state and local level, I knew
that because I’d studied the Veterans Organizations,
like the Grand Army of the Republic, and the women’s groups
like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the National Congress of Mothers that became the PTA. So while he was introducing
the idea that it was all local and interpersonal and
suggesting an image of change in the United States,
where you go from the local and interpersonal to the national, I realized that that’s not right. So out of that came an
effort to launch a new study. I assembled a team of
students and we set out to do something that I thought at
first would be easy (laughs), which is to assemble a list
of all the large voluntary membership groups, apart
from churches and political parties, that had already every existed in the United States from the revolution to the present, the present then was 1990. Well, there was no source for this, there was no data set, there was no way to look it up on a
computer, there was no list, so what we had to do is
just read history books and try to identify large
numbers of organizations that might have, we decided
they had to have enrolled 1% of the adult population as
members, and that took years to come up with what was
ultimately a list of 58 groups. Well, that was just an absolutely fascinating project, I have to say. It took detective work, it took ingenuity, it took me into one of my great hobbies, which is going through
antique malls looking for old reports, we met old men and woman maintaining archives of groups that were on their death bed. We just had a great time and it generated an amazing set of data that
are about organizations, not about individuals, the
social capital literature was analyzing to death
the general social survey from the 1970s to the present to get all these individual answers
from national surveys. Well, you can’t do that
if you wanna understand American’s organizational
affiliations before the 1970s, which is exactly what we wanted to do. So we figured out a way to
find organizational records that gave membership numbers,
that gave the numbers of local units and state units
in these federated groups, and eventually wrote journal
articles as well as books that tracked the way in which, I think uniquely in the United States of America, vast federated membership associations that were voluntarily
created and expanded, shaped a lot of civic life and politics, from the period around the Civil War, coming into their own after the Civil War, through the mid twentieth century, and then came many of them to a fairly abrupt decline from the 1960s up. So the last part of the research
was why that last decline happened, which actually
left, as I put it, Americans with more
organizations but fewer members. And with organizations, they
either operated just nationally or just locally rather
than the kinds of things that bridge those levels in the past. That project was historical curiosity and really using every
conceivable method we could use, we, the students and I,
to find the data sources, and to code them systematically. – A lot of your work
is focused on the rise of the conservative movement,
the movement of Republicans to the right, and so one
piece of that is your book on the Tea Party, and
project on the Tea Party. And among other things,
that involved field work, which (laughs)– – It did, a brand new method for me. – And not just field work, but field work of a Harvard professor
with all the assumptions that go with that, and
Tea Party conservatives, so talk a little bit
about that experience. How you were able to get
access to these individuals, and gain enough trust to
do this kind of research and what you learned from it. – Well, that’s another project that grew out of just plain curiosity. Let’s go back to the first two years of the Obama presidency,
I’m a political scientist, a number of us were studying that, and ended up writing about that, but there was also this Tea
Party thing that emerged and it was pretty obviously a big deal because it was involving a
lot of people dressing up in colonial costumes and going
out to demonstrations (laughs), and it was affecting Republicans,
it was obviously causing them to just say no to
Obama, to unleash many of the forces that have now come to fruition eight years later. Well, both Vanessa Williamson, who at that time, was a graduate student in government at Harvard,
and I were curious about it. And I want to underline
that we were curious. We really didn’t know what this thing was. And we spent absolutely no
time on definitional arguments. A lot of other people were
saying, well is it a social movement or is it a AstroTurf
movement where rich people are just creating something for show, and we just brushed all that aside and decided we’re gonna
use every empirical method known to political science
as quickly as we can. But then we realized, you
gotta do more than that. So Vanessa actually had gotten
to know the Tea Party leader in eastern Massachusets and
had attended some meetings. I realized that I was arguing
politically with somebody online who was a member of
the Tea Party in Virginia, so we hatched this idea
that we’re gonna try to go and have face to face
meetings with grass roots Tea Party people, ultimately,
we documented with some Harvard undergraduates, that
were about 900 Tea Parties formed all over the United
States, voluntary groups, what were these groups,
we didn’t know that and really wasn’t expected
because we had earlier concluded that most American civic life
was not based on face to face meetings at the local
level connected to national things anymore so this seemed new. We used every device we
could figure out to get into a personal conversation
with Tea Party people, and convince them that we
would treat them with respect, that we just wanted to
come and hear their story, and sometimes it didn’t work.
