Wendt Family Professor and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
May 24, 2022
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Tuesday, May 24th, 2022. I'm delighted to be here with Professor Morris P. Fiorina. Mo, it's great to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.
MORRIS P. FIORINA: Thanks for having me.
ZIERLER: Mo, to start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
FIORINA: I am currently the Wendt Family Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.
ZIERLER: Mo, who is or who were the Wendt family and what, if any, is their connection to your work?
FIORINA: As far as I know, the only connection to my work is that they donated the money for the chair, and so you'd have to talk to Stanford Development people for that. But my understanding is they are one of the largest window manufacturing companies in the world. They are headquartered in Oregon. Very nice people. We had a wonderful dinner to inaugurate the chair, and I check in with them every year or so on what I'm doing.
ZIERLER: Mo, your affiliation with the Hoover Institution, is that more of a courtesy appointment, or does the Hoover Institution really play an important role in your research?
FIORINA: Oh, it does. It's certainly not a courtesy appointment. I'm joint with Hoover, as are a lot of people here. Seven or eight of the political science faculty are joint with Hoover, and [laugh] not just conservatives, by the way. Mike McFaul is a Hoover Fellow. He was President Obama's ambassador to Russia. There's some other noteworthy Democrats on the Hoover payroll as well. I always joke that half my salary is paid by liberals and the other half by conservatives. Hoover is a place to be when you'd like to have more impact on the national conversation, and not just be publishing in professional journals that are read by maybe two or three hundred other people in your field. It was the right time--career time--for me to move to Stanford and to take up this broader role where I write more now for larger audiences than I did at Caltech or Harvard. Well, come to think of it, even at Caltech one of my books was discussed in Forbes magazine and other national publications, so I guess I've always had this part in my tool bag. But in some parts of the Harvard Government Department, writing something for The New York Times or The Washington Post, was almost a demerit. Not in the Kennedy School, of course.
FIORINA: That was not really serious. But now at Stanford, and at Hoover especially, that's considered part of your job.
ZIERLER: More because you can serve as a public intellectual, that's something that's celebrated at Hoover? Is that the idea?
FIORINA: Yes, and we might've gotten away from it a little bit for a while. But under Condi, she's renewed our emphasis on this role—Condi Rice, our new director, who has spent a lot of her life in Washington. She feels that there needs to be honest brokers out here. There have to be academics who are interested in policy but are not left-wing or right-wing--they are data-driven. For example, we have a new project that's going to get started in the spring about how can we make the electoral process look better than it does. There's no evidence of systematic fraud. But there's a lot of features of the process that are messy--that make people think there could be fraud. We need to study these in a non-partisan way, things like absentee voting, post-election deadlines, et cetera What are things that could be done that maybe everybody could agree would make the whole system look better? That's the direction we're heading in now. I'm looking at social media at the moment, and asking, is this really worth all of the concern that it's getting out there? My answer tentatively is no. But that's the kind of thing that I do at Hoover, as opposed to straight political science.
ZIERLER: Mo, you have published so broadly and so eclectically in American politics. What do you see as some of the through lines that connects all of your work?
FIORINA: Simply how well political institutions are responding to what people want in this country? One of the arguments I made in the last 20, 25 years is that there's an increasing disconnect between the people making the decisions and running the country, and the population as a whole. It's present in both parties--we see both parties spinning off toward the extremes. We have a centrist, pragmatic electorate that basically says, "Let's move the ball down the field. Let's make some progress on some of these issues." All too often our parties don't want progress. They want campaign issues. I was much more positive about the system when I was younger than I am now. I think the system today has pathological aspects that we have to try and temper.
ZIERLER: Mo, have you had opportunity to serve in an advisory capacity in government institutions, an opportunity to leave the ivory tower, so to speak, and really connect with policymakers, share your ideas?
FIORINA: I have served on various NSF boards and National Academy of Science committees but nothing actually in government. Most of the people I've talked to who have served in government say how hard it is to actually accomplish anything when you're in a big bureaucratic agency. It's been a good learning experience for many of them but they haven't felt like they've really accomplished a whole lot, unless you're somebody like McFaul, who was an ambassador.
ZIERLER: What about through academic genealogy? Have you trained graduate students who have gone into government service?
