Research

My research focuses on the origins, development, and policy consequences of American political institutions – most notably federalism and executive-branch politics. I am a part of a growing number of scholars who study American Political Economy, and who use policy analysis frameworks to understand inequities in social and economic policy, and the ways in which political actors transform our governing institutions to better realize their policy goals.

Specifically, I have four large, but interrelated research projects, which seek to answer the following questions:

1) how do presidents use subnational governing authority to augment their powers and pursue policy goals?

2) how do partisans use national policymaking institutions to exacerbate inter-state economic inequities? 

3) how do political elites engage with populist movements to weaken institutional constraints?

4) how do individuals think about and make sense of their multiple, overlapping government institutions?

Presidential-Federalism: Origins and Development

​Much of my work is about one source of the American presidency’s vast power: its ability to pursue policy and political objectives within state and local governing institutions. Most scholars consider federalism to be a bulwark against enhanced presidential power. I argue the contrary: federalism was, and remains, an essential opportunity structure in the exercise of presidential power. The last ten years are particularly revealing of just how important federalism is to executive-branch policymaking: from issuing waivers to state Medicaid programs, to leveraging local police departments to assist in homeland security programs, to reforming teacher evaluation systems with few, if any, financial incentives.  Tracing the emergence of several institutional reforms within the Executive Office of the Presidency, I argue that such interactions have transformed the obligations, relations of authority, and public expectations of executive power at every level of government.

The research relies on primary, historical material, much of it original discovery. From fellowships underwritten by several presidential libraries, I have unearthed a large amount of archival evidence to demonstrate how presidents have used their administrative, rhetorical, and partisan powers within state and local governing institutions, particularly mayoralties and governorships. By going straight to the primary material, I am able to incorporate never before-used documents, memorandum, and internal reports that shed new light on conventional stories of political change. To the extent that modern intergovernmental relations is defined by use of administrative-waivers, competitive grant-programs, and executive-negotiation over program implementation, I trace how similar mechanisms of presidential power contributed to the development of the American State throughout the 20th Century. Scholars tend to ignore much of this historical development, most of which hinges on a collection of budgetary and administrative reforms. My data show why presidents viewed these changes as necessary to their larger partisan objectives, and I show how these administrative procedures have allowed presidents to respond to demands for new public policy by skirting Congressional authority. More so, states and localities tend to encourage the emergence of these new governing forms, and have eagerly worked to enlarge presidential powers. Culminating with the presidencies of Obama and Trump, it is clear to see both how and why presidents can choose to pursue policy objectives in constitutionally-independent governments.

Economic Civil War: Political Dimensions of Fiscal Federalism in the United States

My second book project draws on a handful of refereed articles that I have recently published, which largely deal with the fiscal relationships between the states and federal government. Together, I seek to address one of the most fundamental problems confronting modern American governance: the growing inequality between the states, as a result of national fiscal policy.

The book makes three large claims, and supports it with a wide variety of qualitative and quantitative evidence. First, I offer a descriptive account of inter-state inequality that is largely overlooked by scholars of American social policy. I argue that the basic problem of fiscal equity is largely ignored or discounted by comparisons of social welfare spending between the states, and that the intergovernmental system’s increasing reliance on matching grants, tax expenditures, and automatic spending advantages wealthier states. Compiling a vast dataset of government revenues and expenditures at the local, state, and federal levels, I offer unparalleled description of this problem’s emergence. Second, I argue that these issues arise from two related institutional developments. The first focuses on Congress and the transformation of its intergovernmental budgeting processes, which, simply put, hardly constitute a process anymore. The cause of that is tied to the rise of an executive-centered partisanship, which has placed an increasing amount of policy authority in the modern presidency and its institutions for budgeting and grant management. As such, budget priorities no longer reflect the diverse and competing demands of members of Congress, but rather are anchored to the priorities of each incoming presidential administration, whose constituencies are geographically stratified. Finally, I believe that the “solution” to this problem requires us to consider how questions of economic and distributive justice are negotiated by the American people. Concerns about fiscal equity involve moral questions about what some members of society feel that they owe to others. Using both observational and experimental approaches, I argue that our polarized political system constrains individuals’ acceptance of redistributive policy between wealthy and poor communities.

Institutions and Populism in American Political Development

For the last three years, I have been interested in the relationship between political elites, the institutions in which they serve, and populist movements in American history. In our book manuscript, What Happened to the Vital Center? The Transformation of Partisanship since the 1960s (co-authored with Sidney Milkis), we seek to provide both an empirical account of how parties have weakened since the 1960s as well as normative defense of partisan organizations inside the constitutional tradition.

The book takes an historical approach to understanding how populist movements inside the Democratic and Republican parties have taken root since the 1960s. In treating both parties simultaneously, we break with extant developmental accounts that attempt to explain our partisan malaise through the lens of “asymmetric polarization.” We argue that the cause of our polarized discontents is a deeply social phenomenon, one in which the framers of the Constitution were deeply aware. Beginning in the 1960s, attacks on the party “establishment” in the name of democracy have resulted in a more unfiltered partisanship that sharply divides liberals and conservative and rattles the national resolve. Paradoxically, absent institutions that can constrain rancorous and ad hominem politics, American politics is now shaped by weak parties and passionate, angry partisanship. By exploring the institutional developments of the past half century, we hope to rediscover the critical, but fragile role that political parties have played in American constitutional government and to chart a path to a new idea over the practice of responsible, participatory partisanship.

The Politics of Place: Geography, Polarization, and Inequality

Finally, I have an active interest in understanding the behavioral foundations of American political institutions, especially as they relate to the country’s growing urban and rural divide. I often feel that scholars of American political development make assumptions about how the public understands their governing institutions, and how those understandings filter back into elite behavior. Rather than making these assumptions, my work seeks to empirically test how individuals make sense of elite messaging within governing structures. Some of this is evident in my work on fiscal federalism and distributive injustice, but some of it is also tangential to those questions.

Indeed, perhaps the largest missing piece of behavioral evidence we have about American politics relates to how individuals think about state and local issues. For this reason, I have taken a central role in the formation and implementation of Colby College’s new polling initiative. While much of the national press from this work is about the horse-race leading to the 2020 election, I have two working papers that use data from this initiative: the first on public attitudes regarding state government performance in managing COVID-19; the second on nationalized partisan identities and split-ticket voting.

Most important, I am pleased that this work has offered ample opportunities for my students to contribute to the growing literature on “rural resentment.” At Colby, I have led an active student research group, and each student has directly contributed to the development of a more robust survey battery that will measure additional dimensions of how rural and urban individuals view one another. I have also actively incorporated students into the design and analysis of each of our polls. Indeed, working together, we have conceptualized a larger set of “place-based” social identities that structure how those of us living here view the “others” living “over there.”

This work will advance a larger collaboration I have with a former graduate-student colleague (B. Kal Munis). To extend our already published work, we have a battery of questions that will appear on this year’s CCES survey – the first place-based resentment index in public opinion scholarship. We plan, within five years, combine this work, in addition to several other planned experiments, into a book. We argue that Americans continue to draw cultural and communal distinctions between themselves, which are rooted in geographic space. Both urban and rural communities filter politics through these local prejudices. Even with the growth of nationalized political movements, a more homogenous culture, and mobility across the country, Americans possess powerful identities rooted in geography, and use them when making sense of politics.