Headshot of John Sides ’96

John Sides ’96 is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.

To launch our fall season, we spoke with John Sides ’96, a professor and William R. Kenan, Jr. Chair in the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. His research focuses on comparative and American politics.

Listen to the episode.

The alumnus is co-author of the book, “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.” John is also co-founder, former editor-in-chief, and publisher of The Monkey Cage via The Washington Post. Learn more about John’s work.

This episode is the first of our two-part series on civic engagement. The following episode features activist Greear Webb ’23, the co-founder of Young Americans Protest (YAP!) and the NC Town Hall.

Music credits

The episode’s intro song is by scholar Scott Hallyburton ’22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul.

How to listen

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Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on social media @moreheadcain or you can email us at communications@moreheadcain.org.

Episode Transcription


John, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.


It’s my pleasure. Thank you, Sarah.


I first wanted to ask, as a political scientist, have you ever experienced, or have you ever predicted, these past three and a half plus years? You’re one of the authors of the book, “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America,” where you and your colleagues analyzed the role that voters’ racial and ethnic identities played in Donald Trump’s victory. So I’m curious to hear how you’ve made sense of this topsy turvy political world, having followed the last presidential election run up so closely.


Well, I think there’s things that are normal and things that are abnormal. For a lot of political scientists and political analysts, aspects of the Trump administration, the Trump presidency, have often times been very unusual. Trump’s approach to governance, and the challenges his administration has had, are much different and arguably larger than I think traditionally presidents have had, of course, culminating in impeachment, which is not something most presidents experience. I think you can see some of those challenges and difficulties in how they’ve tried to manage the coronavirus pandemic, or, of course, according to their critics, not manage the pandemic. I think it points to the challenges of having a president and many of the president’s advisers who don’t have a lot of experience or necessarily a lot of knowledge about the public policy issues and challenges confronting the country even before the pandemic.

At the same time, some of the things that have happened have been consistent with normal relative to what we think of as the baseline of American politics: the extent of partisan polarization that we’ve seen between Democrats and Republicans, including in their views of the president, but also in terms of how the parties in Congress have worked together or not worked together. Those are those kinds of things are very much continuations of a trend or a continuation of a pattern.

And we’re also seeing right now with Trump, his approval rating has declined over the last several months, which is very much consistent with the typical pattern when the president confronts national problems and crises and can’t easily or effectively respond to those problems and crises, then there is a segment of the public that holds the president accountable for that, fairly or unfairly.

Some of the challenges that the president is facing in getting re-elected reflect just the challenges of being the president in the middle of a recession and a pandemic. And I don’t think that’s as unusual as Trump is as a chief executive, I don’t think what he’s experiencing right now is anything all that unusual.


Surely a lot of us did not predict a global pandemic of this scale to occur in 2020, among many other crises we’ve seen take place this year. But based on your research and observations, do your findings from the book help us predict at all, or understand, what might happen in the November election between Trump and Biden?


Yeah, so I think there’s several things that are going to most likely have parallels between this election and the last. I mean, one is that you’re going to see a lot of strong partisanship. The vast majority of Democrats are going to vote for Joe Biden and the vast majority of Republicans are going to vote for Donald Trump. And in fact, this kind of partisan loyalty has arguably put both a floor and a ceiling on what we can expect in terms of the percentage of Americans who approve of the president, the percentage of Americans who vote Republican or Democratic in a presidential election. Without that kind of strong partisanship, Trump’s approval rating might have fallen even further or Joe Biden might be able to win an even larger percentage of the vote. So I think that’s a very consistent feature of American elections generally.

But of the last two cycles in particular, one of the other things that we talk a lot about in the book, and this is why it’s called “Identity Crisis,” is because in the 2016 election, there was a lot of the politics of that election that focused on issues around racial, ethnic, religious and national identity. So debates around race and policing, debates around immigration, for example, both Trump and Clinton contributed to that discussion because they both talked about those issues. But, of course, much of that attention and a lot of the controversy came in response to things that Trump said in talking about those issues.

