A Conversation with Professor David Mayhew

Authored By 
Tory Bilski
Blog contributor 

In the beginning of May, Sterling Professor David Mayhew was elected into the National Academy of Sciences, an honor so far bestowed on only 84 Yale professors in the NAS’ 150 year history.

At the end of May, he is being honored again; this time by his colleagues at Yale and across the country when the Center for the Study of American Politics at ISPS hosts a two-day event celebrating his life and work.

Mayhew has spent 45 years as a Yale Professor (ISPS being his home for most of those years). He has authored eight books on party politics and Congress and has illuminated our understanding of the role of political parties in the broader political system. He has a reputation as a contrarian, since most of his books challenge widely-held assumptions about party politics and partisanship.

Q: Early Years. Is there anything in your background that would shed light on why you chose your life’s work? Where did you grow up?

Mayhew: I‘m from northeastern Connecticut. I grew up in a factory village, little town called Dayville, of about 1,000 people. It had a woolen mill, which then became a pin mill—this was the major institution in town. My father was an electrician; he started off as meter reader, and then rose to become a district manager at Connecticut Light & Power. My mother’s side was a woolen and textile mill family; they mostly worked in the mills. The town was very dominantly Catholic and they were the Democrats; but we were Protestant and Republicans, the minority in town. The elections were essentially a religious census. I went to a little elementary school in town and then went off to Killingly High School.

I got interested in politics at early age; not in running, but in watching politics. I was a baseball junkie and political junkie. I followed the major leagues and electoral politics. I made elaborate statistics based on newspapers and magazines we read, like the Saturday Evening Post, Newsweek, the local and Boston newspapers. I followed election results all the way back to 1948. When I was thirteen, I started observing in a big way.

Q: College Education. How does one wind up at Amherst College coming from a village like Dayville?

Mayhew: We didn’t know anything about college. But there used to be a law in Connecticut that within the nine members of the elected school board, there had to be a minority split. Since it was a Democratic town, it had to have at least three positions for Republicans. My father got one of those slots, which meant he got to know the school superintendent, who told my father I should apply to Amherst. So I did. The superintendent was a Democrat, but my father knew him. Partisanship was a big deal in my upbringing, and cross partisanship. 

Q: Amherst in the 1950s. What was it like?

Mayhew:  Amherst had been a place where prosperous New York families sent their sons. It was rich; a lot of people were pedigreed. They’d been to prep schools and played hockey and tennis. Their fathers had yachts. So that was half the class. But at that time, in the mid-50s, it was shifting to admissions through SAT scores and grades, and high school class valedictorians (of whom I was one).  A lot of my peers were of that sort. It was becoming more of a national market in admissions with the top scale places competing for these kids. This was true across the Ivies, and true across the potted Ivies. So there was that kind of differentiation, but it was more of a statistical differentiation. Among the students there wasn’t a lot of class feeling. We all got along pretty well. Everybody was a member of a fraternity. A lot of my fraternity peers were a talented bunch. We generated a Yale physics professor, a Yale Law professor, an astronaut, a stents billionaire, a Nobel Prize winner in biology. I gravitated into an environment where people were becoming intellectuals, which was a very different environment from my high school.

Q: Intellectual Influences. Did you naturally gravitate toward political science?

Mayhew: I quickly, reflexively, went into it. I did political theory with Dick Fenno and George Kateb; comparative constitutionalism politics with Karl Loewenstein. Earl Latham was my senior essay advisor. From Amherst, I went directly to Harvard for grad school. At that point if you took a year off, you got drafted even though it was between wars. At Harvard, I got into studying American politics with V.O. Key, who was my dissertation advisor. I took courses with Louis Hartz, Sam Beer, Bob McCloskey—they were my chief teachers in the Government Department. And I took or audited history classes with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Frank Freidel, Oscar Handlin, Bernard Bailyn, and H. Stuart Hughes. There’s an anecdote there: Hughes was an impressive lecturer in European politics. When I was in grad school in 1962 he ran for the Senate as an independent anti-war candidate. I remember working for him, going out and handing out leaflets, knocking on doors. That Senate race had an astonishing array of blue blood talent; Hughes was a grandson of a Supreme Court Justice; George Lodge was son of US Senator, and Eddie McCormick was nephew to the Speaker of the U.S. House, and then there was the latest Kennedy, Ted. Hughes didn’t do too well. And I learned it wasn’t very pleasant to knock on doors. People didn’t know this guy [Hughes] and they didn’t care. 