For example, if you google me you find out very quickly that
I’m a liberal intellectual, in my citizen capacity,
but I had relationships that I cultivated in Virginia,
mostly by just convincing people that there was a
difference between researched politics, that we were learning,
I remember telling the guy I was arguing with, we’re
learning from the Massachusets Tea Partiers, but we know
we need to talk to Tea Party people in another part of the country, and he writes back and he says, “Well those are a bunch of rhinos.” (laughs) Which is their term for… And he talked his local Tea
Party into letting us come down there by saying, their liberals,
but they’re not so bad. I think the lesson I learned
from that, apart from the fact that you can just learn so
much from talking to political actors, non elite political
actors, face to face, because they’ll tell you their story. They told us how they got
to know the Tea Party, how they formed local
groups, these are structural questions, but we just
said, tell us how you heard about the Tea Party, we’re
impressed that you’re active, which is true, didn’t lie,
tell us how that happened. And that is a lesson that I now teach many of my undergraduate
students, who are going out and doing field work, don’t be afraid. You may be able to talk to
conservative people as long as you can get into a situation
where they don’t think you’re trying to lord it over them
and you’re prepared to listen. I think a lot of times people in academia, assume that everybody out there is gonna hate us no matter what, it’s a little bit a matter
of treating them like they’re adults and explaining the
distinction that you make, and then some will accept
that and some won’t, but that’s no different from
any realm of life, right? – So if it’s possible to have
a more controversial subject to study than the Tea Party,
it might be the Koch brothers. (laughs) – I haven’t talked to the Koch brothers. I don’t think they would. – So they hear you’re
trying to study a network of consortium of super wealthy donors, where it seems like what they
thrive on is most is secrecy, so how do you go about trying to study that and getting leverage on that? – Well, once again, I put
together a research group and in this case, we
realized there was a lot of muckraking journalism out
there, and if you simply went through all the journalistic
sources left and right, and put together databases
on what they claimed, a lot of times journalists are pretty creative at ferreting things out. In the case of the Koch seminars, these are these right wing
millionaires and billionaires, that have built up an entire network that’s captured the Republican party, it’s economic policies
anyway, it’s tax policies. The things that have just passed, in the first year of the Trump
presidency, are Koch dreams. The dismantling of the
Environmental Protection Agency, the privatization of public education, all of these are things that
these organized millionaires and billionaires on the right
have been preparing to get Congress and state legislatures
to do for a long time. Once again, the principle
is organizational analysis. Everybody else out there is
saying it’s a question of money. Money matters in politics,
but how money is spent matters more, so we don’t have perfect
data on how much money each millionaire or billionaire
is giving to either the right or the left,
it’s just not there, and it’s never going to
be, but what we could do, is discover the
organizations that are part of the Koch universe that
channels money to other organizations and the liberal millionaires and billionaires in the democracy alliance channel money to other organizations. So we build up databases
of those organizations, we look at their budgets
and we look at the people who are leading them,
and then we figure out, where did those people come from, and where are they going to? So let me give you an example. One of the issues about the Koch network is that the Koch brothers themselves, Charles and David,
didn’t like Donald Trump. (laughs) So they did not endorse him for president, and for some people that’s
evidence that there’s a split. Well, funny thing is, once Donald Trump the presidency, which nobody
really thought he was going to, the Koch network had
lots of people to offer to be installed in his administration, and he didn’t have his own so he took ’em. And because we had studied the building up of those organizations,
and the careers of people, we knew exactly who he was plugging in and what they were bringing with that. You can’t hide the
people, and even something as simple as the Wayback
Machine on the internet, or LinkedIn biographies,
will give you data on the movement of people,
