I am now at the point where I have to start thinking about the tenure application process. And as part of that, I was advised to write out a memo explaining what I've been up to as a scholar, with a special emphasis on my output since arriving at the University of Alabama. My research agenda tends to jump around a lot, often going in strange directions. But I think I can make the case that most of my work deals with similar themes, approached from various directions. Anyway, since I cannot think of any reason why this memo can't be shared with a wider audience, I am posting an abridged version of it here, in case anyone is interested.
Description of Research Activities
Although my research interests cover multiple subjects, most of my projects are connected to the theme of demographic changes and what they mean for American politics and society. That is, I explore how changing family patterns, religious identities, and increasing racial and ethnic diversity influence U.S. politics. I consider these questions from multiple angles, tackling questions surrounding declining marriage rates, declining religiosity, and non-Hispanic white responses to growing immigrant communities.
Because I am convinced that the above mentioned changes indicate that the Republican Party and the conservative movement face long-term, existential challenges, in recent years I have also begun to study the history of the conservative movement. In order to get a sense of what the American Right will look like in the future, I felt it would be useful to understand how and why American conservatism developed as it did. My book Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism was the result of that effort, and it has proven to be my most talked-about project to date. Its follow up, Making Sense of the Alt-Right, is now in press and will be released later this year.
Family Formation Patterns and Politics
In graduate school, my first major project, which subsequently became a major theme of my doctoral dissertation, explored the relationship between marriage and vote choice. Although the so-called marriage gap is an important predictor of vote choice at the individual level, it is arguably even more substantively significant at the aggregate level, as I demonstrated by showing the linear relationship between state-level support for Republican presidential candidates and the median age at first marriage for women.
Aside from further demonstrating that the marriage gap is real and important, I also argued that the growing marriage gap is partially responsible for growing partisan segregation. On average, married Americans tend to live in different places than unmarried Americans. Specifically, upon marriage, Americans tend to prefer single-family homes to other living spaces, and this often requires moving away from densely populated metropolitan areas with a high cost of living. That being the case, I suspected that we would find a relationship between home affordability, marriage rates, and political outcomes.
In my article on this subject, published in Party Politics, I show this state-level relationship, and find a similar relationship when looking at county-level data and individual-level survey data. I furthermore used multiple controls to demonstrate that this relationship was not spurious.
I developed this argument further in Chapter 4 of my first book, Voting and Migration Patterns in the U.S. and Chapter 5 of my second book, White Voters in 21st Century America. In the latter project, I discuss the growth of the marriage gap, noting that it is especially apparent among white women. In fact, unmarried white women are the largest category of white voters that have not been moving in a more Republican direction in recent decades. The Democratic Party’s relative strength among white women in recent election cycles is actually a key reason that the electorate is not more racially polarized than it is.
Although only indirectly tied to politics, marriage and family formation was a major theme of my book, Demography, Culture, and the Decline of America’s Christian Denominations. In that book, I argued that there is a non-recursive relationship between secularization and delayed family formation in the United States.
Immigration, Diversity, and Public Opinion
Continuing on the theme of demographic change and politics, much of my research has focused on public opinion and immigration, as well as the growing non-white population more generally. In my view, the question of how non-Hispanic whites will respond to their coming minority status is one of the most pressing questions for scholars of American politics at this time.
My first project that examined this subject was “Political Threat and Immigration,” published in Social Science Quarterly. In that paper, I argued that we can think about immigration politics from the perspective of group threat and group contact theory. That is, white Republicans and white Democrats will react differently to an increasing immigrant population because immigration has different consequences for their respective political parties; immigration tends to be good for Democrats and bad for Republicans. Looking at public opinion data, this suspicion was reinforced when I found that, after controlling for a myriad of individual and contextual variables, white Republicans and white Democrats had similar immigration attitudes in low-immigration communities, but their views increasing diverged as the size of the immigrant population increased. This has been, by a large margin, my most cited article.
“Issue Voting and Immigration,” also published in Social Science Quarterly, examined the question of whether or not Republicans that were comparatively pro-immigrant experienced a surge in support among Hispanic voters. I was unable to find meaningful evidence that less nativist Republicans performed, on average, any better than the most nativist Republicans among that demographic group. My examination also suggested that Republicans that adopted the most progressive stances on immigration tended to enjoy less support from non-Hispanic white voters. The implication of this was that, the short-term, the Republican Party may actually be better served politically by maintaining its traditional restrictionist position, rather than embracing progressive immigration reforms.
In Chapter 5 of Voting and Migration Patterns in the U.S., I demonstrated that different racial groups differ systematically in their migration patterns, and that this is contributing to higher levels of both racial segregation and political segregation.
In Chapter 7 of White Voters in 21st Century America, I examined the relationship between racial diversity and white public opinion. Although this was not consistent across all questions, on most issues, higher levels of diversity was associated, on average and controlling for all other variables, with less progressive attitudes among whites.
I have just recently begun a new study that looks at the political consequences of having immigrant relatives, especially parents and grandparents. My question is whether the continuing political differences between first and second generation immigrants and those Americans with no recent immigrants in their family tree are due to other characteristics (racial/ethnic/religious/geographic) or if the immigrant experience in their family itself nudges people toward more progressive politics. Although I have more work to conduct on the question, my preliminary investigation suggests the latter.
Religion and Politics
When I first began to use religious variables in my work, I was not typically interested in religion per se. Instead, I tended to just use them as necessary controls. Over time, however, I became increasingly interested in the role that religion plays in American political life. And eventually I developed an interest in religious trends themselves, disconnected from any political considerations.
