Talking political science with Assistant Editorial Director Charles Myers

August 28, 2020
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In normal times, the American Political Science Association meeting is one of our busiest conferences–our jam-packed booth is full of scholars looking to browse and buy the latest books in American and international politics and political theory. Oh, and to see Chuck Myers, our Assistant Editorial Director, whose acquisitions over the past few decades have played almost as big a role as anything else in shaping the field of political science.

Alas, as in so many other ways, these are not normal times. The APSA will be virtual, as will our booth. But we didn’t want you all to miss getting to hobnob with Chuck, so our Marketing Director, Levi Stahl, conducted the following brief interview with him.

Enjoy the interview, and then click through to our Virtual APSA to get the latest, best books in the field for 40% off with free shipping. And we’ll look forward to seeing you in person at next year’s APSA!

You’ve been acquiring books in political science for . . . let’s just say that a goodly number of presidential administrations have come and gone and you’ve still had your shoulder to the wheel. But that doesn’t mean that everybody knows your background. Can you give us a rundown of your publishing career and how you ended up here at Chicago?

I’ve had a couple of different careers including time in Washington working in the Senate and in the Justice Department in what now seems like a different country. I’ve been interested in politics since I was a child and used to go with my mother, who was our local judge of elections, to the county building late in the evening, after the election and the ballots were hand-counted, to report the results and turn in the ballots from our district (yes, paper ballots!). I started in scholarly publishing twenty-five years ago at the University of Michigan Press where I was hired as the political science editor while writing my dissertation for a Ph.D. at Michigan. I finished my dissertation but chose to stay in publishing because I enjoyed the breadth of areas and issues I could learn about. I later worked at Princeton University Press, ran the University Press of Kansas, and have now returned to full-time (well sort-of ) acquiring at Chicago.

All fields change with the times, but political science is explicitly tasked with, among other things, keeping track of what’s going on right now. And what’s fun about keeping an eye on the poli sci literature is that you often know a lot about a trend before it is recognized by the mainstream. Any analyses or problems you’ve been seeing lately in books or proposals that you think we’re likely to be hearing more about soon?

I’m not sure that there are now big discipline-altering trends in methodogy or arguments in political science like the rational choice movement in the 1990’s but “big data” has created new challenges and opportunities for political scientists who have more information to try to make sense of. Polling has been impacted by changes in the way people communicate; the old landline polls don’t enable people to get the same distribution of repondents and have been partially replaced by new polling technologies. Qualitative work—or simply talking to people—has gained attention. Experiments of different kinds, including experiments embedded in surveys, play a bigger role. The discipline, as with real world politics, has been challenged by the threats posed to democracy across the world by politicians who do not play by democratic rules. Some interesting work in political theory, American political development, and constitutional studies addresses these problems. The profession is becoming slowly more diverse. We are publishing excellent work by women and scholars of color on a whole range of issues.

Because it’s focused on real-world problems, political science is a field where even scholarly books full of charts can break out—like Katherine J. Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment or Lilliana Mason’s Uncivil Agreement. Is there a common thread to books that cross over to general readers from this field? Or steps an author can take to make that more likely?

Since the election of Donald Trump sophisticated people inside and outside the academy have been interested in what happened. This event was such an earthquake in American politics that, among other things, it has increased interest in good scholarly work people think will help them understand what happened in 2016 and what this country has gone through since. Work that might have been of purely academic interest a few years ago has now caught on with journalists and experts on elections. Race and immigration have become of greater interest.

What does it take for a book to break out to a broader audience? Luck helps, but otherwise my advice hasn’t really changed much over the years. I remember Kathy Cramer telling me her phone started ringing about 9:00 on the night of the 2016 election because she had a book on the attitudes of rural white people in Wisconsin.

Have a clearly stated argument and strong evidence that deals with fundamental issues and offers people a new perspective on something of importance. Be clear about who you are writing for and write at their level. State your question in the way the audience thinks of it. If you have sophisticated data analysis explain it, use good, clear figures and tables, and banish methodological discussions to an appendix or journal article. Put yourself out there and seek invitations to give book talks, post on blogs, be available for interviews, and speak dynamically about your book. Finally, be careful not to fight the last war, in a current events sense. Books take a while so dig a bit deeper.

For good or ill, politics seems to take up an ever-increasing portion of our national conversation. Do you think that affects the field? Does it change how scholars approach their work, or the kind of people who are drawn to the discipline?

