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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Being a Political Scientist

In a speech you gave at the University of Chicago on the topic of "Where do Ideas Come From," you said, "The general activity of seeking to firm up or discredit the factual premises on which social and political actions are based seemed to be a socially worthwhile action."

Well, that's gorgeously put.

That's why I wanted to read it.

I wouldn't dream of improving upon that.

And you went on to say that "This is a job of fundamental importance, because facts rarely speak for themselves. There are usually too many facts and not infrequently too many different versions of the facts. Rather than speaking for themselves, various facts have what we have come to refer to as spokespersons."

What an eloquent fellow.

That's right.

What year did I say that?

I forgot to look, but it was at your talk at the University of Chicago. I guess it was in the nineties.

Right around the 100th anniversary of the University of Chicago. Well, we are all older now.

That's right. But you see, I like to go back and read this stuff so I can hold you to your words. You opened up a place that I want to go, which is what a political scientist does

That's what we do.

And why he does it -- and you've just explained it. In other words, bursting the myth of, for example, McCarthy.

It isn't a matter of necessarily being a contrarian, although some do make a good living at that. But, simply, attempting to put empirical foundations under what we think we know.

In going back and looking at a small portion of your work, I have a sense of two intellectual tracks you're on -- one, we have just discussed, that is, bursting the balloons or the false premises by looking at the facts; but you go on to call yourself a "quasi-anthropologist." Explain to us what you mean by that. It seems that that involves a different attitude toward your subjects.

There is a very large array of possible ways of going about social science. My particular way of doing it is to talk to people, listen to people, watch people, and then write down what I've learned. It's quasi-anthropological in the sense that I am not, in fact, an anthropologist, but I do have a good deal of regard for the people who are doing the acting. I attempt to find out, as best I can, what their perspective is on things, because then it helps you, quite frequently, to understand what they're going to do next.

I don't think that's different from whatever it is you thought my other track was. The idea is to find out what's going on, and attempt to talk about it in some way that is easily storable and compact, and understandable and communicable to other people.

One of the many subjects that you've covered is the Congress, and we're going to talk about your new work in a minute. But I would like to go into the origins. It's quite fascinating how you wound up getting interested in Congress. It was really about a course that you were asked to teach, right?

Yes. When I was a teenager and my family moved to Washington, I used to get out and hang around Congress. In those days, no guards, no nothing, and you could just hang out and see what they were doing, which I thought was quite a lot of fun. Sometimes I'd talk to people, but mostly I'd just watch. I, however, did not write about a Washington-centric topic for my doctoral dissertation. And my first teaching job was at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It was a temporary job created because two people senior to me, a good deal senior to me, went on leave, one of whom was, I suppose, the greatest congressional scholar of his generation, Ralph Hewitt.

Anyway, they thought, when they hired me, that I would teach the other guy's course, Harry Scoble's course on community power. book coverBut nobody much took the community power course, and people were taking Ralph's course on Congress. So the chairman of my department, Leon Epstein, who still remains a dear friend -- this is a long time ago now, this is 1960 or '61 -- Leon calls me and he says, "Why don't you teach Ralph Hewitt's course on Congress?" I said, "Well, I've never taken a course in Congress. I do know something about the Senate because I was a snooper when I was a teenage political junkie. But I don't know anything about the House of Representatives, really, very little, anyhow." "Oh," he says, "You'll make out all right. You're a smart fellow."

So I taught this course and scrounged around and found a few things, and brought in the member of Congress from Madison, who retired only a few years ago and still lives in Washington, Bob Kastenmeier -- nice fellow. And at the end of the course, I said, "Well, that was sort of interesting. Maybe I ought to pursue my method," which was go to Washington and hang around the House of Representatives a while and see what I could make out of that, because there was practically no literature on the subject. Literature, as you know, is a word that scholars use. It means "written stuff which other scholars write and which scholars regard as respectable and, more or less, codifying what we know." That's the literature; there wasn't much.

