An Interview with Theda Skocpol

by Matt B. on April 19, 2011

This interview has just been published in the Kennedy School Review.  Full text:

Some leaders believe that addressing the problems we face as a culture and country requires more than policy tweaks; they believe it will require changes in the very structures of discourse and power that shape our national life. Community organizer Ernesto Cortes Jr., scholar Theda Skocpol, and former Congressman Tom Perriello are among such transformational leaders. The following interviews explore these figures’ approaches to fostering change in the country they know and the country they’re trying to help create.

Theda Skocpol

Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. She’s also a concerned citizen; in 2009, she cofounded the Scholars Strategy Network, an organization that offers a new vision of the role of academics by seeking to bridge the divide between academic research and applied policy solutions.

That bridge, of course, is politics. In what follows, we discuss new research on what kinds of taxes Americans like most and why effective policy solutions can cause political headaches.

This interview took place via telephone on December 8, 2010.

KSR

Describe the ambitions of the Scholars Strategy Network (SSN).

Skocpol

The idea is to bring people together to talk about how you can make connections between the research people do in universities and democratic (small “d”) values and effective strategies for joining citizen politics with good policy.

KSR

You identify pretty openly with a set of progressive values. As you were forming this organization, did you worry about fulfilling a stereotype about academia?

Skocpol

Well, I never worried about stereotypes, and I don’t think most of the people who’ve gotten involved in the SSN projects worried about it either. I mean, all of us are scholars. Most of us are social scientists of one kind or another. We have not moved to Washington, so we are not directly doing policy advice. But we have concerns as citizens about how you can build a stronger set of public policies in the United States and how you can build a stronger democracy.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to build bridges between what we do as scholars and teachers and what we do as citizens. Now, that’s not to collapse the two. There’s nothing about this that is encouraging the politicization of academia—not at all. This a citizen activity.

KSR

On your Web site, it reads, “Taxes, deficits, and social investments are often discussed in technical terms, but there is an equally pressing need to understand social values, public beliefs, and the dynamics of building political coalitions to address the nation’s economic downturn and long-term social and fiscal priorities.” It sounds as if SSN believes that shifting our national conversation away from technocratic policy detail toward a broader consideration of values would be a good thing for the country.

Skocpol

Yeah, I think it would. We’ve got a politics now in which Republicans are happy to talk about tax cuts, Democrats know that you have to have taxes for valuable public purposes but don’t want to mention the word, and citizens often do not understand what the debates are about. They’re couched in highly technical terms, and they just know that in the end, something passes that seems unfair, but there’s no public discussion of it.

So one of the things that we are emphasizing in this network is how we can learn to talk in regular-people language that connects values to policies, instead of treating policies as some kind of an expert realm that’s obscure and highly technical.

KSR

What have you come up with so far?

Skocpol

Well, I think the paper that Andrea Campbell wrote [for the SSN] on taxes would talk about the reasons why the American public actually sort of supports the tax for Social Security and why that is, because they understand it’s connected to something people value. So that was using a historical analogy that says, “Well, what lessons could we draw going forward?”

We weren’t arriving at the conclusion that we should divide up the entire set of things government pays for and does in tiny little pieces, each of which has a separate pot of money. But we should try to make direct connections between the nature of the tax and how it’s paid, because she also talked about the fact that people find it a lot easier to pay a tax that’s bit by bit, rather than all in one big lump sum.

KSR

It sounds like SSN is also seeking to jump-start a conversation about the ways we might live in community together, a conversation that doesn’t get immediately derailed into an ideological mudslinging match.

Skocpol

Yeah. The Obama presidency [created] a series of openings, and it wasn’t clear to many of us that university-based people were prepared to take advantage of those openings. There really has grown up a pretty big divide between people who teach and write in universities and those who get engaged in politics. So we wanted to build some bridges.

Our group has not been noticed by the Right, or by Fox News, and that’s probably just as well. If we become significant, we will be, and of course, we’ll be attacked. I’m not sure anybody cares. I know I don’t.

KSR

If that were to happen, do you have strategies in mind for pushing back? Or would you choose not to engage with it?

Skocpol

Well, I mean, we’re not looking to get into some kind of big fight. I did go to Washington last spring to speak at a series of dinner meetings. I was at one of the sessions with Democrats in the House. And this is just a purely voluntary activity. They come if they’re interested, and I talked about the tax papers. And that was a very, very lively discussion.

There were clearly a lot of people who wanted to think about how they talk with their constituents about taxes. And I don’t know that there was any immediate outcome of that, but I shared the papers and I shared the conclusions, and we had a discussion. I think it was worth doing.

KSR

What’s your take on President Obama’s recent tax deal with the GOP?

Skocpol

The entire handling of the question of what tax cuts should be removed or not has been bungled at every level in Washington. They shouldn’t have left it in the White House or in the Congress until the last minute, and they should have had the courage to stand up and talk openly about some of these issues, and they didn’t.

KSR

It seemed like the Republicans drew a line in the sand, and rather than draw one right back or say that in a time like this, extending tax cuts for wealthy folks just couldn’t be a priority . . .

Skocpol

Well, it’s particularly tragic, because public opinion polls—which are superficial—showed that people don’t think [extending tax cuts for the wealthy is] a good idea, so that there was an opening here. And I guess that speaks to what we think in this network and why we even took up the topic of taxes. We do think that probably over a period of time, there needs to be—both inside and outside of government, among progressive-minded people—some ability to think and talk about taxes and their connection to valued public purposes.

The very word “tax” has simply been ceded inside the Washington, DC, elite. The idea is that if the word “tax” comes up, it favors Republicans. That idea is deeply entrenched even when it isn’t true. It’s taken about a decade or two decades to build this up. It’s got partly to do with the fact that people just don’t know some of the very elementary things that we put in the papers we wrote, which is that Americans think differently about taxes if you connect them to concrete purposes than they do if you talk about them in the abstract.

But it’s also got to do with reliance on very short-term information that we get from polls, rather than thinking about how a program or an issue or a political strategy will play out over time.

KSR

Do those two factors that you just described explain the White House’s behavior on this issue?

Skocpol

I don’t know quite how to explain the White House’s behavior. I mean, I study this and I write about it, but I don’t really know exactly why they’ve been so slow and so timid.

KSR

Frank Rich’s December 4, 2010, essay, “All the President’s Captors,” in the New York Times basically accused Obama of a tendency to capitulate and compromise, even when it isn’t useful—that it’s sort of a temperamental instinct.

Skocpol

No, I don’t buy these personal explanations. I think there’s something to that, but I don’t think that’s the main thing. I think we tend to talk about presidents just in terms of their personalities, rather than what ideas they have around them. He surrounds himself with very technical economic advisers who probably see these issues strictly—I’ll give you an example. I have an undergraduate in one of my classes who’s looking at this question, “How can you give tax cuts to 95 percent of working families, and yet, the polls show nobody knows they got them?”

Well, part of the answer is that they were designed by behavioral economists who come right here from Harvard University and who said to the president, “Well, we just need to put this into people’s paychecks a little bit each month.” I mean, it’s sort of the way I describe would be good to have a tax hike. They did this with a tax cut, so people will spend it. They were thinking only of how it would work in so-called “economic stimulus.” They were not thinking about whether the citizens would see that they got a tax cut. And yet, if you’re going to divorce the one from the other, then you won’t have a politics that’s sustainable or understandable to people.

KSR

How do you combine those two?

Skocpol

Well, that’s exactly what we’re trying to puzzle in this network. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that we’re pushing for that. Academics have a tendency to say, “Well, this would be the ideal policy. We have to educate people,” and end of story. That’s not good enough.

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