Chapter 6 of White Voters in 21st Century America was my first major project that dealt specifically with religion. In that chapter I looked at how non-Hispanic whites were politically divided along religious lines. In that chapter, I noted that although the political divide between Catholics and Protestants in shrinking the divide between the strongly religious and the less religious appears to be growing.
“Attitudes Towards Mormons and Voter Behavior in the 2012 Presidential Election,” published in Politics and Religion, was my first project focused entirely on religion and politics. It specifically considered whether Mitt Romney’s Mormon religious identity caused him hard during the 2012 election. My conclusion was that it may have cost him some votes, but it was not a decisive factor in President Obama’s victory.
In Chapter 4 of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, I examined the ambiguous relationship between the conservative movement and religious non-believers. In my qualitative study of this issue, I note that the post-war American right had a transparent religious quality, and that this was actually a break from the pre-war right, which was not necessarily associated with traditional religious beliefs. I argued that this is an especially pressing question at the moment, given the declining religiosity of Americans. I thus wanted to examine what a post-religious conservative movement might argue.
I also touch on the religion question in my forthcoming book, Making Sense of the Alt-Right, in which I discuss the radical right’s evolving and often ambiguous relationship with Christianity.
As mentioned, my most detailed examination of religious questions was my recently-released book, Demography, Culture, and the Demise of America’s Christian Denominations. This book considers decreasing religiosity in the United States from a demographic perspective, arguing that, despite outreach efforts, most major Christian denominations have grown naturally (via child-rearing) rather than via conversion. Although the decline of most denominations cannot be attributed to any single variable, I argue that low marriage rates and birthrates, first among mainline Protestants and now among most major religious bodies, is just as important as apostasy when seeking to explain why denominations are suffering aging congregations and declining numbers.
Conservatism and the Far-Right
Starting in 2014, my research began to take a turn away from purely quantitative research. As I was completing White Voters in 21st Century America, it became increasingly clear to me that mainstream American conservatism has few committed supporters in the electorate, even within the GOP’s core demographic (non-Hispanic whites). In fact, it seemed to me that the Republican Party performs well despite its conservatism, rather than because of it. This led me to suspect that the conservative movement’s conquest of the Republican Party was due to actions at the elite level, rather than due to grassroots activism and public opinion. I further noted that, with the sweeping and ongoing demographic changes occurring in the United States, the percentage of Americans that favor traditional conservative politics is going to shrink further.
To get a sense of where the American right will go in the future, I set out to make sense of its past. Although many fine scholars have documented the history of the conservative movement, I chose to approach the subject rather differently. In Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, I investigated those diverse right-wing movements that never accepted the basic premises of Goldwater-style conservatism. The logic of the project was that, although I could not predict what a post-conservative American right would look like, it would probably have at least share important similarities with existing right-wing movements. Thus, after explaining how the mainstream conservative movement has historically dealt with ideological threats from the right, I spent most of the book explaining the positions of these other movements, which range from the generally innocuous (localism, mainstream libertarianism) to the radical (right-wing anarchism, white nationalism).
The timing of this particular book proved to be fortuitous, for it was released just at the time that Donald Trump was creating chaos within the mainstream conservative movement, and the white nationalist Alt-Right movement was experiencing meteoric growth. This project garnered a significant amount of national and international press, as well as multiple positive reviews.
Because of the attention that Right-Wing Critics received, in late 2016 I was offered a contract from Columbia University Press to write a book explaining the history, ideology, and tactics of the Alt-Right. Making Sense of the Alt-Right was the result. That project was based on extensive interviews with people associated with that movement, including both the major and minor figures, as well as a careful reading of the texts that inspired the movement.
Not all of my research fits neatly within the above-mentioned themes. Some projects deviated in other directions, and dealt with topics that I may not revisit in the future.
In 2012, I published an article with my colleague Iñaki Sagarzazu that considered the question of political realignments from a new methodological perspective. In “Where Did the Votes Go?,” published in Electoral Studies, we used applied an ecological inference model to presidential election going back to the mid-1800s. Using county-level election data, we were interested in discerning the percentage of Americans that actually switched in their partisan preferences between any two election cycles. Our findings reinforced the argument that realignments are rare, and that they do not actually come in 30-year cycles as the original purveyors of realignment theory suggested. We have the data necessary to perform a similar analysis for U.S. Senate elections, and hope to do so in the near future.
In 2013, I published a chapter of my dissertation in American Review of Politics. In “Local Political Context and Polarization in the Electorate,” I considered whether higher levels of partisan segregation was leading to increasingly polarized attitudes. Although I should not overstate the substantive importance of my findings, my models indicated that partisans living in more politically homogeneous communities (if their party was in the majority) tended to have stronger ideological and partisan commitments.
This year, I co-authored a law review article in Law Journal for Social Justice. In “Competing Liberal Values: The Effects of VRA Sec. 2 Litigation on Electoral Competitiveness,” my co-authors and I examined whether or not county and municipal electoral districts that were transformed from at-large districts to single-member districts as a result of VRA legislation subsequently became less competitive due to racial gerrymandering. Our general conclusion was that this occurred, but there are ways to mitigate this. This project actually grew out of an unrelated project I was working on that dealt with demographic change and municipal elections. I hope to revisit that subject in the future.
I am now currently working on a project that looks at the effects of declining union membership on electoral outcomes. I actually touched on this issue in Chapter 4 of White Voters in 21st Century America, but that analysis deserves an update and a more sophisticated methodological approach. My suspicion is that declining union membership (expedited by aggressive anti-union legislation in recent years) was a key reason for Donald Trump’s narrow wins in the Upper Midwest in the 2016 election. In my analysis so far, it appears that declining unions have played a role in the Republican resurgence in once strongly Democratic states.