So the summer after I taught in Madison, we moved to Washington. A member of Congress had agreed to let me hang around him for a week -- sit in his office, and every once in a while I'd interview him a little bit, but mostly just see what the flow is like, what his calendar was like, what came up, who talked to him and what he said to them. This was a lovely gent by the name of Charles Mosher from, I believe, is the 13th District of Ohio, Oberlin. I spent a week with him and then I went with Kastenmeier, who said I could follow him around. I was moving, at that point, from Wisconsin to Wesleyan, so I asked the two Wesleyan alumni who were in Congress if I could do the same thing with them. One was a Republican, one was a Democrat -- Abner Sibal and Emilio Daddario. I did the same thing with them, started mooching around, interviewing, but, in other words, learning the territory. And that's how I got interested in Congress. I did a lot of work on Congress then.

Would it be fair to say that somebody who wants to do political science, in a way, has to embed himself in the environment and, at one level, be respectful of what is going on and understand the complexity?

No. If you want to do it my way, that's what you've got to do. But there are, in fact, lots of different ways of doing it. Lots of different ways. That just happens to be responsive to the way I assimilate information and learn about things.

To prepare to be a political scientist, what skills do students have to acquire and what traits should they come with?

I think they have to be interested in politics, that's the main thing.

What makes politics interesting?

Well, I don't know; people win, people lose. It's important. A lot of the outcomes in politics are important to human existence in various ways. Sometimes, of course, you have to know a bit in order to be able to work the system, or get the system to do what you want. There are lots of different reasons why it might be fun to know about politics. If you get really, really interested in politics, then the next step, it seems to me, is to assess how you learn best.

You mean personally?

Yes, what sort of person you are. Unfortunately, my way is an expensive way to do it.

That is, going and hanging out.

The going and hanging out, which is a very expensive thing. It's time consuming. Other people, for example, who have a taste for numbers, can get what they need by reading tables and by looking up statistics, and making arguments based on that. Other people are bookworms and like to read great books and dope out what great people have said about great topics.

So you are suggesting that it's (a) being interested in the sets of problems, but then (b) respecting your own integrity about what you like to do and what you do well, in terms of defining the style by which you approach the subject.

Integrity is kind of an edgy word that implies that there's something assaulting your integrity.

All right, give me a better word.

No, just try and figure out what you're good at. My belief is that there are multiple forms of intelligence, and different people are good at different things. What they ought to be doing is finding out what they're good at and doing that, and having fun at it, too.

Now, in addition to hanging out, which you said you do, and in addition to being a voracious reader, going and finding polls that have been taken by others and so on, I get the sense that it's important to be a part of a community of scholars. When one looks at your forthcoming book, which we will talk about in a minute, there's a sense in which you felt a responsibility to navigate what has been written and identify the better works, but also respond to the others.

Well, you've opened up a number of topics. Scholarly communities: these are communities which, in effect, certify knowledge as knowledge, tell you what the problems are, tell you what we already know, and they're an audience. If you haven't got an audience of scholars -- journalists, for example, don't have scholarly audiences on the whole; they broadcast to the millions. But their work, therefore, has a short life. If you, in effect, take seriously what a scholarly community can do for you, then you can, in effect, hook on to the problems that seem to exist in the environment, and contribute. That's what it means to make a contribution, it's to get your work accepted by such a community. But it's not compulsory that you do so. You can write for popular audiences, but the trouble is what you find out isn't conserved as efficiently as when you write for a scholarly community.

So there's an element of immortality. That your work will transcend the present, is that what you are suggesting?

Well, if you mean between now and next week?

But maybe two weeks for academics; one week for journalists.

That's the point. I give, as an example -- as it happens, a wonderful example: By many accounts, the best work of journalism written in the immediate postwar period about United States politics was a book by John Gunther, a very fine journalist, called Inside USA, which got a rave, front-page review on The New York Times and then, generally, was a highly regarded book, and still is today; but it's not cited anywhere. It's not referred to anywhere. And it is roughly contemporaneous with a book of roughly the same size and heft by V.O. Key, Jr., called Southern Politics in State and Nation, which is still in print and cited everywhere. And what was the difference? Gunther wrote as a journalist for national circulation, and got it, and succeeded, and did a fine job. And V.O. Key wrote for a more scholarly audience, more restricted, but a structured community, which so valued his work that they have kept it alive since 1949.

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