Samuel Abrams

Samuel Abrams

Undergraduate Discipline

Politics

AB, Stanford University. AM, PhD, Harvard University. Fellow at the Hamilton Center for Political Economy at New York University, member of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Program on Inequality and Social Policy, research fellow with Harvard’s Canada Program. 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. Two substantial projects are presently in progress: a comparative, historical study to understand political participation in Western democracies (i.e., Why do some people vote while others do not?) and an examination of American political culture and the nature of centrism and polarization in the United States. SLC, 2010–

Current undergraduate courses

Presidential Leadership and Decision Making

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. The course 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. Finally, we will explore the relationship of the presidency to other major governmental institutions and organized interests. We will pay particular attention to a particular set of presidents—Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D Roosevelt, and George W. Bush—and one British prime minister, Winston Churchill.

Faculty
Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Previous courses

Campaigns and Elections: 2012 Edition

Fall

The 2012 US election is shaping up to be an exciting moment in American political history. President Barack Obama entered the White House in 2008, promising hope and change, and energized large numbers of the electorate that, historically, had not previously been electorally engaged. Four years later, many Americans feel disillusioned about the economic and political scene and believe that things in the United States are headed in the wrong direction. Many Americans see an economy that is not improving and a social and political world that is deeply divided and full of anger—from the “Tea Party” to the “Occupy Wall Street” movements. While these sentiments are not entirely correct, they are widely believed by many in the media and the populace alike and will have a potent impact of the outcome of the 2012 elections. This course will examine these current sentiments as the backdrop for understanding the 2012 electoral cycle. The course 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 town or 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 do 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 the social media platforms? What about the art of persuasion; that is, do campaigns matter, or is it simply about the economy? These are a sampling of the puzzles that we will tackle and, while the course will certainly spend a considerable amount of time looking at the Presidency, we will  focus on Congressional and local races, as well.

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Congress: 2014 Edition

Fall

With 2014 midterm elections around the corner and questions about how Americans will respond to the Obama presidency, this course will examine the current American political scene framed around the 2014 congressional elections. The class will examine the current political climate as it relates to the 2014 elections but will also involve a broad survey of the legislative branch and an examination of issues of representation and elections broadly, party leadership, interbranch relations, as well as committee power, rules, and procedures. The intention here is to help us collectively generate a deeper and more realistic understanding of the complexities of congressional politics beyond the superficial coverage that its members receive in the media and in popular culture (e.g., House of Cards) and how they apply to modern American politics today. As the US Congress is the most open and accessible branch and among the most studied political institution in political science, a framework for its study and the above topics is warranted. This course, therefore, will ask two interrelated questions: 1) What does Congress do and why? (2) What are the various ways of studying congressional behavior? To answer these questions, our readings and discussion will focus on the basic social, empirical, and historical facts about Congress: what it takes to get elected, how Congress works internally, and how the relationships between Congress and the rest of the federal government are organized. We will read classic work from scholars such as Mayhew, Fenno, Shepsle, Kreihbel, and McCubbins, along with more modern work by scholars such as Shickler, Wawro, Mettler, and Kroger. Among the topics that we will cover relating to elections is incumbency advantage, the basic facts of re-election rates, the amount of money spent by incumbents and challengers, and the nature of congressional districts. Additionally, we will examine the existing theories and evidence about the behavior of voters that maintains so many incumbents in office, including the impact of issues, the impact of campaign spending, and whether voters have become more polarized. We will also look at the extent to which congressional elections are decided by national forces versus conditions peculiar to the individual race (i.e., 1994, 2006, 2010, and 2012). For conference, students will be asked to focus on the 2014 congressional election and will be tasked to analyze the outcomes of this important election in a particular district in light of the research on elections that we will cover in the course. Comfort with data and statistics is expected.

