Political Science Now

Eric Schickler — 2017 Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award Recipient

The Woodrow Wilson Award is given annually for the best book on government, politics, or international affairs. The award, formerly supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, is sponsored by Princeton University. It carries a cash prize of $5,000.

Eric Schickler is Jeffrey & Ashley McDermott Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of three books which have won the Richard F. Fenno, Jr. Prize for the best book on legislative politics: Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation and the Development of the U.S. Congress (2001), Filibuster: Obstruction and Lawmaking in the United States Senate (2006, with Gregory Wawro), and Investigating the President: Congressional Checks on Presidential Power (2016, with Douglas Kriner; also winner of the Richard E. Neustadt Prize for the best book on executive politics).  His book, Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965, was the winner of the Woodrow Wilson Prize for the best book on government, politics or international affairs published in 2016, and is co-winner of the J. David Greenstone Prize for the best book in history and politics from the previous two calendar years. He is also the co-author of Partisan Hearts and Minds, which was published in 2002.

“Political scientists have long been fascinated with explanations for partisan realignment within U.S. politics. A particular episode of realignment involves the emergence and adoption of major civil rights legislation, which most accounts render as having occurred in the 1960s as a belated addition to the Democratic Party’s agenda. This political transformation, typically presented as elite-driven, shattered the Democratic Party coalition between southern conservatives and their more liberal northeastern colleagues, and eventually bolstered the conservative ranks of the GOP, as southern Democrats migrated over to the GOP.

This year’s Woodrow Wilson Prize winner, Eric Schickler, however, provides a compelling and richly detailed case in Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965 that “[l]ong before Goldwater and LBJ made their own distinctive policy statements in the 1960s, their parties had been remade underneath them,” and not by party elites. Schickler employs multiple methods, including historical analysis, and rich archival data to demonstrate convincingly that the mid-1960s civil rights transition was the product of changes starting in the mid-1930s. It was then that a new constituency base—urban blacks as a key voting block for northern liberals—and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) started pressuring Democrats to understand that racial divisions undermined class consciousness. In short, one cannot understand the civil rights realignment in the 1960s without understanding its historical roots in federalism, local urban politics, and the decentralized election of House members, all of which were essential to the eventual, gradual incorporation of civil rights into the national Democrat Party. Put differently, Schickler helps us to understand the potential power of more localized social movements as key to major political and policy change in U.S. politics.

Just as important as the challenge to the conventional wisdom of elite-driven change, Racial Realignment reminds social science scholars once again that there is much to be gained by placing a “premium on a methods approach that integrates historical and behavioral evidence and draws on diverse data sources for evidence,” and conducting analyses across institutions and levels of government. This is because, as Schickler demonstrates, major political change like this happens at the “intersection of multiple institutions and political processes,” not just a single institution or at the behest of a few powerful political interests within a short time frame. The evidence in Racial Realignment also alerts us that we should be wary of using actual policy decisions/outcomes as the main basis for understanding when change occurs because the reality is likely to be that decades of behind the scenes action are critical to understanding change.”

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