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PhD Candidate Ponders the Partisanship Puzzle

Brandon MArshall

Fredericksburg is a city on the Rappahannock River in Virginia, known for a rich history, a history profoundly influenced by its location halfway between the capitals of the opposing forces of the Civil War.

That makes it a fitting birthplace for Political Science PhD candidate Brandon Marshall ‘20, whose research is dedicated to exploring one of the most complex subjects in today’s news cycle: partisan politics.

Brandon MArshall
PhD candidate Brandon Marshall in the studio

“Fredericksburg is one of those towns where if you throw rock, you’re going to hit a civil war battlefield, or Washington’s childhood home,” says Marshall. “Washington, D.C. is a short trip away. I grew up surrounded by history. When the 2000 election came around, I was in third grade and it hit me that this stuff is still happening.”

By 2004, he was staying up late researching candidates and helping his school put together a “voter guide”. By 2008 he was hooked. Marshall traces the origins of his interest in partisanship back to that 2008 election — a time he was a young, liberal high school student.

“I supported Hillary Clinton,” he recalls. “I was fine with Obama, but I liked Clinton.” He was also actively starting to talk about politics with those around him and noticed that people leaned in very different directions.

“I wanted to figure out why they believed the way they did and not the way I did,” he remembers. “Why do I get so angry about some things and they don’t? It was a mystery I wanted to solve. I wanted to understand why people were so different, or even why I was so different from my parents.”

Marshall would go on to earn a BA in political science from Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, doing undergraduate research on political cognition along the way.

“A lot of my citations were from Stony Brook because [former Stony Brook faculty members] Milton Lodge and Chuck Taber are giants of political cognition research,” said Marshall. “When it came time to look at graduate schools, I realized I cited their research a lot, which told me that this was a topic I was very interested in and that maybe I belonged here.”

In 2015, Marshall’s second year at Stony Brook, he applied for an NSF (National Science Foundation) fellowship, which required a plan to disseminate his research.

“It’s government money and they want to know what you’re going to do with it for the public good,” said Marshall. “Since I applied for the fellowship the year before and didn’t get it, I figured I needed to up the game a little bit.”

Marshall’s advisors told him about WUSB, Stony Brook’s radio station. Since he had prior experience doing a panel show as an undergrad, a radio gig seemed a logical fit.

He was nearing the end of his broadcasting training at WUSB when he was informed he did not get the fellowship. However, he decided that a radio show would be a good outlet to discuss political science findings related to current events, and has been hosting “Election Connection” between 6-8 am on alternating Friday mornings since 2015, much to Marshall’s unexpected enjoyment.

“I think I’m a naturally shy person,” admits Marshall. “My teaching and the radio show have really helped build my self-confidence so that I’m more comfortable with public speaking, especially towards an audience that’s not academic. If listeners are getting anything out of ‘Election Connection’, that’s great. I hope it’s had some sort of an impact.”

Interestingly, Marshall’s views of “partisanship” are very likely not what you think.

“I don’t think partisanship is broken here,” he says flatly. “It’s sort of the central way that people relate to organized politics, and political parties are just too central to the functioning of democratic government to be removed.”

Marshall says that partisanship, by itself, is not inherently bad.

Brandon Marshall
Brandon Marshall

“Race, religion, ideology and partisanship are all very much sort of lined up between the parties,” he explains. “Democrats are a combination of white college-educated liberals and racial minorities; Republicans are white conservative Christian. This means that you have a situation where there’s very little overlap between the parties, which heightens a sense of threat. Now, if the other side wins, they’re just so different from us.”

And therein lies the problem: people vastly overestimate the differences, though the differences are legitimate.

“I think having legitimate differences between parties is fine,” says Marshall. “The problem is that it heightens partisan threat. And it also means that within government there’s very little room for the parties to compromise and negotiate, because you don’t have anything to trade off. The interests between the parties are just so different. There’s no ‘win-win’ scenario that benefits both sides except in very rare circumstances.”

Marshall says our institutional structures were devised without thinking about the political parties to come, and the bits we see from very public events like the recent presidential impeachment procedures show that political parties help unite politicians across branches of government.

“Unfortunately, that means they rise or fall together,” explains Marshall. “If Donald Trump falls, Republicans fall. So the sort of expected ambition and zealous protection of the branch’s power that the founders expected just doesn’t exist. The result is that we lose a lot of the safeguards that the founders had put in place.”

As much as he’s enjoyed doing “Election Connection,” Marshall has no aspirations to further a broadcast journalism career.

“There are a lot of political scientists who push for political scientists to be more forward-facing and engaging with the media,” he says. “It’s not something I would pick as my first job. But if I’m in a position where I can work with the media as a secondary thing, to get an expert opinion out there, then sure. The teaching research is the thing I really enjoy.”

Finally, the solution to political harmony, says Marshall, might be closer than you think.

“One of the important things about politics is the need to be involved in your local community on a regular basis, not just during elections,” he says. “It might be joining a church or civic organization, your local party committees, or even just something like a bowling league.”

Marshall says it’s important to build a reputation within the local community, engaging with it on a regular basis.

“That’s probably going to be a lot more influential and beneficial,” he says. “The average person is not thinking of the partisan makeup of their bowling league or church. Being willing and able to engage with your community outside of politics is in a very weird way a useful tool for actually building up political power.”

— Robert Emproto

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  • For anyone who is interested in more research on the topics I talked about, here’s some of the books I was referencing in the interview:

    Dr. Liliana Mason “Uncivil Agreement”
    Dr. Matt Grossmann & Dr. David Hopkins “Asymmetric Polarization”
    Dr. David Hopkins “The Increasingly United States”
    Dr. Eitan Hersh “Politics is for Power”

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