and that’s in some ways even better than the movement of money. – So you mentioned Donald Trump (laughs), hard not to mention Donald Trump. Can you talk a little bit about your current research on Trump voters? – The earlier work that is still ongoing, we call it the Shifting Train Project and that’s the work where
we’re trying to understand how things have been reorganized
on the right and left, and we discovered the
growth of this Koch network that is not just big money
donors but organizations that can mobilize activists,
and money, at the state and local level as well
as the national level, so that helps us understand
why the Republican party has become so enamored of
big tax cuts for the rich, getting rid of health
care through Obamacare, ideally, if they get their way, eventually dismantling social security and Medicare. These are not popular ideas,
standard political science that says that elected
politicians only do what voters want is just not gonna
explain where that comes from. So our work on these donor
networks and the organizations they’ve built, help us understand that. But along comes Donald Trump in 2016, and that threw off yet
another challenge that would have to be understood because all right, he really was not endorsed
by the Koch network. Charles and David Koch didn’t like him, they didn’t think he was gonna win, hardly anybody thought he was gonna win, we can draw on the earlier
work to understand a lot of what happens after
Trump becomes elected and becomes president, but
it still doesn’t really help us understand what’s
going on at the local level in the way that the Tea Party
work helped eight years ago. So after the election was over, it was really just days after, three professors here at Harvard, Mary Waters in the sociology department, somebody I teach with,
she studies immigration. Kathy Swartz, who’s an economist, and me, with this history of studying
these social movements and civic groups and
organizations in politics. We decided that we would, once again, go out there and find out what’s going on, and we dreamed up this idea
of taking two counties apiece in Pennsylvania and North
Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin, that voted for Trump, and
getting to know them very well over a two to four year period. In some ways, it’s similar
to the Tea Party work but it’s broader because
the idea was to go into these counties, we
literally travel to them. We’re not so much talking to voters, we can’t conduct surveys,
what we’re doing instead is talking to the key leaders of
local institutions and groups. So newspaper editors, business
leaders and top employers, the leaders of the healthcare
system because healthcare is important is all of these counties. The idea is to see how
the debates in Washington and the Trump presidency
play down on the ground and how that changes over time. To my surprise, there
turned out to be anti-Trump resistance movements,
grass roots movements like the Tea Party but on the center left, organized in all of these counties, even though they’re quite
conservative places in some cases. So it’s fascinating work
and in a way for me, it allows me to put
together what’s happening on the ground with the more national study of the organizations changing on the left and right nationally. So for example, it really
turns out that just like the first two years
of Obama’s presidency, was a period of effervescence
on the grass roots right, with Tea Parties forming
outside the Republican party, but able to pressure it and change it. We’re in a period right now
that there are thousands of local, indivisible, or
other kinds of anti-Trump resistance groups forming,
pretty spontaneously at the local level, outside
the Democratic party for the most part, but
likely to change what the Democratic party is doing
locally and maybe nationally. These are similar
moments, where a president and Congress takes office,
determined to change the countries direction, and
citizens on the opposite side say, wait a minute, that’s
not what I want for America! And they organize, but the
larger counties project will involve things like
talking to the business people, who in many places say,
that their biggest problem in getting workers is
due to the opioid crisis. Or the healthcare system,
what are they grappling with in a period where the
signals from Washington and the states are changing constantly? And what happens when
immigration restrictions are put on in counties outside of big
cities that need more people? And in some cases, have
immigrant groups working in agriculture in those counties. So those are the kinds of
things, it’s very bottom up, not so much man in the
street, but local leaders. And then identifying the puzzles that are playing out in this period. Probably a white several
different kinds of things, we’re just grappling with that. It’s been a big effort
just to visit these places. It takes two or three days at
