Samuel Abrams

Samuel Abrams

Undergraduate Discipline


on leave spring semester

AB, Stanford University. AM, PhD, Harvard University. Visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC; faculty fellow at George Mason’s Institute for Humane Studies; faculty fellow at Center for Advanced Social Science Research at NYU; and member of the Council on Foreign Relations. A graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Program on Inequality and Social Policy and a former affiliate of Harvard’s Canada Program and Institute for Quantitative Social Science. Main topics of research include social policy, inequality, international political economy, and comparative and American politics; special interest in network analysis, the media, Congress, political behavior, urban studies and cities, public opinion and survey research, political communication and elections, and the social nature of political behavior. Conducted fieldwork throughout Europe and North America. Authored three books and numerous peer-reviewed and popular press works. Two substantial projects are presently in progress: a deep-dive into American political tradition and local community and an empirical study aimed at understanding the political culture on college and university campuses. SLC, 2010–

Undergraduate Courses 2020-2021


Critical Realignments in American Politics: Obama/Trump

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

There will be two sections of this course.

In light of the 2020 election, this course will tackle the question of whether America is in the midst of a critical realignment that began in the 1990s with Newt Gingrich and the election of George W. Bush to the White House and may be playing out in the Obama and Trump presidencies. To do this, we will examine the concept of critical realignments in political science and political history that are, generally, a set of notable and trajectory shifting changes in party ideology, issues, party leaders, regional and demographic bases of power of political parties, and the structure or rules of the political system such as voter eligibility or financing. The changes result in a new political power structure that lasts for decades, replacing an older dominant coalition. We will look at past American examples that are universally accepted as realignments—such as the 1896 presidential election, when the issues of the Civil War political system were replaced with those of the populist and progressive eras, and the 1932 election, when the populist and progressive eras were replaced by the New Deal issues of liberalism and modern conservatism. Since the realignment of the 1930s, however, political scientists and historians often disagree about which elections are realignments, what defines a realignment, and even whether realignments occur. Thus, the course will examine major sociopolitical changes in the United States—from the voting rights era in the 1960s, to the Reagan revolution, and now to the chaos of Donald Trump. We will cover a lot of ground—from America’s founding to today. We will look at numerous aspects of American social and political life—from examining the masses, political elites, Congress, and policymaking communities to social movements, the media, and America’s position in a global community—all with a focus on understanding power and how it has been organized. This course will be driven by data, not dogma. We will use modern political-economy approaches based in logic and evidence to find answers to contemporary public-policy problems and questions of polarization. We will treat this material as social scientists, not as ideologues. Comfort with numbers and statistics is expected. Moreover, students should have a background in American political history.


Previous Courses

Chaos or Calm: The 2020 Elections

Open , Seminar—Spring

In the midst of a seemingly polarized and anxious American polity, the 2020 election cycle will be a referendum on both President Trump and the 116th Congress. This course will attempt to contextualize the current state of social and political affairs in the United States and examine why so many Americans feel disillusioned about the economic and political scene. Many believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction. They see an economy that is not improving, a social and political world that is deeply divided and full of anger, and endless fighting about numerous topics, including gun control, immigration, the environment, and global engagement. These concerns will all have a potent impact on the outcome of the 2020 elections. This course will examine these current sentiments as the backdrop for understanding the 2020 electoral cycle. We will focus on what political science can tell us about electoral politics, with the electoral process itself being one of the most fundamental aspects of American democracy: allowing citizens to choose their representatives, from local county boards to the occupant of the White House. Accordingly, we will examine present and past research on numerous questions relating to elections, such as: Who votes and participates, how, and why? How does income, religion, race, and geographic region play into electoral behavior? What about institutions—such as electoral rules, various debates and the Electoral College? What about the role of mass media and social media platforms? What about the art of persuasion; that is, do campaigns matter or is it simply the economy? These are a sampling the puzzles that we will tackle. And while the course will certainly spend a considerable amount of time looking at the presidency, we will also focus on congressional races and local races, as well.

Related Disciplines

First-Year Studies: American Ideologies and American Dreams

Open , FYS—Year

In 1931, historian James T. Adams wrote about the idea of the “American Dream” in his volume, Epic of America, and argued that the American dream is one where individuals and communities “...dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement...It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” What does it mean to be American today? How about in the past? What are the beliefs and ideas that many Americans hold about the United States and themselves? How have these ideas changed over time? How do these ideas manifest themselves in historical and contemporary politics and discourse? We will explore those questions together and do so with the tools and concepts that come from political science. We will look at basic American politics, the problems of collective decision making, the purposes of government, the formal institutions of national government—Congress, the Supreme Court, the Presidency, and the bureaucracy—congressional and presidential elections, the role of the media, and the mobilization of citizens through political parties and interest groups. Our examination of those institutions and ideas will be interdisciplinary in nature and will present a number of the major general theories underlying the study of American government. This will give us the knowledge of the structure and operation of the institutions of the American political system and how their roles intersect, compete, and complement each other. Additionally, we will become familiar with the actors and the institutions within our federal government and with those institutions affecting our federal government. From this investigation, students will gain an awareness of the role of citizens, interest groups, political parties, and politicians within the American political system. Moreover, students will better understand the role of politics and strategy in the operation and impact of the government. Taken collectively, we will develop the ability to synthesize the material from the course to develop our own opinions regarding the proper role of government in our society. We will be talking about politically charged and often divisive issues, including abortion, immigration, race relations, and homosexuality. This FYS seminar will be an open, nonpartisan forum for discussion and debate. As such, the course will be driven by data, not dogma. We will use a variety of approaches based in logic and evidence to find answers to various puzzles about American policy and will treat this material as social scientists—not ideologues. Comfort with numbers and statistics is expected. This course will have weekly conferences for the first six weeks; biweekly conferences thereafter.