FIORINA: I wouldn't say I've necessarily trained them but, particularly at Harvard, a lot of our students went in that direction, or to the media. Fareed Zakaria was a student while I was there, and Andrew Sullivan was a student when I was there. Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, was a student when I was there. There were a lot of people, I'll see their name surface, and think, oh, yeah, I remember them—they were in my American politics field seminar, that sort of thing. Undergraduates too. Maura Healey, an undergrad I taught is very likely to be the next Governor of Massachusetts. Not so much at Stanford. We have a much smaller program--at both the undergraduate and graduate levels--and our grad students still—mine at least--always go into academic political science.
ZIERLER: Mo, I can't help but ask but when we survey political discourse today as a historian, of course, I recognize that everything is connected to the past. But when you started to look at these things in a rigorous way over 40 years ago, what are you most surprised about? What is unforeseen now, and what do you see as prologue to the things that you've been looking at?
FIORINA: Just that there are so many things that are unforeseen. By the way, it's over 50 years. [laugh] I got my PhD in '72. I was a graduate student in '68. I think the thing that strikes me is how things change. What keeps me from going into the abyss is simply the notion that this too will pass. Especially when I talk to younger reporters, and they'll assert something, and I'll say, "No, no, no, it was like this in the 1980s or, no, no, no, it was actually as late as 2000 we had this." My sense now is that so much of politics is transitory, and things that look like really stable equilibria turn out so often to be fragile; somebody kicks one underpinning out, and the equilibrium crumbles. This is in American politics, but think of the international relations scholars. They never anticipated the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Wall. Sam Huntington, one of my colleagues at Harvard, wrote an article six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall suggesting that Germany would not be reunited before the middle of the 21st century. [laugh] Sid Verba, another older professor, said, "Before it happened, no one could have predicted it. After it happened, we could all explain why it was inevitable."
FIORINA: There's so much of politics that's like that. After the fact, we look back and say, oh, yeah, this was clearly going to happen. I guess that's what I've learned from 50 years of studying politics.
ZIERLER: Mo, your current interest in social media, I'm curious if you see social media as a different beast from other modes of public discourse, or it fits within a larger framework that you've been looking at over the course of your career.
FIORINA: It fits within a larger framework. Basically, every time a new technology appears, there are laments about how this is transforming American life for the worse. You go back to the automobile, radio, television et cetera. As I said, I'm just getting started--I've been reading for two years, and I'm just starting to put some thoughts down on paper. But people in politics and the media underestimate how much the American people avoid any political information, and that's just as true of social media as it is of TV and The New York Times. I think it's fair to say that the people who worry about echo chambers are basically the only ones in echo chambers, that no one else gets enough information to be in an echo chamber. That's my bottom line right now. But I don't want to get too far down the line because [laugh] I'm really in an early stage on this project.
ZIERLER: Mo, let's now engage in some oral history. Let's go all the way back. As an undergraduate at Allegheny College, being there in the mid-late 1960s, what was going on more broadly that might've influenced your interests in political science, with the Vietnam War, civil rights, women's liberation? How did all of that affect you personally?
FIORINA: Very much and it still colors my reaction to politics today. I often tell people who say the country's coming apart, "If you were around in the '60s, you wouldn't say that. Things today are pretty mild compared to the '60s, with political assassinations, race riots in the cities, anti-war demonstrations, et cetera." I was a political science major at Allegheny from '64 to '68, and in the summers I'd go home to Latrobe, Pennsylvania—which is now the heart of Trump country but then it was a heavily Democratic area—and I'd work in a steel mill. My books at Allegheny were telling me about how the country was majority Democratic, and people really didn't vote on issues. Then I'd go home, and I'd listen to all these mill workers on their lunch breaks, discussing politics all the time. I'm sure these guys would've all been strong Democrats in 1960. Well, by 1966–67, they're starting to talk about voting for Nixon. They're starting to talk about voting for Wallace. I was seeing this big disjunction between what I was seeing on the ground and what I was reading in my college books, and that stuck with me, and it's stuck with me my whole career. A lot of my projects start with what the pundits and politicos are saying compared to what the data I look at are indicating, and often there's a gap. A lot of my work plays in that gap.
ZIERLER: Was this the so-called silent majority that Nixon saw coming earlier than most?
