Paul Pierson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Transformation of American Politics: Conversation with Paul Pierson, Avice Saint Chair in Public Policy, Department of Political Science, U.C. Berkeley; December 1, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Research in Comparative Politics

Your main focus is comparative politics. What is the temperament, the skills required to do the study of comparative politics?

You need to have a curiosity about other places and the patience to try to learn in a deep way about them. One thing about doing comparative politics, which is interesting to me in the evolution of my own work, is that I started doing comparative politics but it was always a way for me to try to get a better sense of the United States. I feel like it's hard to understand the situation that you're living in unless you have some kind of perspective to put it in.

One of the things I love about comparative politics is that it encourages you to look at a whole society, to think about how a society was put together, the different elements of it and what they add up to. If you only are focused on your own society, there's a tendency to break it down into little pieces and only study those little pieces, which is one of my concerns about the way that people often study American politics. They're looking at only, say, the media, or Congress, or the presidency, a single institution, and they spend less time trying to think about how these pieces connect and what's unusual about the way politics works in the United States compared with other countries. Comparative politics encourages you to think about those bigger questions.

You're suggesting that you have to do language and the history of other places as part of comparative studies?

Sure. Anybody who is working at scholarship realizes that you need to dig into something to really understand it, and that you can't just coast along the surface. That's especially true when you're studying situations that are different from the ones that you've been exposed to and that you're most familiar with. So, yes, you've got to make a big investment to have any chance of having a good feel for another country.

One of your first books, which I will show our audience, is Dismantling the Welfare State?: Reagan, Thatcher and the Politics of Retrenchment. How does this work prove your point? book coverWhat was the problem in this work that you were trying to understand?

This book came out of my dissertation, and the background to it is interesting to me in retrospect. Again, if you're starting now, you can see the threads going back, but it happens in a more accidental, serendipitous way as you're moving forward.

I was in Britain working on a different topic. I was interested in the Labour Party in Britain and I was going to look at a couple of other cases n the Continent, but I was there in the mid-1980s which was the height of Margaret Thatcher's rule in Britain. It was [during] the famous miner strike, which was an incredibly bitter conflict that polarized Britons in a way that few political incidents of the last three or four decades have. It was so interesting to be there at that time that I felt like I needed to try to understand something about this phenomenon of a truly radical conservative reformer in office, and the kind of political upheavals that that was giving rise to, and how she was trying to achieve the goals that she had set for herself. Of course, it became quite natural, given [my] interest in comparative politics, to contrast her experience with Reagan's.

The core puzzle in the book -- we'll get to talking about Off Center later, but there's a thread that connects what I was doing in that book to the current book. The core thing that I was trying to wrestle with in the book about Reagan and Thatcher was how they could pursue policies that were pretty clearly unpopular. Not everything they wanted to do was unpopular, of course, but what they wanted to do to the welfare state was broadly unpopular. Most people, even if they had criticisms about social programs, really didn't want to see them cut or dismantled. That creates a particular political challenge for a leader who wants to pursue an agenda where important elements of it are not popular.

We will, as you said, pick this up later, but some of the themes that are in the [first] book emerge later. The insights that you gathered empowered you to have insights about what's going on in the United States today. The end result is that you found that the revolution didn't sweep everything aside, in either the United States or in Great Britain, and there were differences as to why that happened.

Right. The core argument of the book, which I think broadly has been pretty well accepted, is that neither Reagan or Thatcher really succeeded, although there was a lot of hue and cry around the time. [Neither] of them succeeded in fundamentally changing the structure of social policy because of the political challenges that they faced in doing that, and the fact that when they were very aggressive about it there tended to be a pretty strong popular outcry. In the Unites States, for example, Reagan is elected, begins to talk about cuts in Social Security, and there's such a strong outcry against it that it plays an important role in the fact that Republicans lost twenty-six seats in the 1982 midterm elections, and that pretty much ended the conversation of a radical reform of Social Security.

One of the variables there was the fact that a trust fund existed, right? Because one of the themes that emerges again and again in your work is, what are the institutions that are in place, how did they come to be, and how do they then affect the different policies that you can design?

Yes, that's a good question. In the book, in addition to saying on the whole they didn't change as much as a lot of people thought that they had, or thought that they would be able to change, I'm also interested in understanding why some things are easier to change than others and what kinds of strategies are more or less successful. One central factor is the particular structure of the situation that they inherit having to do with a particular public policy. So, in the case of pensions, social insurance, Thatcher was able to do much more than Reagan was able to do because there were particular features, including the trust fund, which put some limits on the changes that Reagan could introduce without producing a political outcry. In that particular case, Thatcher had more room to maneuver.

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