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Making Parties and Policy in a Polarized Era

Spring

Despite frequent pleas from President Obama for national social and political unity and the rise of groups like “No Labels,” the seemingly never-ending sociopolitical polarization appears to be the new norm in American political life. To many politicians, pundits, and people alike, the social and political scene in the United States in the 21st century appears to be one of turmoil, disagreement, division, and instability. We regularly hear about a polarized and deadlocked political class; we read about increasing class and religious differences—from the alleged divides between Wall Street and Main Street to those who are secular and those who are religious; and we often see disturbing images from the so-called “Tea Party” rallies and Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. This seminar will explore the puzzle of how to move on from this divided state. While the course will briefly examine the veracity of these recent impressions of the American sociopolitical scene, we will center our course on the question: Is policymaking forever deadlocked, or can real political progress be made? Moreover, what are the social and policy implications of polarization? How does President Obama govern in this political epoch, and are the political parties representing the will of the people? What about the 2014 elections? What are we to make of the frequent calls for change and for healing America’s divisions? This seminar seeks to examine these questions and deeper aspects of American political culture today.  After reviewing some basics of the political economy, we will study American political cultures from a variety of vantage points; and a number of different stories will emerge. 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 policy and moving the country forward. 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.

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Politics and Geography

Year

While the formal study of politics has been around for well over a century, a nontrivial amount of scholarship sees individuals as “atoms” that are, in the words of Kenneth Shepsle, “unconnected to the social structure in which he or she is embedded” and the related theoretical work “worr[ies] hardly at all about the sources of preferences and beliefs.” Moreover, Shepsle observes that institutional details are often repressed and reject the “time and location-bound” qualities of institutions and communities, as they are frequently seen as barriers to general theory. This is a problem, for “politics and people” are embedded in particular spaces and places; and networks are highly conditioned based on specific locational qualities, histories, and features. This course rejects the idea that individuals are atoms and explicitly brings geography into the picture in our study of American politics at the start of the 21st century. After examining theory and methodology, the course tackles a number of big issues that are hotly debated in academic, political, and policy circles. One example is the ever-growing literature on geographic differences and regionalism in the United States as an underlying cause of American division and fractionalization. These geographic fissures do not fall along easy‐to‐map state lines but along a variety of regions in the United States that have been described and mapped by scholars in a number of social science disciplines. We will examine and review a number of literatures and large amounts of localized data that will enable us to look more precisely into the numerous claims that there are nontrivial regional differences in terms of political beliefs, behaviors, and distinct regional political cultures. While American regions display varied histories and cultures, the question that we will attempt to answer is whether these histories and cultures have an impact on contemporary political attitudes, behaviors, and social values. We will take on similar empirical topics throughout the year, using all the available tools from the social sciences—from GIS to historical election and economic data—to examine issues of welfare, mobility and “hollowing out the middle,” employment, innovation, gerrymandering and issues of representation, and competition over natural resources. Many of these topics will be familiar, but the tools through which we examine them will be via a geospatial lens. And the way in which we understand the surrounding politics will, hopefully, be more complete when compared to the traditional lenses in political science.

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Populism and Polarization: Today and in History

Fall

To many politicians, pundits, and people in general, the social and political scene in the United States in the 21st century appears to be one of turmoil, disagreement, division, and instability. We regularly hear about a polarized and deadlocked political class. We read about increasing class and religious differences and the alleged divides between Wall Street and Main Street or between those who are secular and those who are religious. And we see often-disturbing images at so-called “Tea Party” rallies and “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations. This seminar will explore the veracity of these recent impressions of the American sociopolitical scene and examine these current trends and developments in the much needed appropriate historical and long-term context. Via the numerous tools of social science, we will explore the various facets of populism and polarization and ask the questions: Is America actually polarized and deeply divided? What are the social and policy implications of polarization? Is policymaking forever deadlocked, or can real political progress be made? How does all of this play into the 2012 elections? What are we to make of the frequent calls for change and for healing America’s divisions? This seminar seeks to examine these questions and deeper aspects of American political culture today. After reviewing some basics of political economy, we will study American political cultures from a variety of vantage points—and a number of different stories will emerge. We will cover a lot of ground—from America’s founding to today. We will be looking 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. We will be talking about politically charged and often divisive issues, including abortion, immigration, race relations, and homosexuality. This seminar will be an open, nonpartisan forum for discussion and debate. As such, 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 ideologues.