FIORINA: Yeah. It wasn't just Nixon. There were Democrats who saw it. There was a really interesting book—I can't remember—by Scammon and Wattenberg, in which they pointed out in 1967–68 or maybe later that the median American voter is a 40-year-old machinist's wife in Dayton, Ohio. I think the Democrats simply forgot that [laugh]—
FIORINA: —as they have today, by the way, still. But the people running the parties are just getting out of touch with the electorate as a whole. That's been an underlying theme in my work for 40 or 50 years.
ZIERLER: Mo, graduating in 1968, to the extent that Allegheny College is more Middle America than a place like Columbia or Berkeley, were there antiwar protests? Was that a part of your undergraduate experience?
FIORINA: No. There was a march when Martin Luther King was assassinated. There were some small anti-war protests, but it was generally quiet. When I went to Rochester in 1968, then the world changed, with the Cambodian invasion, student strikes and so forth. That was very much a feature of my four years at Rochester.
ZIERLER: Was the draft something you needed to contend with?
FIORINA: Oh, it sure was. When President Johnson took graduate school deferments away in the spring of 1968--I think it's more recognized now--that was one of the things that radicalized the country. To put it bluntly, if you were upper middle-class, and you had some connections, there was no reason you had to go to Vietnam. Some doctor would write you an excuse, there was some way to get out, or you could just go to law school or graduate school. Then they took away the student deferments and, suddenly, the draft reached people who had been protected from it before--and their parents. [laugh] Their parents were the kinds of people who had influence, and so everything just changed. I didn't have those advantages but what happened in my case is I got my draft notice the day I got home from college. I was called up, and I failed my physical. It was probably the happiest day of my life, or at least it ranks up there with getting married and the birth of my kids. It was just a fluke. I had a childhood illness—rheumatic fever--that, under their regulations, got you an exemption. It didn't affect me in any way but under their regulations, I was 1-Y. That's also why I ended up at Rochester for graduate school rather than Stanford. Stanford was my first choice, but I was sure I was going to be drafted. I wrote to everybody who had accepted me, and asked, "If I'm drafted, what happens? Do I still have my admission, my financial aid when—if--I get back?" Stanford said, "We guarantee your admission. We can't guarantee your graduate assistance." Rochester said, "We guarantee everything." Rochester was only a couple hundred miles away from where I expected to be inducted, so I said, all right, I'll go to Rochester.
ZIERLER: What was Rochester known for at that point? In other words, why was it considered in the same league of applications as a place like Stanford?
FIORINA: They weren't. My advisor, John Kessel, the late John Kessel, was a great man. He had me apply to the best mainstream schools like Michigan and Stanford. He said, "There are a couple other programs that are doing interesting, innovative stuff, and I' know you'll get into them because they don't get the best graduate students yet." He said North Carolina was doing causal modeling, a statistical thing. Rochester was doing theory--game theory, formal theory, social choice theory, and that's unique. I got into all these places but I ended up going to Rochester, so it was really a fluke. Looking back, it's amazing how careers—lives--can be affected by just dumb luck and random events.
ZIERLER: What kinds of topics did you want to pursue in your graduate research? What were you interested in?
FIORINA: I was always interested in elections, always interested in democracy, representative government. My PhD thesis was called Representatives, Roll Calls, and Constituencies. Again, it was more of a theoretical account, very basic algebraic [laugh] models. But that was very unusual in those days. Only a few people like John Ferejohn were out there doing it. If you asked me what I do, I'd say representation. That's been my guiding light my whole career.
ZIERLER: It was a few years after, of course, but did you find Rochester to be a more political place than Allegheny?
FIORINA: The undergraduate student body, yes, although maybe Allegheny was by that point too. I don't know. In the political science department, there were a few active people, but most of us kept our heads down, focused on getting our PhDs.
ZIERLER: What would you say were the main arguments or conclusions of your thesis?
FIORINA: Well, there were a lot of apparent contradictions in the empirical literature. People did a lot of simple correlational analysis and the results were inconsistent. My contribution was sketching out some simple models that explained why the correlations weren't contradictions. The hypotheses people were entertaining were just too simplistic, and if you built some simple models, you could show why. This study doesn't really conflict with that study. It's just they're looking at different things. It's a little hard to explain but that's basically [laugh] what it was all about, just 300 pages cleaning up a messy literature.
ZIERLER: Mo, in the way that you emphasized that Rochester was doing innovative things in theory, was your graduate research, would you say, was it a product of that? Did you emphasize theory more than you otherwise might have?