It increases the interest of a group of sophisticated professionals—journalists and campaign types—in fairly technical work in politics if it seems to help them understand what is going on. Having said that, a lot of campaign professionals seem to ignore work that suggests campaigns have little effect on the outcome of elections, I suppose for financial reasons. Some authors are inclined to overestimate the audience for their work because of the increased interest in politics. I don’t think I have noticed a change in who is drawn to the discipline but it has motivated people to try to write the “big” book on what is happening to democracy. A few are successful, but it is a crowded field these days.

Asking this is like asking you to pick your favorite grandkid (which, you know, you can probably do right here—I am sure they’re smart, but I doubt they read our blog), but I’m going to do a version of it anyway: What books do we have coming out that you’re particularly enthusiastic about? Any that you see as leading the way to new areas of interest in the field, or that represent important shifts in thinking? Or any that you were simply excited to see come to fruition?

Ah, this is painful. I have always believed that both my children (and the people they married) were equally wonderful and feel the same about my grandchildren (see below). So picking favorites among my books is impossible. What follows I write with full apologies to the authors I don’t mention. Seriously, I brag about all of you.

Economic and political inequality is an ongoing theme in American politics, sadly. We have the new paperback edition of Ben Page and Marty Gilens’s book Democracy in America? and Meghan Condon and Amber Wichowsky’s The Economic Other offering withering critiques of contemporary America. At a time when race is an issue we have just published LaFleur Stephens-Dougan’s Race to the Bottom as well as Chris DeSante and Candis Smith’s Racial Stasis. When we are seeing a lot of grassroots organizing I am pleased to have Prisms of the People, by Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna, and Michelle Oyakawa, offering an important perspective on organizing. I do very few edited volumes but three I have coming out are special. One, Congress Overwhelmed, edited by Tim LaPira, Kevin Kosar, and Lee Drutman, shows how Congress has weakened itself through a failure to build its own institutional strengths. As a former Senate staffer, this one resonated with me. In African American Political Thought Melvin Rogers and Jack Turner assembled a wonderful collection of scholars to give us a history of the significant contributions to our understanding of American politics and society made by African American thinkers. States of Exception in American History, edited by Gary Gerstle and Joel Isaac, meanwhile, deals with periods in which constitutional rights have been suspended or ignored in American history. Sadly, we might be at such a time.

We have books coming out now on the presidency, which for obvious reasons has become a hot topic. The problem is what to do about a strong office that requires someone with an adult personality and an active brain to succeed in it. In the spring we published Dan Drezner’s Toddler in Chief, which pointed out the dangers of having a woefully immature person in this office. We have arguments for the importance of the presidency from Will Howell and Terry Moe, in Presidents, Populism and the Crisis of Democracy; an analysis of Trump’s failures to utilize the powers of the presidency, by George Edwards, coming in the spring of 2021, and a takedown of the idea of the imperial presidency from Dino Christenson and Doug Kriner, The Myth of the Imperial Presidency, that is just out. Of course Congressional studies are a strength of our list and we have James Curry and Frances Lee back with The Limits of Party, a counterargument to the idea of rampant partisanship in America.

I will stop because I could go on and on about the many wonderful authors and books I have published.

You’ve spent the pandemic in a few places—you were with family in the Southwest when we went to lockdown, and (traveling carefully) have been back here. What have you done to keep sane and focused in this period? Any new hobbies or forms of cultural engagement?

I’ve been able to spend more time with my grandchildren as I seek to help my children out. The grandchildren (and, yes, the children) are a real delight, although helping to potty train the two-year-old brought back memories, at least until my wife reminded me that when our children were at that stage I was at the Justice Department and then private law practice and left in the morning not to return until sometime in the evening, missing such activities, so couldn’t have those memories.

Spending so much time in New Mexico, where I am about fifteen minutes or so from the mountains, has enabled me to hike, bike, and climb outdoors during my free time and at least partially keep my sanity. I can’t say I’ve taken up new hobbies but I have been able to finish reading some books.

I reconnected at my high school reunion (won’t say which one) last fall with some people from high school. A group of us, most of whom had worked on the yearbook, of which I was editor in chief, and who sought to reinvent a rather boring publication, periodically have Zoom sessions that are loosely organized around questions about our past and future and the great black hole in between, including some shared writing. We all lived in an affluent suburb of Pittsburgh and navigated a time of antiwar demonstrations, countercultural change, work and personal life over the decades in different ways. So I guess I have been looking back while still moving forward.

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