Faculty

Presidential Leadership and Decision Making: Lincoln, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Obama

Year

The president is the most prominent actor in the American 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. The course 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. Finally, the course will explore the relationship of the presidency to other major government institutions and organized interests. We will pay particular attention to a particular set of presidents: Lincoln, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Obama.

Faculty

Reagan, Thatcher, and the Politics of the ’80s

Fall

With the events and personalities of the 1980s now well over two decades in the past, political scientists and historians have begun to critically and systematically examine the leaders, the institutions, and the political culture and events of the era. This course will explore the sociopolitical state of the United States and Britain and the state of international relations and diplomacy from 1979 to 1992. While impossible to summarize, the 1980s were an era of immense political change and inflection with the end of the Cold War and the rise of free-market thinking; the political sphere was dominated by the ideas of President Ronald Reagan and Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Culturally, the music scene was transformed by punk and the birth of hip-hop; and everyday lives of those in the West were radically altered by a host of technological developments—from the Sony Walkman and the ATM to the appearance of MTV and the first personal computers. In the United States, the decade opened with an enormous anti-nuclear protest in New York’s Central Park and closed with mass demonstrations against the government’s slow response to the AIDS crisis. This course will investigate these social and economic trends as they relate to political culture in both the United States and Britain. We will also explore how the 1980s ushered in a new era of conservative politics and postmodern ideas, which created a complex and increasingly material world. We will examine the personal and domestic lives of President Reagan and Prime Minster Thatcher and then look into their unique working relationship on the global stage, as well as probe into their domestic stateside matters. For instance, we will look at President Reagan’s bipartisan work to fundamentally change the tax structure in the United States and examine how he managed unions and the air traffic control strike that changed the way Americans perceive unions. We will also look at Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and attempt to make sense of O’Neill as both a foil and a domestic leader at the time. Finally, we will consider the global political milieu in which Reagan and Thatcher operated and look at the Cold War and the struggles that they both faced to bring democracy to the globe.

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Remaking American Politics: Political Transformation From the 1930s to the Present

Spring

Roughly a year after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Johnson remarked in his 1965 commencement address at Howard University: “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result. To this end, equal opportunity is essential but not enough.” Almost 50 years after landmark advances in civil rights during the Johnson Administration, many in the United States are critically examining Johnson’s legacy; and the perception of LBJ being a failure due to Vietnam is shifting to a view that civil rights would not have progressed or the Great Society would not have happened without the tenacity and will of LBJ himself. This course explicitly examines three critical moments in modern American history and the various personalities and events that shaped the nation that exists today. More explicitly, this course maintains the view that every few generations, the United States has a painful and important dialogue about freedom, rights, and the role of government in society. And the outcome of this dialogue results in a critical political transformation of government and society. LBJ and the Great Society is certainly one of those moments in time. This class will also examine the monumental sociopolitical changes and shifts in American attitudes and ideology made during the Great Society but also during the FDR and Obama administrations. The discussion of Obama will be incomplete, of course, but will focus on the role of government and health care, the reactions to enlarging the government, and therefore will include discussion of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. The course will examine the historical record during each administration and draw on political, historical, and journalistic accounts to make sense of the administration at the time. We will also critically assess, in an interdisciplinary manner, the impact and legacy of the various sociopolitical changes during each transformational moment to determine if general trends and findings can emerge about political transformations or if these were sui generis events. The tools that we will use to study and assess these three moments will draw on all of the social sciences, as well as history and various tools from visual and material culture.

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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.