FIORINA: Oh, yeah, it was much more theoretical than data. I did some simple pilot study type things to show the plausibility of the theoretical models. In those days to say you were going to do a decision theoretic model, a game theoretic model or something like that, most political scientists would've said, "Oh, what are you talking about? Human beings can't be analyzed in those terms." It was very definitely a theoretically heavy thesis.
ZIERLER: Mo, were you always on the academic track? In other words, when you got into your second and third year, did you ever think about public service, or was it always going to be a professorship for you?
FIORINA: It was a professorship by then. At Rochester, everybody was going to be a professor. I don't think the students were interested in any other career track.
ZIERLER: Now, how normal was it to skip over the postdoc and go right to faculty opportunities?
FIORINA: There were very few postdocs in those days, and there still are very few in political science, although there are more now--partly because the job market is so tough people need a place to stay while they try to get a job. My friend John Ferejohn had a postdoc but that was unusual, and he was the only person I knew who had a postdoc.
ZIERLER: Now, when did you go on the market? Before you defended?
FIORINA: Oh, yeah, sure. Actually, one university contacted me in my third year when I was just getting started on my thesis. My advisors said, "No, don't interview—you'll have more opportunities next year." By that point, other departments were getting interested in the kind of stuff Rochester did and starting to think they should make a small investment. I went on the market in the fall of my fourth year--and I'd already accepted the job when I defended in May. I left for Caltech in July.
ZIERLER: Just to broaden out, as you mentioned, people were starting to get interested in this kind of political science. What do you think accounts for that? What's going on academically and socio-politically that might suggest this broadening interest?
FIORINA: I think that a couple of the earlier Rochester students had done some interesting work, some interesting modeling, and the bigger departments were starting to look at our kind of political science—not the top 10 departments, I'd put it that way. The Harvards and Stanfords and Berkeleys and Michigans wait to make sure something is definite before they invest. They can afford to do that and just grab the people they want when they become proven quantities, which is kind of what eventually happened to Caltech. It was the places that were interested in making a splash, like the North Carolinas and the Rochesters of an earlier era, and also the second 10, the ones who said, "Well, maybe this could be how we make our move." I interviewed at places like Penn, Ohio State, so they wouldn't have been in that top tier of departments. Then the other possibility for people like us at Rochester was places like Carnegie Mellon and Washington University, who were interested in doing this sort of thing; and of course, Caltech came in late.
ZIERLER: Now, to the extent that you thought about Caltech at all before the job offer, did you even recognize that they had a social science program?
FIORINA: No, I did not. I don't think I'd ever heard of Caltech, except for some of the stunts they'd pull at the Rose Bowl. I can't even remember how we initially made contact—maybe through Ferejohn. John went on the market the year before me, even though we arrived at Caltech at the same time. People on the market interview for the same jobs, talk about openings. I think John may have said, "Apply to Caltech, or send your stuff to Caltech," or there could've been some faculty contact with Bill Riker, the chair of the Rochester Department and my thesis Chair (Caltech tried to hire him to chair the Division when Huttenback left). I think Bob Bates was the only political scientist at Caltech when John and I arrived, and he wasn't in my field, so it would've had to come through another channel. But once I interviewed--I came to Caltech in December--and there were snow flurries when I got on the plane in Rochester.
ZIERLER: That's a good time to go to Caltech from Rochester. [laugh]
FIORINA: [laugh] I got to the Athenaeum, and I threw open the shutters, and there were palm fronds waving over the red-tiled roofs. I called my wife, and I said, "If they make me an offer, we're coming." [laugh]
ZIERLER: [laugh] I want to clarify. Was there an open position you applied to? Were you recruited? How did that work?
FIORINA: I don't remember. They were growing. You can't do a search unless you have authorization, so they obviously had an opening. I actually came with a joint appointment in the Environmental Quality Laboratory, so I spent my first contract joint with the EQL and the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences. I think a lot of places, especially now, are piecing together appointments, you have 1/3 of you here, and 1/3 of you here, and 1/3 of you here. That was not as common then but that's how I started at Caltech.
ZIERLER: Intellectually, what was the connecting thread with EQL? How did that fit with political science?
FIORINA: Well, I think they were beginning to realize that environmental policy was not just a matter of technical solutions. [laugh] You had to get it adopted by governments. You had to take people into account. I remember one heated argument at an EQL meeting where some of the engineers were talking about the rail system they were proposing for the metropolitan area. I said something like, "How do you get people to ride it?" I kept asking whether the technology made sense in a spread-out area like LA. Finally, one of them yelled at me, "We'll line them up and shoot them if we have to."
