Berkeley scholar’s two books on U.S. politics earn high honors

Eric Schickler, a leading scholar of American politics and chair of UC Berkeley’s Department of Political Science, is receiving four awards from the American Political Science Association for two books he wrote about U.S. politics that were published in 2016.

The prizes — for Investigating the President: Congressional Checks on Presidential Power and Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965 — will be formally presented at the annual APSA conference in San Francisco this summer.

Eric Schickler

Political scientist Eric Schickler

Schickler holds the Jeffrey and Ashley McDermott Endowed Chair in Political Science. His research and teaching focus on American politics, Congress, American political development, public opinion and rational choice theory. He co-authored Investigating the President with Douglas Kriner, an associate professor of political science at Boston University, and is the sole author of Racial Realignment.

‘Rigorous and extremely timely’

Investigating the President is the recipient of the APSA’s Richard E. Neustadt Award for the best book on the presidency and the association’s Richard F. Fenno Prize for the best book on legislative politics published in the past year. Investigating the President is the third book by Schickler to win the Fenno Prize.

Racial Realignment earned the Woodrow Wilson Award, given annually to the best book on government, politics or international affairs, and is co-winner of the J. David Greenstone Book Prize for the best book in history and politics from the previous two calendar years.

“It is hard to convey just how remarkable this is,” said Paul Pierson, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley and an authority on American politics and public policy. “Multiple national awards for two books in the same year? It is a little like if Steph Curry were selected as Most Valuable Player in both basketball and baseball at the same time. These are two marvelous books, at once extremely rigorous and extraordinarily timely.”

Schickler, he said, “is, quite simply, one of the country’s greatest political scientists.”

Deep dive into American politics

In a question-and-answer session for UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, Schickler talked about his deep dive into American politics.

Racial Realignment is the recipient of two other honors from the APSA.

He discussed his work on Racial Realignment, explaining that prevailing interpretations have been that national leaders such as President Lyndon Johnson and Republican presidential contender Barry Goldwater made pivotal decisions around race and political party, and the party followed.

“The argument I make … is that this change actually built up very gradually starting in the 1930s, and was driven much more by grassroots activists, mass opinion and what I refer to as locally rooted politicians: rank-and-file members of Congress and state parties that were responding to new black voters in their districts and states. The industrial labor movement was also a big force early on for incorporating civil rights into liberalism,” said Schickler.

For more about Racial Realignment, listen to a recording on an extensive, in-studio interview of Schickler for KPFA’s “Against the Grain” radio program.

Political divide boosts congressional investigations

In the Q&A, he also answered questions about the timely Investigating the Presidency, noting that according to conventional wisdom, the president of the United States has numerous advantages when fighting with Congress.

Investigating the President is the winner of two honors from the American Political Science Association.

“What we argue,” he explained, “is that congressional investigations have historically served as an informal mechanism to check the executive branch. Investigations can get around the collective action problems that often plague Congress because the individual who leads the investigation both challenges the president and typically gets a personal political benefit. When Congress investigates it tends to impose political costs on the president. It also leads to policy change both through new legislation and through presidents preempting legislation.”

Schickler added that the legislative branch has been weakened in recent years amid intense partisan polarization, as serious investigations have largely disappeared under unified government, only to be revived when control of the branches is divided between the parties.

He described his research as an “exploratory process where you come in with your prior beliefs or hunches but data and archival evidence will teach you things you didn’t know.” He said it’s a process of discovery that entails figuring out how to assemble the puzzle pieces.