each to get know them at all. But I don’t use interviews
for individual reduction as purposes, I use them to
get a sense of how people see the lay of the land,
who they’re relating to, in the case of a new indivisible
type resistance movement, I wanna know, how’d you form,
how’d you meet the other people here, and the interview,
I think sometimes it’s hard for social scientist to understand
this, an interview can be a source of structural data,
and what ties my work together is the interest in organizations. – So speaking of organizations,
so one of your innovations in recent years has been the formation of the Scholars Strategy Network, and so I wanted to see if you could talk a little bit about why you did and what you see it’s purpose
is being, it’s goals as being? – Well, first of all, it’s not just me. There’s a whole group of
actually largely political scientists, but political
scientists of the same ilk that don’t care that much
about disciplinary boundaries, and we formed it in 2009,
really figured out what we were doing in 2011, and the
idea is to have a national federated organization on the grounds that having a presence in regions and local and states is important
in American public life. And the idea is to take the
riches of ideas and policy relevant knowledge that
exists in America’s colleges and universities and do a
better job of translating it into things that can
influence public discussions and that can get facts and
ideas to policy makers. If you step back and you
look at American politics of the last 50 years, there
really has been a collapse of the bridges between the universities and public life, and probably
many people would say, well that’s because the right
has attacked universities. It’s deeper than that because
I think as American academia grew into the worlds most
magnificent array of colleges, universities, and research programs, and that’s what happened in
the post World War II period. It also became very
specialized and ingrown so that academics in one part of
the university have no idea what others are even talking about, and at the same time, the
bridges fell down between many of those specialties and Washington DC, state capitals, and that’s on both sides. So the idea here was to
create a membership group, comes out of my work on
membership associations, structural insight, and allow
academics without quitting their day jobs, without going
to work for a think tank, without going to Washington
or a state capital to join this and translate their work into two page briefs written in plain English. That we then use to help
people write out bids, to form ties to civic
associations for example, voting researchers,
we’ve connected with them with the League of Women
Voters, and some of our members have gone and spoken at their conventions, and handed our two pages that summarize in everyday language without dumbing down, the results of sophisticated
research projects, and we now have, I think it’s
now 30 some chapters growing, all over the country, and
deliberately outside just the liberal areas, powerful
chapter in Oklahoma, one in Georgia, one in Utah,
a really vibrant one in Utah, and with a little bit of help they can weave ties to even
Republican legislatures in many places, and they have done so. – So I want to talk a little
bit more about academia, and life in academia,
and so one facet of that has to do with gender and
being a woman in academia, and so I wanted to maybe
start out to get your sense, what was it like first
as a graduate student, and then assistant professor at Harvard? – It was great as a graduate student because I came to graduate
school at the time of the Vietnam War, so
actually the gender balance had suddenly changed (laughs). – Anginous shock. – Suddenly, at least in
the sociology department, I think I arrived just
at the time they stopped counting graduate study for deferment. So it was 40% female,
ultimately, some of us went back and did a study for that
Harvard sociology department and discovered that women
had always been in the PHD program, they just
hadn’t gotten jobs after they were finished, it was exciting because women were newly assertive. There was the feminist movement, which we were holding these meetings and engaging in gripes and
then doing things about it, and suddenly departments
were deciding they needed to hire a woman, usually it was a woman. That’s how I got hired as
an assistant professor. So it was a moment when
everything seemed possible. Everybody got over that
pretty fast, though. Because I would say that
by the time my generation of the first feminist generation,
modern feminist generation was into jobs, which was an
achievement in of itself. It became obvious that it was
not gonna be easy to move up. And it wasn’t easy for me,
I ended up being turned down for tenure at Harvard at a