FIORINA: There were two of us. Dave Montgomery was an economist, and he was saying, "Well, these things are going to cost way more than you think." [laugh] I was the political scientist saying, "No, you can't just assume that governments will implement what you're proposing." My friend Bruce Cain, another political scientist, who was at Caltech--I don't know if you're going to talk to him. He eventually went to Berkeley, and now he's at Stanford where he's involved with the Woods Institute for environmental studies and all the sustainability stuff. He says that the level of naiveté about politics among the engineers and the environmental scientists is just so striking that you think "where do I start explaining why that's not feasible?"
ZIERLER: Mo, administratively, was HSS up and running by the time you joined the faculty?
FIORINA: Yeah, Bob Huttenback had things going, and they'd hired a bunch of economists. They hired Lance Davis, who I think was working closely with Bob in building up the program. They'd just hired fairly recently Charlie Plott and Dave Grether and Jim Quirk. Montgomery had come, I think, a year or two earlier. Roger Noll was coming back, and then John and I arrived, and so we were growing. A couple years later, we hired Bruce Cain and Gary Miller in political science. It went from sort of embryonic to building out in the 10 years I was there.
ZIERLER: Now, a question I'm always interested in. Do you have any insight why the social scientists took on graduate students but the humanities faculty did not?
FIORINA: Let's see. I want to choose my words carefully here. For whatever reason, the humanities faculty had been there a long time, and their role had been one of service—to smooth off the rough edges of the engineering and science students, and teach them a little culture, western culture. Huttenback made an effort to bring in younger people to make it more of a modern research-oriented department--Jenijoy La Belle and Stuart Endie. It turned out to be harder, whether it was because the humanities were so much more different from the natural sciences than the social sciences were, I don't know. In the social sciences we'd get a few undergraduate majors every year, undergraduates who would realize they weren't going to be a Nobel Prize winner in physics, but they could apply their skills to interesting stuff going on in economics or in political science. We sent them on to graduate schools in some cases. It seemed not very difficult to recruit good graduate students, people who didn't have political science degrees or economic degrees but often had math or other technical degrees. It just seemed like a natural thing to get graduate students in social sciences. But they didn't develop the faculty in the humanities. Now, maybe they have. I've been out of touch for a long time, so maybe they have that kind of faculty now. But they simply didn't have the faculty then that would attract any top-ranked aspiring humanities PhD student to Caltech.
ZIERLER: Now, in the way that you emphasized all of the work that Bob Huttenback had done, what was your sense institutionally at Caltech? The provost, the president, the board of trustees, did they need to be convinced that promoting social science was in the interest of Caltech, or were they along for the ride? They recognized this themselves?
FIORINA: The person to talk to about that would be Roger Noll because I was just a young professor who didn't know any of the higher ups at Caltech, whereas Roger had done his undergraduate work there, and he was deeply involved from the get-go. I don't know but I think their attitude probably was like the attitude of the administration here at Stanford, that political science, especially, is so cheap compared to everything else they deal with. You can have the country's top-ranked political science department for the price of a couple labs for the bio guys. I think that the attitude at Caltech was, well, throw a little pocket change at this, and see if anything grows. Just don't embarrass us. [laugh] If anything good comes out of this, fine.
ZIERLER: Mo, nowadays, of course, we see so much cross-pollination at Caltech. You have economists talking to neurobiologists. Was that culture, that interdisciplinary culture between the divisions, was that present even from when you joined the faculty?
FIORINA: It was more than I think in a lot of places, partly just because the institution is so small, and there were things like Friday night at the Athenaeum. I don't know if it's still there. But everybody went, and babies were crawling around under the tables, and you'd be sitting there talking to a math PhD. The younger faculty would play basketball at noon. There were just so many ways, it seemed to get to know people. Our own group was so small that your life would've been poorer if you limited your interactions to the two or three other political scientists and the three or four economists. I knew people in math. I was in the rugby club, and so I knew [laugh] the New Zealanders and Australians who were in other departments.
ZIERLER: What was your research agenda by the time you joined, and do you think that being at Caltech, with its unique approach, influenced the kind of work you did at that point?