I think one of the things that you can see already in 2020 is that without the ability to sort of promote the country’s economic health, which was what I think he originally planned to do, he’s turned again to similar themes, similar criticisms of immigrants and immigration, his reaction to the killing of George Floyd in the protests surrounding that, his reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement generally. All of those reflect a similar kind of discourse around identity that sort of sharply characterize the country in this kind of “us and them” framework, and that’s very much what he was doing in 2015 and 2016.

The difference is that he’s now confronting these big national problems, which are front and center in Americans’ daily lives and their priorities for the country and their government. And it’s not quite clear whether changing the subject to focus on, let’s say, the dangers of the protesters in Portland, Oregon, is really enough to keep people from thinking more about the challenges the country is facing and whether or not the incoming administration bears some responsibility for those things.


Switching to the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris ticket, do you have any thoughts on how the vice presidential running mate, who, of course, is biracial, may affect voter participation among certain demographics this November, having tracked these sort of variables for the last election?


Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean, we don’t really have a great amount of data to speak to this because she’s a singular figure. We haven’t had a vice presidential candidate who identifies as an African-American woman. I do think that there are a number of people within the Democratic Party who are leaders and sort of activists within the party who feel strongly that as the party has transformed, such that something like 40 percent of self-identified Democrats are not white, that the leadership of the party needs to reflect that. And when that leadership doesn’t reflect that, it runs the risk of failing to engage and mobilize communities within the party that are communities of color.

I don’t know whether the racial and ethnic background of the vice presidential nominee is going to prove to be a major motivating factor. I mean, that’s one of the hypotheses that I think is going to be great to test and figure out when the election’s over. But I do think that increasingly it’s difficult for the Democratic Party symbolically to offer leadership that merely reflects politicians who are white, politicians who are white men. And so you can see in the selection of Harris the way in which the Democratic Party has evolved.

I should also note one of the things that we talked about in our book that we could see in the run up to 2016, but even since 2016, even in the short time that we had to look at data after the election, the Democratic Party’s not just changing in terms of what percentage of the party is white or non-white, it’s changing in terms of the way that the party thinks about issues related to race and civil rights and immigration, and not just because there’s more people who are immigrants themselves or children of immigrants and the like, but it’s because white Democrats, white native-born Democrats have become more liberal on these issues. And events like the killing of Floyd helped to further that.

So if you look at the attitudes of white Democrats now compared to where they were 20 or 30 years ago, they’re just simply much more consistently liberal and progressive on issues of civil rights. And so to some extent, the selection of Harris reflects a set of values that are shared not just among Democrats who are people of Color, but among white Democrats as well.


We’ll be right back.


This fall, starting next week, Morehead-Cains will share their thoughts and experiences on a range of topics, including managing financial debt, parenting during a pandemic, and how to design a meaningful gap year. The first event, called “A Polarized America: Saving the Art of Agreeable Disagreement,” is on Wednesday, September 9th, at 4 P.M. EDT. You can view the full slate of events on the MCN.


And now back to the show.


I now want to ask you some questions about the post office. From your perspective, just how real is the threat to our next election that we’re reading about in the news with respect to the post office’s potential implosion? And how concerned should we be as we see all these headlines about the institution’s woes? And in what specific ways should we be concerned?


One of the things that’s clearly concerning is the way in which voting by mail has been mischaracterized as simply a channel for fraud. And there’s just simply very, very little evidence of any kind of voter fraud, whether that’s people misrepresenting who they are and voting in person, whether that’s people stealing or otherwise trying to sort of fill out absentee ballots or mail ballots in ways that obviously don’t reflect who they are or the fact that they might be ineligible to vote. So all of these things that seek to sort of place restrictions on voting in service of preventing fraud are mostly solutions in search of a problem. That to me is a very concerning thing.