time when admittedly it was hard for a rising assistant
professors to get tenure, associate professors, as I was. But I had just written
a book that had won the top award in the field,
I was being offered jobs in all the leading departments, I was voted down in a tie
vote in my department. I reacted to that by
filing the first grievance that had been filed inside Harvard University about gender discrimination. – And that grievance to my
understanding is it took quite some time to be resolved (laughs)– – It took a very long time
to be resolved, yeah, yeah. – Eventually it was reversed
and after being in Chicago for a period you came back
to Harvard, could you talk a little bit, how did that
affect your career, life– – Well it was great to go to
the University of Chicago, I have to say, the University of Chicago is a very special place then and now, it is a great university,
of course, we all know that. But it’s a university that doesn’t really respect disciplinary boundaries very much. It was founded by German
Jews and it values argument. It’s the only university
I’ve ever been where I’ve been invited to speak
in an economics department, now admittedly, so they could
tell me why it was wrong, but it’s just taken for
granted, and so I was recruited there actually by William
Julius Wilson in sociology and Ira Kevelson in political science and I was given a joint appointment. I probably wouldn’t have
gotten that offer if it had been after my grievance
was filed at Harvard. The truth of the matter is that you file a grievance, you’re a marked woman. – Even though they were
gonna hire you with tenure, just the sheer fact that you were challenging Harvard at that time? – Yeah, I think it would have been enough to stop it in most places. But I had the offers in hand
before I filed the grievance, not just from Chicago but from elsewhere. So I went to Chicago even though my husband did not get a job there. He was a physicist working in New Jersey, but I decided that that’s the place I wanted to be and so I commuted,
it was a hard way to live, but I loved the University of Chicago, it was a great place to be,
I was there for five years. Finally, after I refused
to let Harvard off the hook in resolving my grievance,
they wanted me to quit, I’m not going to quit, wouldn’t
quit, wouldn’t let ’em, they had to decide, I told
them they had to decide. And they finally did decide,
they brought me back. And I came back because my husband, Bill, got a job at Boston University, otherwise, I might not have
left Chicago, I really loved it. And I was treated very
badly at Harvard for the first five years, there’s
just no question about it. The fact that I’d won a
grievance with a presidential appointment was held against me, for sure. – And so did that end
up playing into the move from sociology, I mean,
I guess you came back– – Yeah, I came in sociology and government at that time was what we call
political science at Harvard, would not accept me,
and that was obviously because since I’d been a
member of the political science department at Chicago, and
by then, increasingly thought of myself as a political scientist as well as a sociologist,
they made a conscious decision and it was directly related to the grievance, no
question, people said so. But I learned after a little
while to just settle down and do my work, work with
students, I learned to stop arguing with people, which is hard for me. (laughs) I’d just stopped arguing and
I decided that my approach to the political science
department at Harvard would be to go to colloquial and get to
know people, always flatter, that’s very, very difficult for me. But I did learn that
flattery is important. Especially since, if you’ve
been appointed at a university after a protest over gender,
you’re virtually seen as a witch, at least you
were back then, I was. I was blamed for things
I didn’t even know about. So it was definitely a
witch craft type thing. So I finally realized, just
calmed down and I realized, look, if you’re gonna make your way here, you have to work with students,
which is my great pleasure, it always has been, do your scholarship, so those that are hoping
you’ll never do anything good again, I was working on
Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, it took a long time, but it
ended up being a magnificent accomplishment when it
was finally finished, and you need to just go to things. I got elected to the faculty council, that was outside sociology,
I went to political science colloquial and I just smiled
at people and cooperated and established the reputation
as a constructive person, and so that meant that eventually, when Protected Soldiers
and Mothers came out and won the top award
in political science, my supporters in the department
who were always there, brought it up for a vote, I think the third time and it passed.