FIORINA: It continued to educate me because the average economist knew so much more about the technical side than the average political scientist, so I continued to learn. I don't think it affected my agenda that much. I'd already done some experimental work with Riker at Rochester, so it was natural for me to do some work with Charlie Plott, and John and I did a bunch of stuff together. I think I just continued pretty much on a straight line from what I'd been doing in graduate school.
ZIERLER: Now, was the Representatives, Roll Calls, and Constituencies, was that a revision of your dissertation?
FIORINA: Yeah, it was 100 pages shorter.
FIORINA: Get rid of all the fluff, and make it tighter.
ZIERLER: Did that take on more quantitative analysis as a result of being at Caltech, would you say?
FIORINA: No, I basically didn't do anything more on that at Caltech, other than cut 100 pages. I just sat down and took the thesis as it was, and the editor asked me, "Cut it by 100 pages." I did it, and they published it. Then I moved on to other things, both theoretical and empirical, although I was moving in a more empirical direction.
ZIERLER: Now, would you say Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment exemplified that more empirical approach?
FIORINA: Yeah. But it also exemplifies the interest in talking to a broader audience [laugh] because, essentially, a lot of it's qualitative. I spent two weeks mucking around in congressional districts in another area of the country. I did a lot of interviews. I did two books in short order. [laugh] I sort of knew I was taking a chance with the Congress: Keystone book, that it was unusual in that era to write a book critical of Congress. I got some nasty reviews from some of my senior colleagues in the Congress field. Then I turned right around and did Retrospective Voting, which was very quantitative, and that was to reestablish my bona fides as a serious quantitative scholar. I managed to keep [laugh] my foot in both camps with those two books in quick succession—I actually had one senior guy at Harvard tell me "I would've voted against you on the basis of the Congress book, but I really liked the Retrospective Voting book."
ZIERLER: [laugh] Mo, what was going on in the 1970s, all of the revolutions in Washington, the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam? How did that affect the way that you looked at Congress?
FIORINA: Again, it was, like I mentioned, in the '60s, what I was seeing in Washington didn't fit the textbooks. It was clear that this well-developed picture of—we call it now the textbook congress—didn't fit. Everything was breaking down. The norms were being violated. Things that we had considered sacrosanct were no longer sacrosanct. Generalizations were all breaking down. It was a period of rapid change, and it's continued to the present time. But one thing we don't have is really good theories of institutional change. Again, things look really stable, and then it turns out they aren't.
ZIERLER: Your next major book, Retrospective Voting in American National Elections, what did you mean by the term "retrospective voting"?
FIORINA: Well, there was a lot of political science work at the time that talked about how in order to have a well-functioning representative system, you had to have voters aware of the policy issues, aware of where the candidate stood on the policy issues, and vote on the basis of those policy issues. There were all kind of analyses saying that just wasn't the case. Voters didn't know much about the candidates. They didn't know much about the issues. I resurrected an idea by a famous old political scientist named V. O. Key from the '40s, '50s and '60s that said people don't need to know all that. When people go to the polls [laugh] in three or four months, they're going to be thinking inflation, crime, immigration, baby formula, monkeypox--Biden can't buy a break—when are the locusts coming? [laugh] And a lot of them are going to vote against the Democrats. That's just the way elections work. People look around them. In 1968 there was no unemployment, but workers were looking at the body bags coming home. They were looking at the riots in the cities. They didn't know what people needed to know on issues, but they knew the Democrats were in office while all this was going on, so they held the Democrats responsible. That's the way the system works. That was the empirical part of the book. Then I did some more technical stuff to try to revise the notion of party identification, and that was what I really got known for--getting away from a social-psychological concept of party ID to a more political, instrumental concept of party ID.
ZIERLER: Mo, even before 1982, was your sense that Caltech was a place that institutions like Harvard and Stanford were looking to recruit from?
FIORINA: No, not too much before 1982. I think what happened was we did so much—we collectively--the political science group at Caltech in the '70s, along with some of the economists, and I think, people in the elite departments began to say, OK, this is not a flash in the pan. This sort of work is going to take off. One person after another—after John went to Stanford, I went to Harvard; Ken Shepsle, one of my older Rochester friends went from Wash U. to Harvard. Yale tried to recruit Peter Ordeshook, another of my older Rochester friends from CMU. In a very short period all the top schools seemed to decide, OK, we need to invest in this. I think it was just a function of how much work this group was doing-- good work--in the 1970s.