The other thing that’s concerning is that there’s a lack of clarity around the distinction between different kinds of mail-in voting. There are a handful of states that either already provide every citizen with a ballot that they send via the mail or are going to do that now because of the pandemic. The vast majority of states do not do that. The vast majority of states require the voter to request a ballot and then upon request, that ballot is mailed into them. So this distinction has been obscured in some of the statements of the president and some other commentators.

The system of requesting a ballot and having one sent to you is not anything controversial. The president requested absentee ballots to vote in Florida. We need to be clear that when we’re talking about voting by mail in the 2020 election, mostly we’re talking about a system of absentee voting that’s been in place for a long time. It’s nothing new. It’s likely not going to produce any worse outcomes than it produced before. So those are two pieces of misinformation that have to be worked on the issues around the post office.

To some extent, what this reflects is a central challenge in the way that America administers elections. We administer elections largely by delegating authority to states and to localities to make decisions, and the states and localities can make very different decisions depending on who the policymakers are in those states. The situation with the post office is the rare opportunity, therefore, for the federal government to get involved in some form or fashion. And here, again, this should not be a difficult issue or problem. The Postal Service has the capacity to deliver the current amount of mail volume that we have in this country. And they have the capacity to handle additional volume that might come from ballots.

Anything that places that at risk is at risk of denying some Americans their democratic right to express their choice in an election. At the end of the day, how many ballots would likely be affected and with what impact if the Postal Service were to continue with these restrictions? It’s unclear. Would it be enough to decide the fate of the election? Probably not. But even if it doesn’t, it’s still a challenge. It’s still a problem just from the standpoint of the principles and ideals that we should aspire to as a democracy.

One of the things that I think is most harmful about the way we discuss voting in this country is this presumption that anything that we do to make voting easier automatically benefits Democrats. And the political science literature has not shown that to be the case. We have had states move to all-mail elections states like Oregon, and it has not produced some sea change such that Democrats get more votes and win more elections. Most election reforms don’t have those kinds of large partisan consequences.

I think a really useful thing for the country would be for us, both Democrats and Republicans, to come to understand that that’s the case. And we could then maybe build a broader coalition around a set of policies at the local, state, and federal level that might that might make voting easier without politicians fearing that they’re going to lose office as a consequence of it.


So even if some of the potential problems we’re reading about, such as the concern about capacity, are not as well understood as they could or should be, are you worried about the sort of net effect that this overall sense of confusion and even distrust of the Postal Service as an institution may affect voting come November?


Yeah, I would say that I think the concern that I have is not specifically that this affects trust in the post office, per say, but that this just affects trust and the American electoral process generally. All of these controversies, you know, for people to fear that the outcome is illegitimate or to believe that the outcome is illegitimate. And I mean, the worst case scenario, I think that people are entertaining, and this gets back to your questions about what’s been unusual about the Trump presidency, is that Trump himself may not acknowledge the election’s outcome as legitimate and may use this kind of misinformation about vote by mail or absentee voting to suggest that if he loses, that this was somehow the result solely of fraud and he is the true winner. And democracies depend to a large extent on the consent of the losing candidate and the losing party so that you can acknowledge that loss and then live to fight another day in the next election. And when democracies sort of fail to get the consent of the losers, right, that’s when the risks of actual violence or conflict increase.

What I worry about when we have these debates and about the role of the post office and all of that, I worry that it’s creating a fear of the American distrust, the American electoral process that’s not warranted. I don’t necessarily think that that means people won’t vote. I mean, I think they vote for a lot of other reasons. But I do worry that when they don’t think their vote is going to be counted or when they think that when their side loses is because the other side cheated, that’s the stuff that concerns me the most. I want people to have the confidence that the system can work well. I want the system to be reformed to increase that confidence. And I want people who don’t win to acknowledge that the reason they lost wasn’t because the other side cheated. That would be the ideal world. I’m not optimistic that’s going to happen anytime soon. But that’s the concern that I have when I see the fear that some politicians have tried to instill around mail voting and stuff like that.


