"When the public moves to the left, policy usually follows suit and vice versa. This doesn't happen all the time, but at least in broad strokes we are seeing democracy work in sort of the way we would hope it would."
The 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama reflects a long-standing paradox in American politics. The electorate overwhelmingly chose the candidate who advocated liberal policies, even though polls showed that the majority of people still identify themselves as conservative. Political scientists have noted this contradiction in American politics for five or six decades. Assistant Professor of Political Science Chris Ellis '00 wants to know where it comes from.
"Why do we have people that think and act like political liberals, but still call themselves political conservatives? We are still trying to figure out the answer," he says. So far, Ellis' research indicates that people compartmentalize their feelings toward "government" as a whole, and the specific things that government tries to do. "People identify with what liberals try to do, but at the same time identify with the values that conservatives stand for," he says. Politicians reinforce these ideas with their rhetoric. Liberal politicians emphasize the programs they espouse, while conservatives talk about ideals and values.
Ellis also is interested in assessing how well the voting public gets what it wants from politicians, regardless of whether that's a liberal or conservative agenda. In general, the public seems to get what they ask for.
"When the public moves to the left, policy usually follows suit and vice versa," he says. "This doesn't happen all the time, but at least in broad strokes we are seeing democracy work in sort of the way we would hope it would." Ellis is digging deeper into that relationship to see if certain segments of society — poor or rich, voters or non-voters, women or men — are most likely to have their voices heard.
A public opinion course at Bucknell first hooked Ellis. Now he looks forward to guiding his own students through the methods and applications of survey research. "It makes students better understand what is good research, what is bad, what is good social commentary and what is not," he says. "I'd certainly love to see a lot of them pursue this line of work, but if nothing else I think it's really important to get them to be engaged citizens and informed consumers of political information."
Bucknell is something of a family tradition for Ellis — his wife, brother and sister-in-law are all also alumni — so it's no surprise he was happy to return. "When you are in graduate school you don't ever think you are going to get a chance to pick where you are going to work, but I was fortunate enough to end up exactly where I wanted to be," he says.
Posted Sept. 22, 2009
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