ZIERLER: Beyond the amount of work and the quality of the work, was there an intellectual cohesiveness with you and your colleagues at Caltech that we might think of as a Caltech school?
FIORINA: Yeah, definitely. [laugh] I remember I think it was the first year Rod Kiewiet joined the faculty--he probably doesn't even remember this. But Rod and Bruce—no, Bruce and Gary Miller came the same year, and I think Rod may have come even later. But the group of us would all take the shuttle to the airport. They still drive faculty to the airport at Caltech?
ZIERLER: Oh, yes.
FIORINA: We all get on the plane, fly across the country, and we're heading down the escalator at some New York hotel. Rod in the back pipes up, "Here we come, the green berets of political science."
FIORINA: [laugh] There was a certain feel we had: "Don't get in our way." [laugh]
ZIERLER: Now, by the time Harvard expressed interest in you, was Caltech making any defensive moves to retain people like you and your colleagues?
FIORINA: Oh, yeah, they did. Caltech was very responsive. Chicago had already tried to hire John and me together in about '77 or so. A year or two later Carnegie made a big move, trying to hire Roger, John, me, and Charlie as a package, just shift the whole program from Caltech to CMU. So, I think it was obvious to Caltech that they had something and it wouldn't be too long before the Harvards and Stanfords came calling. I would've had more money and research support if I'd stayed at Caltech than if I moved to Cambridge. There was never a question about research support and the intellectual climate and everything else at Caltech was great. I think they did everything they could for us, it was just a sense that social science and political science will always be the tail on the dog at Caltech, and this was the big time. This was the New York Yankees saying, "Come join our team." Then too, I figured, if I had wanted to come back, I probably could. [laugh] Going to Harvard and saying, "I don't like it," would probably not keep me from coming back to a Stanford or a Caltech, so I regarded it in part as an experiment. Let's see what happens.
ZIERLER: It worked out well.
FIORINA: Yeah, it did.
ZIERLER: Did you stay in touch with Caltech over the years?
FIORINA: Well, actually, what happened was [laugh] my close colleagues all left. John had already gone, Roger left for Stanford, Bob Bates for Duke, Bruce Cain for Berkeley, and Gary Miller went to Wash U. Dick McKelvey died. So, the people I had worked with all scattered as well. Rod and Morgan Kousser were the only ones who stayed at Caltech. Other people I know came later—Ordeshook, Mike Alvarez, Jonathan Katz. But most of the people I'd been in day-to-day contact with were gone.
ZIERLER: The last majorly scholarly work, I want to touch on because, of course, it does have Caltech origins, The Personal Vote: Constituency Service and Electoral Independence. When you were talking with Bruce and John, did the sort of intellectual kernel for that really begin at Caltech?
FIORINA: Yes, because John and I had been talking for years about the incumbency advantage, and [laugh] the Congress book was almost a product of John teasing me about how it undercut my earlier work [laugh] so I had to take a closer look at this area and say, all right, why did or didn't it undercut my earlier work? Bruce was a student of British politics at that time. The question was, Britain has a single-member district electoral system like we do but they don't have a big incumbency advantage, do they? The conversation started, and the book, the project—I think we got two NSF grants. The project came out of that.
ZIERLER: Mo, this idea that at a place like Caltech, the kinds of things you were working on would always be the tail of the dog, right? Just to investigate that a little further, is that inevitable simply because of the kind of institution Caltech is? Are there things it could've done or has done since that would make that not an obvious conclusion?
FIORINA: Yeah, I think at that point, political science was still just political science. But as you alluded to earlier, there's much more interdisciplinary work today. Stanford has just established this big, new sustainability school, and it's going to have political scientists. There are now, like I said earlier, people like Bruce Cain working with climate scientists up here. I think probably for today's generation of political scientists who are (a) infinitely better trained in statistics, modeling, and so forth, and (b) plus their interests in public policy, it's no longer the case that you have to be only interested in your PhD title. There is now, I think, much more of an emphasis or a value in being part of making things better. so probably you have political scientists coming to Caltech now who will find it much easier to fit into the institution as compared to the 1970s.
ZIERLER: Mo, in moving to Harvard, in what ways did that serve you well, and in what ways being in a much larger department, maybe having a smaller band of peers around you, what might have been difficult about that transition?