– Wow. – And so I more or less
moved into the government department where I’ve been
quite happily ever sense. And by now it’s all
over, it took 15 years, but it’s all fine, people
who were very angry at me in the past are no longer angry. I have good relationships
with just about everyone involved in this drama
who’s still with us, and I think my time at
Harvard has been good, overall, after a bad stretch. – So how do you think for
women now in academia, say assistant professors or
advanced graduate students, what lessons should they
take from this history in thinking about their own
challenges in situation? – Well it is different
now, there are many more women in academia now,
certainly in political science. I can remember attending political science meetings where
it was all guys in suits. (laughs) It just was, long after
it wasn’t sociology, but now I think these disciplines
are much more diverse, I’m not saying they’re
in any perfect place, because we know that’s not true. I think my generation of
women who were high achievers who were denied things
and fought about it, were on their own in many ways. And that’s kind of scary
because you do dumb things when you’re on your own,
I definitely did at times when I was scared, so
I don’t think you have to be scared now, you
can network with others. Then my broader list is really
for all graduate students, regardless of gender,
race or anything else, make sure you pick a
project for your PHD thesis and then your graduate studies
that you really care about, and don’t let people tell you
you have to do X to get a job, or to get anything, first
of all, it’s not true. There are older people
who are telling you about the world they came out of,
not the one you’re headed into. You will be well served if
you figure out the answers to a puzzle that you think is
important and can convey that. That’s what I did with my
thesis, and was it dangerous? Yes, it was, but it would
have been even more dangerous to do something I was
bored to tears about, and it wouldn’t have opened doors. So I do think graduate
students now are more afraid, and I don’t think they should be. – So that brings us to
the contemporary state of political science, so your
work has always been motivated by big suspensive questions,
that have theoretical stakes and often real world,
practical implications. And I think the criticism
that’s made about political science by many people today,
is that we’re asking narrower and narrower questions, hoping
that we can nail down some cause or effective, some
treatment or manipulation, but often disconnected to
theory or real world stakes. So I wanted to get your sense,
does that resonate with you? – I think the important
thing is not to be captured by any one given method
or school of thought. And really, at least graduate
students who are leading programs like Berkeley or
Harvard, can easily avoid capture. All these major departments
have faculty who are working in a variety of ways and excellent ways, who generally respect each other, students need to realize
that they are agents. They can make decisions
about what their passionate about and they can put together
the faculty committees, even play faculty against each other. (laughs) Every time I go, when I’m in
a department, they’ll say, well the graduate students
would like to meet with you, and I kick the faculty out of the room. And I say look, this is how you should approach your faculty, listen
to them, learn from them, but don’t let anybody capture you. Now there are certainly people
in all of our departments, we won’t use names, who
are trying to capture. Who are trying to say,
I’m the only way forward. This particular technique for figuring out causality is the only one. Learn from ’em, and don’t listen to that. If you’re somebody who cares
about substantive questions, recognize that multiple sources of dated, multiple methodological
approaches are the way to go. And maybe this is the one
daring thing I would say, recognize that a good enough
answer to an important question, important both
substantively in the field and in the real world, is more value than a definite answer
to a trivial question. There is a fair amount
happening in political science that’s wandering off into trivia. I don’t think political
science for example, had an inkling about the
Donald Trump election. I think the book that Vanessa Williamson and I wrote about the Tea Party offered more insight into the
populous, nativist sources of his support than all of
the number crunching models, all of which predicted, that he would not, and I’m not saying I
predicted he would win, I did not, but the truth is,
I never said he wouldn’t win. I never did because our
research that grew out of that study, multi-method study of
the Tea Party, had made me aware of the depth of popular
anger on nativist grounds. – So the last question I
want to ask you about is, when we were talking before,
you sort of mentioned your American identity,
your love of America and traveling around America,
and I guess it’s sort of unusual for a quote
unquote, elite academic to express that sentiment (laughs)– – It is, it is indeed. – I guess I just wanted
you to reflect how that affects your life as an
academic or how we should think about that in relation
to your work and career. – Well I’m definitely not a citizen of the world, I would not say that. Of course, I enjoy international travel and do a fair amount of it,
but I guess it’s my age, it’s my fascination and
love for American history, my sense that this has been
one of the most special countries in world history
because of our ability to weave together people
from all over the world. It’s a cosmopolitan way
of understanding America, that’s why I don’t sleep
through the night very well in the Trump era, because
I agree with the point that many have made that
what America is is at stake in this period and I have a lot
of faith in most American’s, including some who voted for Donald Trump, that that’s not really what they want for the future of this country. And I think this is a wonderful country, I hope it makes it through a rough patch, and is able to renew the vitality of a immigrant receiving country, innovative with at least historically, an ability to marry individual initiative and social responsibility, we just need to find a new way to do
that in a different world. I am unabashedly an American patriot, there’s just no question about it. – All right, well, thank you, Theda, so much for this tremendous conversation. – Thank you.

4 thoughts on “A Conversation with Theda Skocpol

  1. Thank you Annual Reviews!

    This talks/interviews are the best, a reference to all of us, do not give up on us!

  2. 1st to see, to like, and to share, and to comment! Thank you for the notification!… I am engaged!

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