Community and Civility

Advanced , Seminar—Fall

Social theorist Wendell Berry argues, “A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.” This course will explicitly examine Berry’s ideas about collective possibility and how community shapes the American idea, our national ethos, political and social life, and the very concept of civility that is essential in society. From America’s founding to the Age of Trump, the course will look at how concepts of community and civility have evolved from New England and frontier towns to suburban postwar sprawl and the current rise of inner cities, planned communities, and gentrification. Moreover, the course will attempt to make sense of the seeming polarization in American society today, along with the concurrent rise in rudeness, anxiety, social dislocation, and isolation that is chronicled regularly in both popular and academic writing. To be sure, this course on community and civility fits into a larger and growing area of research that has shown that the norms and networks of civil society have powerful practical effects in many disparate geographic, political, and economic arenas, including questions of inequality and social mobility. We will examine concepts such as “social capital” and “civil society,” and the seminar will explore these areas with a focus on the United States. Although many issues, concepts, and methods discussed in this seminar have important analogues in other settings, from the United Kingdom to Brazil, the literature and substantive focus of this seminar is entirely US-based. This seminar is intended to be both practical and contemporaneous to the politics of the present, and it will straddle the border between academic research and contemporary policy questions. The course will be both applied and theoretical and will ask students to apply social scientific concepts and methods to controversial public problems. The course is advanced, the workload is intense, and prior background in American history and politics is preferable.

Related Disciplines

Presidential Power

Open , Seminar—Year

The President is the most prominent actor in the US government, and developing an understanding of how and why political leaders make the choices that they do is the goal of this course. Presidents must make countless decisions while in office and, as Edwards and Wayne explain, “Executive officials look to [the presidency] for direction, coordination, and general guidance in the implementation of policy...Congress looks to it for establishing priorities, exerting influence...the heads of foreign governments look to it for articulating positions, conducting diplomacy, and flexing muscle; the general public looks to it for...solving problems and exercising symbolic and moral leadership...” This course will examine and analyze the development and modern practice of presidential leadership in the United States by studying the evolution of the modern presidency, which includes the process of presidential selection and the structure of the presidency as an institution. We will then reflect on the ways in which presidents make decisions and seek to shape foreign, economic, and domestic policy. This will be based on a variety of literatures, ranging from social psychology to organizational behavior. We will look at the psychology and character of presidents in this section of the course. We will also explore the relationship of the presidency to other major governmental institutions and organized interests. We will pay particular attention to how presidents have attempted to expand presidential power and the various struggles the White House has had with the ministry, Congress, the Judicary, and global institutions such as the United Nations. We will pay particular attention to a particular set of presidents: Franklin D Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, and Dwight D Eisenhower. We will conclude by examining the post-9/11 era of Bush, Obama, and Trump, where all of these presidents have greatly sought to increase the power of the Oval Office relative to other branches of government. While the course is open to all students, the workload is intense, and prior background in American history and politics is preferable.

Related Disciplines

Additional Information

Selected Publications

Professors moved left since 1990s, rest of country did not

Heterodox Academy

Samuel Abrams, January 9, 2016

Every few years a debate re-emerges on the internet as to whether university faculty have truly shifted to the left, and if so, whether it matters. The debate has just flared up because of a graph that I made after some discussions about ideology in the academy with my friend Jon Haidt, who wanted to document the trend here at Heterodox Academy.

Jews in the West, Jews on the left

The Jewish Journal

Samuel Abrams and Steven M. Cohen, January 7, 2016

Regardless of the exact rationale, Jews of the West are politically and ideologically different from those in the rest of the United States.

Informal Social Networks and Rational Voting

British Journal of Political Science

Samuel Abrams, Torben Iversen and David Soskice; April 2011 volume #41, issue #2: pp 229-257

Classical rational choice explanations of voting participation are widely thought to have failed. This article argues that the currently dominant Group Mobilization and Ethical Agency approaches have serious shortcomings in explaining individually rational turnout. It develops an informal social network (ISN) model in which people rationally vote if their informal networks of family and friends attach enough importance to voting, because voting leads to social approval and vice versa. Using results from the social psychology literature, research on social groups in sociology and their own survey data, the authors argue that the ISN model can explain individually rational non-altruistic turnout. If group variables that affect whether voting is used as a marker of individual standing in groups are included, the likelihood of turnout rises dramatically.

The Big Sort” That Wasn't: A Skeptical Reexamination

PS: Political Science & Politics

Samuel J. Abrams and Morris P. Fiorina; April 2012 volume #45, issue #2: pp 203-210

In 2008 journalist Bill Bishop achieved the kind of notice that authors dream about. His book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, was mentioned regularly during the presidential campaign; most notably, former president Bill Clinton urged audiences to read the book. Bishop's thesis is that Americans increasingly are choosing to live in neighborhoods populated with people just like themselves. In turn, these residential choices have produced a significant increase in geographic political polarization. Bishop does not contend that people consciously decide to live with fellow Democrats or Republicans; rather political segregation is a byproduct of the correlations between political views and the various demographic and life-style indicators people consider when making residential decisions. Whatever the cause, Bishop contends that the resulting geographic polarization is a troubling and dangerous development.