FIORINA: Well, it served me well in the sense that it educated me. I had been both at Rochester and at Caltech doing my thing and building up one side of my portfolio. But going to Harvard, there was really no one else [laugh] doing what I did, and I went from having a big group of colleagues to having no one. But I talked to other people, and learned a whole lot more about other parts of the world, and other ways of looking at political science. I certainly never regretted it. It was a good 15 years, I guess—was it 15 or 16 years?—and I was just in a different stage of life, and I look back and think that was a good period. I loved living in Concord, Massachusetts, and raising my first son there. The cost--there were never really costs that I can say. I think as you go through a career, you've got to realize what your strengths are, and what your weaknesses are. My strengths were technical stuff the first 10 years at Caltech. By the time I left, I think my strength was in substantive American politics. By the time I went to Stanford, I think my strength was in merging political science and public interest stuff, communicating with a broader audience. You should go to the place that best fits the career stage you're in now.
ZIERLER: Mo, for the last part of our talk, a few retrospective questions. Then we'll end looking to the future. As you just mentioned, the transition that you experienced during your time at Caltech where your earlier emphasis was on the technical aspects, and then it moved more into the politics side of things, what do you think accounted for that? What was happening at Caltech that influenced that transition for you?
FIORINA: It wasn't what was happening at Caltech. My work was increasingly being appreciated by substantive experts on American politics. It was clear that my strengths were growing in that area. By the same token, every student we trained was better than I was technically, and so to stay near the top technically would be really difficult. Looking down the road, that's going to be really difficult. So, I decided that I better put my limited time and energy and intellectual ability into the part of me that's growing, and not the part of me that's declining.
ZIERLER: Is that because the students, even if they were coming to Caltech in political science, were by definition more technically oriented, and they were going to be attracted to a place like Caltech?
FIORINA: Yeah. They were often arriving with good technical skills, we were a strong technical department, and we were training them very well. We weren't the only ones. There had always been a few unicorns--people like Bernie Grofman out of Chicago, and Ferejohn out of Stanford, a few people coming out who had wandered into the economics department or the business school at their universities, and acquired these tools. But Rochester, Carnegie-Mellon and Caltech were the only places where people who wanted excellent theoretical training could specialize in that.
ZIERLER: The idea that, as you say, nowadays, it's much more normative, there's so much more interdisciplinary work among social scientists and hard science, if you will, in what ways did Caltech innovate that? Was it ahead of the curve? In what ways, more generally, what was going on in academia, Caltech was just part of these glacial developments?
FIORINA: Well, certainly, the latter part's true. Again, talk to Roger. He was a few years ahead of us. He was more involved in Washington and in the policy arena. I think he'd probably have a better perspective on whether Caltech was just part of a trend or whether it was in fact leading the trend.
ZIERLER: Over the years, have you kept up? Have you followed what social scientists have been doing at Caltech?
FIORINA: Not as much. I read work by Mike, Jonathan and Rod. But, again, the technical side is still very strong, and that's not where I focus my energies in reading these days.
ZIERLER: Finally, Mo, last question. For you, what do you see is the outcome of your current interests in social media? To the extent you can look beyond that, what are the next big projects on the horizon?
FIORINA: [laugh] I'm just getting off polarization, and just starting on social media although the first research program led me to the second, of course. I'm a contrarian. I tell my students, "Any time you hear a politician or journalist make some big generalization, your reaction should be, 'yeah, yeah, where's the evidence for that?'" What often happens is I'll hear what's becoming conventional wisdom, and I'll look, and I'll find, that oh, the evidence is really sparse. There's this study, and that one, but that one is 25 years old. That's what lay behind my reading of the social media literature. I got interested in it because of the questions it raises about free speech and expression. As I started to read—not the technical literature on algorithms and so forth--a lot of it's beyond me—I'm not a computer scientist, but you start reading studies of say, Twitter activity, and you learn that 2% of the adult population generates 97 percent of the political posts, and you think, wait a minute, this is a threat to American democracy? It's that sort of thing, just gather up the evidence, write it up in a way that ordinary people can understand and raise the question, is this really something we ought to be worrying about as opposed to other things that are threats to democracy? My goal is to muddy the waters they way I did on polarization, and make people think more carefully about things.
ZIERLER: Mo, it sounds like with that research approach, scholarly topics more find you than you find them.
FIORINA: That, in a way, is true.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Mo, this has been a great conversation. I'd like to thank you so much for spending the time.
FIORINA: Thanks, I've enjoyed it.