Nelson Polsby Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Institutional Change in the U.S. Congress: Conversation with Nelson 
    W. Polsby, Heller Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley; 9/4/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Nelson, welcome to our program.


Where you born and raised?

Norwich, Connecticut, which is the eastern, agricultural part of the state.

You were raised there?

I suppose.

And looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your character?

I haven't the slightest idea. That's beyond me. My dad was always interested in public affairs, but that doesn't count as character. That's just intellectual interest.

Is it from him that you get this fascination with politics?

Probably. And he had a wonderful sense of humor, which my brothers and I, I think, inherited.

Humor is a tool that you use a lot in your work, isn't it?

Well, yes, it's sort of like a can opener. It gets you where you want to be.

Was there a lot of discussion about politics around the dinner table, among relatives?

I think some. It's a little hard to say. My dad died when I was 12 years old. So certainly not as an adult.

What about school? Any teachers when you were young, before you went to college, that were influential in getting you interested in the kind of things that later ...

No, I would say, I was already interested by the time I went to high school.

Was it from reading newspapers?

Yes, I read the newspapers and listened to the radio. World War II was on when I was a kid. I listened to CBS News and stuff like that.

So very early, you became a news junkie?

Yeah, yeah, I'd say so.

So tell us a little about your education. You went to Johns Hopkins?

The usual stuff.

I see.

B.A., Johns Hopkins, which was and is a very interesting little school, mostly for pre-meds and engineers. But they had a very good, small group of social scientists there, who were quite accessible to undergraduate students. They didn't, however, have a Sociology Department, and I thought sociology monopolizes all the good subjects. So I took a year and studied sociology at Brown, which had a good demography group and some other things. And then went to Yale for a Ph.D.

Throughout your work, it's very clear that there's an intellectual curiosity, a capacity to figure out these problems. Any sources of that, other than in your genes, or was it teachers who brought you to that level?

I've always been pretty much a self-starter, I would say. I've had good teachers along the way, but I wouldn't say that they were the source of my curiosity about things. The source of my curiosity was seeing things going on in the world and wondering "how come?"

When I was away at boarding school, my family moved to Washington, and there was a lot of Washington talk when I would go home for vacations. book coverA lot of people would make, as they do in Washington, comments about what was causing what and the rest. In particular, I'd have to say one of the main intellectual influences in my life was Joe McCarthy, because Joe McCarthy was running rampant through Washington. People were making all kinds of wild statements about Joe McCarthy. And I thought to myself, "Gee, I wonder if it's true?" In due course, at Johns Hopkins, for an honors thesis, I started digging in to get a feel for why Joe McCarthy was as effective as he seemed to be in scaring the daylights out of people in the Washington community.

One of the things that you found was that he and his entourage were getting more credit than they deserved.

Oh, absolutely. He'd been overrated. I began to see an interesting contrast between what people thought in the Washington community and what could be established by digging around in public opinion materials and electoral materials, and things like that. For example, it happened to be the case that Joe McCarthy was always the least popular guy on the ticket in Wisconsin -- the least popular winner, I should say. He wasn't anywhere near as powerful at the grassroots as people in Washington made him out to be. That was interesting. I [realized that] it's possible, by application of common sense and finding out about some things that were actually in their beginning stages -- focused public opinion work, electoral analysis, things like that -- to dope out what was true and what was false about the claims that were being made in the public arena. That struck me as a lot of fun and, I suppose, was one of the reasons why I persisted and went on into graduate school, because I [liked] the idea that there was actually a profession out there in which people paid you American money to study this stuff. And I thought, "Well, let's give it a try."

While we're on McCarthy, there's one other interesting thing here which is that not only was McCarthy given credit for having helped defeat more senators than he had defeated, but in the end there was a lot of confusion about why he gained the power that he got. You were one of the first ones to point out the reasons there -- that the Republican Party supported him.

Sure. That earned me a certain amount of disdain from some of the people senior to me, who had other ideas, and less good ideas, on the subject, and who were, in general, quite wonderful social scientists, like Dan Bell and Richard Hofstader. It irked them that the party explanation just never occurred to them, and it occurred to me. I think it annoyed them quite a lot, but that's the way it goes.

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