Assistant Professor of Public Policy Benjamin Schneer, who joined the Harvard Kennedy School faculty this summer, studies the machinery of democracy. His research has included how political districts are drawn (including an analysis of Arizona’s pioneering use of an independent redistricting commission), what politicians do after they leave high office, and what influence the news media has over what people say online about politics. Schneer, who received his PhD from Harvard University in 2016 and who previously taught at Florida State University, will teach “Is Representative Democracy Representative?” (DPI-308) in spring 2019.
Q: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever come across in your work?
In my paper “How the News Media Activate Public Expression and Influence National Agendas” (with Gary King, of Harvard University, and Ariel White, of MIT), we examine the effect of the media on online expressions of political opinion. The news media have long been thought to hold a crucial place in a well-functioning democracy, but with staffing cuts across many newspapers and deep partisan divides in where people turn for information, we thought the prospects for the news media continuing to play this role were less clear. We worked with a group of almost 50 media outlets to experimentally alter the timing of published news articles on a variety of policy-related topics to get estimates of the effect of media coverage on the national political conversation taking place on social media. We found that coverage from just three to five medium-sized news outlets could increase the volume of Twitter posts in the relevant policy area by a lot more than we might have guessed. For instance, we observed on average a 19.4 percent increase in social media posts in the first day after the stories ran. We did not find meaningful differences in effect size based on region, partisanship or gender. These results show that even with a fragmented online news environment the media remain highly relevant and deeply connected to a pretty broad group of people.
Q: What’s the most important thing a student will learn in your class?
I am going to be teaching a course titled “Is Representative Democracy Representative?” I think the most important thing students will take away from the course is a birds-eye view of a variety of tools and approaches that have been used in the past to try to facilitate political representation—things like the petition, the initiative process, compulsory voting, or even forms of pure democracy where there was rotation into government office among a broader set of citizens—and then to be able to evaluate how these things worked. What are their prospects for being useful going forward? And if so, under what conditions?
Q: How do your research and teaching connect to the solution of pressing problems in the world today?
I’ll pick out two recent examples. I recently wrote a paper with my co-author Maxwell Palmer, of Boston University, examining rates of registered lobbying versus rates of serving as a director on a corporate board among many former government officials—including former senators, members of the House, governors, ambassadors, and cabinet members. We found that, somewhat surprisingly, serving as a registered lobbyist is not as common as serving on a corporate board for most types of former officials. We also found that, in the past, cooling off periods that banned lobbying for a year or two appeared to push former officials into activities that weren’t banned, such as serving on a corporate board, even if they were likely providing similar services. With recent legislation bringing up the possibility of an outright ban on lobbying, I think it is important to keep in mind that, depending on how the legislation is ultimately written, it may simply redirect some of these problematic activities into other venues. I have also done some work on redistricting, and in fact I helped perform some work for the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission in the last redistricting cycle in 2011. There are only a handful of states with independent commissions that perform redistricting. I am working on a policy brief along with my co-authors Daniel Moskowitz, of Harvard University, and Redistricting Commission Chair Colleen Mathis that evaluates how well these states have performed in comparison to other states without independent redistricting. It appears that many other states are looking into what it would take to move the responsibilities for redistricting to independent entities rather than, for example, having redistricting controlled by a state legislature.
Q: What’s the most interesting thing about you that’s not on your CV?
What I think is interesting is rarely what other people think is interesting, so I have no idea! A little while ago I went on a trip to Bali where, while I was taking a picture, an actual monkey snuck up behind me and stole my sunglasses right off of my head and then proceeded to put them on.