Q: Early Teaching Years. You first taught at UMass Amherst for four years; then went to DC on APSA Congressional fellowship. How did Yale recruit you?

Mayhew: Spending the year in DC on the APSA Fellowship was enormously valuable for me. I got to be an intern in a House office and a Senate office. So I could see what was going on down there. It was during that year that I was approached by Bob Lane at Yale. I had published my dissertation book [Party Loyalty among Congressman, 1966] and that generated interest from them. At that time, they didn’t have job talks. Back then they could operate more informally. Yale was doing a lot of hiring. The university had resources to expand the department and Bob Lane was entrepreneurial. So they invited me to lunch and pummeled me with questions about what I was writing, which at the time was about  the Senate filibuster. I didn’t hear from them for seven weeks, and then they made me an offer. The department was really small then, but they were creating a new political science with Bob Dahl, Bob Lane, Ed Lindblom—they were the superstars. It was a high octane place intellectually. They put the department on the map. Then there was a large flock of younger professors who had been hired by Kaufman and Lane: Doug Rae, Sid Tarrow, Isaac Kramnick, Paul Wolfowitz, Tom Pangle, Al Stepan, Phil Shively, David Price (now NC Congressman). Gerald Kramer was brought in as tenured. It was a spirited bunch. 
I wrote my Electoral Connection book in 1973 and that was a success, more so than my first book. It was based on my DC experience on Capitol Hill in 1967-68.  I was watching what was going on, and later I had time to mull it over, theorize about it.

Q:  Reputation as a Contrarian. I’ve heard you referred to as Taftian Republican? Is that accurate?

Mayhew: No, I’m more of an Eisenhower Republican if I’m a Republican at all, that’s what I was brought up as. There are roots there. Yet I have mostly voted for Democrats for president. I’m a registered Independent. I tend to be a contrarian. I tend to vote against incumbent parties, overwhelmingly so. I don’t know why. It’s a statistical pattern more than an explanation of one. 

Q:  Divided We Govern. What was the impetus for that book?

Mayhew: I always want to explain something if I’m dissatisfied with an existing explanation. How do you explain something? It’s like taking a watch apart. In the late 1980s, Mo Fiorina and Gary Jacobson got into the same question as I did, which was looking seriously at the pattern of divided party control. It had been considered to be an aberration, even though we had a lot of divided control in previous decades. It was seen to be something you get over. It was looked at as abnormal. The normal default situation was supposed to be that one party runs everything --and this had generally been true until the 1950s-- and it was seen as the recipe for running the government successfully. Otherwise things were going to be a mess and nothing would happen. But what happened in the late 80’s was that George W. H. Bush got in the White House and had a Democratic Congress, after eight years of Reagan. So we had a Republican president for 12 years with divided party control. The whole business started to look kind of normal. After all, if Bush could get elected --and he wasn’t a great military leader or former Hollywood star, he was just a generic politician--- you had to think that that state of affairs is as common as any other. So it made sense to look at what policy making and governing are actually like in divided party control as opposed to unified party control. That’s what got me into this and what got Fiorina and Jacobson into it, too. We didn’t ask exactly the same questions and didn’t come to exactly the same conclusions, but we looked at it with the same cast of mind. It’s quite interesting-- an instance of common consciousness.

Q.  Partisanship.  Lots of talk about rancor between the parties increasing these days, but is this anything new? 

Mayhew:  Polarization is way up there these days. At least between the party elites. That seems clear enough.  But people keep making comparisons of polarization over time, and I don't think that we know how to make that comparison very well. For one thing, I have doubts about using any measure of congressional roll call behavior to do that over long stretches of time. There are measurement problems having to do with agenda-setting customs on Capitol Hill, the ordinality versus cardinality of the data, as well as  changes in the real substantive content of issues, among other things.  On the history side, it is a measurement puzzle.

Q: Current Work. What are you writing now?

Mayhew : I have been writing a piece on the election of 2012. I wrote a piece on elections throughout American history for a handbook on American Political Development. I’m writing a paper for a History and Congress conference at Columbia in June on how Congress has addressed challenges during American history.

Q: Nate Silver. What do you think of him?

Mayhew: I thought he was the big winner in the election of 2012.