Congratulations to Dr. Robin Lauermann on the upcoming release of her new book titled Constituent Perceptions of Political Representation: How Citizens Evaluate their Representatives. Below is an interview with Dr. Lauermann that highlights a synopsis of her argument, and outlines the process by which she wrote the book.
My book provides a look at the less studied aspect of representation – evaluations of officials by their constituents (not the member behavior or the citizen vote, but the link between these two). Specifically, I look at how policy, casework, earmarks and symbolic actions affect evaluations. I find that symbolic behavior, which creates feelings of trust, is the most important factor affecting evaluations of U.S. House members. This factor has not been incorporated in previous analyses which examined a variety of factors. While this finding provides some comfort, in that it provides stability for our system, it also reflects that the public does not set high expectations for officials. That facet in turn means that we are unable to hold them accountable in ways that produce constructive outcomes.
What inspired you to write this book? Why are you interested in the topic?
It was originally the focus of my dissertation, though I have done much more extensive research and revision since that time, including taking two week long and intensive graduate level specialty statistics classes. The genesis of this topic began with three classes: Legislative Process (Congress), Public Opinion, and Empirical Theories of Democracy. These classes helped introduce me to the topic of representation, how it was intended to work (and does work here and in other countries), as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the system. So much emphasis was on representative issue positions and I wanted to uncover more about the various factors shaping the representational process. The work of Morris Fiorina, especially in the “personal vote” literature – which focuses on member activities beyond policy voting — was inspirational to my own.
Tell me about your writing process for this project, i.e. how long have you been researching, how did you collect your data, and how long did it take you to write the completed version?
I have been working on this project for over a decade, longer if you realize that some of the foundational ideas were sparked in my undergraduate and graduate classes. I worked on each of the analytical chapters as independent articles, presenting at a number of conferences. One chapter was published in the 2009 volume of Commonwealth: A Journal of Political Science. My analysis is based primarily on data in the 1978-2000 National Election Studies, which provides a large and representative sample; it is a widely respected data source. In addition, one chapter includes data from legislative voting scores which were added to one of the larger data sets; it was a work intensive process for which I was thankful to have a student serve as a Smith Scholar Intern (program at Messiah where students can intern as research assistants for faculty). I also included narrative examples as well as contemporary data.
The publisher which accepted my manuscript was the second one to which I submitted the completed project and, in my opinion, a more noted one. Once it was accepted, I had to thread a theme within the manuscript, which sprang from an insight which developed from an op-ed that I had published last year. The revisions took about three weeks and I had one final set of copyedits which were mostly stylistic – that is, how they preferred to present certain common aspects of writing such as words versus symbols, types of dashes, etc. – rather than revisions to my writing. I had some personal satisfaction that the product that I submitted, much like the journal article, was accepted “largely,” which means that only modest edits were needed and that it was otherwise strong in content, organization, style and mechanics. For a long project, I find that to be an accomplishment! I credit the use of writing techniques – techniques which I share with students in my general education and major classes – for the final product.
What struggles did you face along the way?
The biggest challenge was persevering with the time to write amidst responsibilities of teaching and administration, as well as some difficult family circumstances. I have a strong sense of self-discipline, but was sidelined by a number of competing priorities. My knowledge in Political Science has helped me develop talents as an administrator; while highly rewarding, as I was able to pursue visions in policy as a leader in my roles as chair, director of advising and now assistant dean of general education and common learning, significant projects often crept into time that I planned for my research. However, I was able to keep my oar in the water and, moreover, I think it is an improved product because of these experiences.
I also had to wrestle with a serious health issue of a family member for whom I took on legal responsibility/financial representation. While I would not have chosen to do otherwise, fulfilling that need resulted in less time than I would have liked for the project at the time.
Finally, once I had the manuscript together, I was disappointed that the first submission was ultimately not accepted – initial reviews were positive, but upon revision the original reviewers were not available and the new reviewers were not as enamored of the project. However, as was the case from the start of my research, when a graduate school professor questioned my topic, I believed strongly in its relevance. In the end, being able to tweak the focus this last year as a result of some other writing on separate projects, I think the product and the publisher is of better quality. Thus these struggles have shaped me and my work in indelible ways – ways which, in hindsight, I would not wish to undo.
What insight did you gain from writing on this topic that prior to research you were unaware of?
The public is not as apathetic as more historical scholars thought, but that we still have a responsibility to become more effective citizens in our critical thinking and information literacy — social media has some creative aspects, but it speeds the communication of ill or un-informed perspectives and has the potential to boil things down too simplistically (like bumper stickers).
What significance does this topic have to students of politics?
We have a lot of thoughts and opinions about politics, but they are not always driven by knowledge. If we think more about our role as citizens, we have the opportunity to promote a more constructive decision-making process, one which focuses on deliberation to reach the better outcome rather than just push an agenda which may or may not be based on actual understanding of problems and how to effectively solve them. After all, the key element of politics IS decision-making, whether in government or any other organization. All of the other pieces help us understand how the process works, why it may not and how to improve it.
When can we expect your book to be released, and where will it be sold?
It will be available December 3 on a variety of websites, directly from Palgrave MacMillan and also on others like Amazon, Barnes and Noble and the like.
Thank you, Dr. Lauermann, for sharing about your new book, and congratulations on your success! We look forward to reading it and gaining insight to further inform our knowledge on constituent perceptions of political representation.