Q&A with government professor Dean Lacy

by Julian Nathan | 1/22/18 2:10am

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Source: Courtesy of Dean Lacy

Government department chair and professor Dean Lacy has served as the director of the College’s Program in Politics and Law since 2006. The program supports student-faculty research and funds data purchases, interviews, surveys and other research tools. On Nov. 6, 2017, the Sphinx Foundation, an educational and philanthropic non-profit organization based in New Hampshire, announced that it was awarding the program a $12,500 grant that will be used to fund research fellowships to undergraduate students and faculty members through the 2017-2018 academic year. As a researcher, Lacy generally focuses on topics related to American politics, including elections, lawmaking and public opinion. This term, Lacy is teaching Government 19.01, “Applied Multivariate Data Analysis.”

How did you come to be involved in the Politics and Law program?

DL: When I first got [to Dartmouth] in 2006, I read an announcement indicating that the Milton and Miriam Handler Foundation was looking for pilot programs related to the law, and I submitted an application. We received the grant, and that grant supported the program for 10 years, which I think is longer than the Milton and Miriam Handler Foundation anticipated.

What’s your favorite part about working on the Politics and Law program?

DL: Working with students. I think that getting students involved in research early and through venues distinct from things like the James O. Freedman Presidential Scholars program, which is for sophomores, and senior theses is important. Working with students on research projects and giving them the opportunity to attend conferences and get their work published is what’s exciting for me.

What are you most looking forward to in the future for the Politics and Law program?

DL: Working with more students and seeing more of the papers we’ve already worked on reach publication. It sometimes takes years for finished research to find its way into print. In December, I worked with a Politics and Law fellow from five years ago to get a paper printed in a very good journal. Sometimes it takes that long for a project to print because of suggestions for revisions, requests for additional data and other things of that nature that inevitably arise. I also hope to expand the size and scope of the Program in Politics and Law to include more students and perhaps larger projects as well. We had the chair of the Federal Election Commission visit Dartmouth as a guest speaker many years ago, and there are others that we want to bring to campus for general talks to students and faculty members.

In addition to serving as the director of the Program in Politics and Law, you’re also a professor in the government department. What research topics are you currently looking into?

DL: I’m studying how people answer public opinion surveys. My argument is that people have more complex opinions and think about things more deeply than most public opinion surveys give them credit for. I’ve also started a project that examines how federal spending affects outcomes in presidential and gubernatorial elections. In addition, I’m studying how much people know about the law and believe that the law is on their side with respect to hot-button social issues like abortion, marriage equality and gun control. When people don’t know what the law is in their state or at the federal level, do they think that the law agrees with their own opinion? I also have another project with a Politics and Law fellow from two years ago that’s taking a look at polarization between political parties and why there are fewer swing states that switch sides in presidential elections now than in any time in American history. Lastly, I’m also studying why ballot measures are challenged by state and federal courts even when they pass by a majority of voters.

What prompted you to look into those topics?

DL: Some of them were just ideas that I had after reading the literature and thinking, “There’s something wrong here.” Others I just stumbled across, like the project on federal spending. In 2002, I discovered that the states that are given the most federal spending in presidential elections are increasingly Republican, which presents somewhat of a paradox. The projects on ballot measures and polarization were student-initiated for senior theses, although both students were also Politics and Law fellows.

Have any of your results so far surprised you?

DL: Each of the projects has some surprising result. For instance, with the one on ballot measures, we find that judges respond to public opinion in some sense. That is, the more votes that are cast in favor of a ballot initiative, the less likely judges are to overturn the ballot measure. And, even though most states require that a ballot measure addresses only a single subject and not multiple subjects, it turns out that courts are less likely to overturn ballot measures that address multiple subjects. I would’ve expected the reverse. With the project on federal spending, it surprised me that the states that are getting the most money over time are Republican. And, with respect to the study about the general public’s knowledge of the law, I was surprised to learn that more people know whether it’s legal to own an assault rifle in their home state than know which party is more liberal, which party has a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and whose job it is to determine whether a law is constitutional. We often use the latter questions to measure political knowledge, but we found that most Americans don’t know much about politics. But, 75 percent of Americans know whether it’s legal to own an assault rifle in their home state. That’s a pretty technical detail, and I was surprised to find how much people know about issues that matter to them compared to how little people know about the inner workings of the federal government.

Do you have any advice for students studying government?

DL: Dartmouth is very much a research university inside of a liberal arts college, which means that unlike a lot of liberal arts colleges, we have a lot of active researchers and students who take advantage of that. Employers and graduate programs increasingly expect students to produce knowledge rather than to simply consume it, and a great way to learn to become a knowledge producer is to do research — writing a senior thesis, working as a James O. Freedman Presidential scholar, as a Politics and Law fellow or really in any capacity where you can discover something original outside of the classroom and convey it to the public.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.