What would you say about the value of a vote? In 2016, Colin Kaepernick said it would be hypocritical of him to vote, with this idea that the system is so flawed and oppressive to begin with, particularly with respect to Black Americans, that participating in that system through voting would not be a good use of time. In contrast, we have Representative John Lewis, who a true champion for voting for many. So I just want to hear from you in a post, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission world, to what extent does a single vote matter?


There are people who may choose not to vote because of their sincere sense that the system has ignored them. And that’s a political statement in its own right. And we have that right as citizens where we have the right to use that abstention, right, as a way of communicating voice. And I think there are, of course, justified concerns with the electoral and political system that we have. The way I interpreted Congressman Lewis’s remarks and the record he built over the course of his life was that it’s a belief, first and foremost, fundamentally, in the right to vote. So this opportunity needs to be legally protected and not constrained or limited in a variety of ways.

One thing that I would say if I were talking to students, I’m not going to sit there and pretend to tell them that if millions and millions of Americans vote, their one vote counts in the sense that it determines the outcome of the election, that’s clearly not going to be the case, but the extent to which groups within society do or do not have that legal right has a tremendous influence on the extent to which their concerns are heard and to which government is responsive to their needs and problems. And there’s lots of evidence for this, that politicians are more responsive to groups that vote in higher numbers.

And so I think part of the message has to be, not that the system is perfect and not that your vote picks the winner, but that collectively, when you add people who share your goals and values participate in politics, it increases the likelihood that you’re going to be listened to and you’re going to get a response. You’re going to get a set of public policies that benefit you. And that’s why I think that the value in voting oftentimes comes from your small contribution to that overall process rather than your arguably infinitesimal contribution to who wins the election.


Finally, in the interest of time, I just wanted to close with a question about your work with The Washington Post. You’re one of the co-founders of The Monkey Cage. And now as a publisher, how is the outlet planning on approaching political coverage this fall? And what questions are you all asking right now?


Sure. I mean, I’ll just say a little bit about The Monkey Cage and how it approaches its work. We’re a site that publishes analysis by social scientists and particularly political scientists, and that’s based on the premise that there’s important ideas and expertise that academics have, but they don’t often have the ability to share with a broader audience outside of universities. So what we’re trying to do is give scholars a forum to communicate.

When we’re thinking about the 2020 election, there’s a lot of interesting and important questions that scholars can shed light on. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the attitudes of voters, with the choices that they plan to make and will ultimately make over the fall culminating in Election Day. But we’re also interested in some of the very things that we’ve discussed in this conversation, like what are the challenges confronting the way that we design and hold elections in this country with regard to absentee balloting or vote by mail? What percentage of Americans who mail a ballot and have that vote rejected, and why? And who is more likely to have their ballot rejected? How can we improve the process to make that less likely? Political scientists are oftentimes able to provide very specific and useful expertise and guidance on these kinds of questions in the aftermath of the election.

There’s going to be a lot of conversation on The Monkey Cage and elsewhere, just about big topics and political reform. This is particularly true if President Trump loses and and we’re moving toward a Biden administration. No one who looks at politics thinks it works very well, that was true before President Trump, and it certainly has been true over the last several years. And so this give me a lot of ideas that are going to be discussed about, let’s say, the relative balance of power among the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judiciary, how we should think about the power of the executive branch and the privileges of the executive branch and whether those need to be curtailed in certain ways or whether the legislature and the judiciary are able to do enough to provide checks o the executive as the founders intended. There’s just no end of things that we can publish and write about.

It would be nice, actually, if there were fewer things, because that means the news would be a little more quiet for a change and we could all live in some peace but I don’t see that happening. And so hopefully we’ll continue to be able to use the research and the ideas of these scholars to shed some light on these important questions.


We’ll have to closely follow The Monkey Cage and I’ll drop the link in the episode description. Thank you so much again, I really appreciate it.


Thank you very much, Sarah. Take care.

*This episode has been edited slightly for clarity.