Politics, Press and Millennials

A Q&A with noted political commentator Professor Brigid Harrison

Photo: Mike Peters

Professor Brigid Harrison

Professor of Political Science and Law Brigid Callahan Harrison teaches courses in American politics and is a frequent commentator on U.S. politics in print, electronic and broadcast media. She is the author of several books as well as a weekly column on U.S. and New Jersey politics in The Record. She regularly provides political commentary on ABC News, CBS News Radio, BBC America, FOX News, FOX Business News and NPR. She has taught at Montclair State University since 1994.

What do you teach?
This year, I’m teaching several sections of POLS 101, Introduction to American Government and Politics, as well as Campaign Politics, in which students gain practical experience working on a campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate. I also run my department’s legislative internship program, which places students as interns in the offices of state and federal lawmakers.

What sparked your interest in American politics?
My family was political. My father was a councilman in Runnemede, New Jersey. I had six older brothers and sisters and as a child was aware of the political tumult of the time. I was politically engaged from the start – this has never worn off.

I majored in economics in college and earned my master’s in international relations and comparative politics. I decided to concentrate my research on American government for my PhD.

How did you become a “go-to” political commentator?
In the early 2000s, a panel at the American Political Science Association talked about how important it was for women to share their perspectives – and serve as role models for younger women and girls – as political commentators. I took this to heart.

I started more in newspapers, but Ed Rodgers of NJN – what is now NJTV – asked me to participate in an election night panel, which gave me broadcast exposure. I worked with political pundit David Rebovich from Rider University. When he passed away, the mantle passed to me. I became a person the media came to for comments on New Jersey politics. From there, I became someone who comments on national politics.

I am a moderate. I don’t express any specific ideological bent and so appear on any media outlet. I will call things like I see them and say what I think. Politicians from both parties get angry with me – that’s when I feel I am doing a good job.

What is your current book project?
I am revising my college text, American Democracy Now, for its fourth edition. It’s one of the top-selling American government texts in the country, so I need to keep the perspectives fresh. I am revising it to include more about technology, which has become a defining medium in how we participate in politics.

What is technology’s role in government?
Technology does everything from motivating voters to helping candidates raise money.

We can attribute the recent government shutdown in part to technology. It starts off the process of Congressional map-making or redistricting that takes place every ten years. Technology is being used in a highly partisan way and Congressional districts are being formed that aren’t competitive. It’s a system that’s designed to protect incumbents and the parties in power and that lets ideological extremists get elected. These extremists then have the ability to make policy demands with few electoral repercussions.

Will the recent government shutdown change anything?
The reality is that 90-96 percent of incumbents get reelected. This is a function of district map-making and the representatives’ actual duties. You may loathe the Congress as a whole, but the person who is in there representing your district – and trying to balance local interests with the nation’s interests – is doing the job he or she was elected to do. That’s why people stay in office.

The public’s approval of Congress has hovered at around 12 percent for years. With the shutdown, it plummeted to 5 percent. There is bound to be some reselection, reassessment and restructuring, but the incumbents won’t all be swept out of office.

The same passions won’t necessarily hold for a year. Life goes on. There will always be a new set of priorities. That’s the nature of politics.

Is America ready for a woman president?
Yes. Voters in the U.S. have been ready for a while. This is a non-issue. Women are holding increasingly important offices – in the cabinet, as governors, members of Congress and the Supreme Court. Since 1992, there has been a veritable explosion in the number of women who are doing the kinds of jobs that informally make them eligible to become president. As this pool of eligible women candidates expands, it becomes inevitable that one of them will become president.

You’re an expert on the politics of the Millennial Generation. How do they view politics today?
These young people see these glaring examples of what’s wrong with politics, yet they remain remarkably optimistic about their assessment of what the country should be.

Millennials are well informed – often better informed in terms of broad brushstrokes than their parents. They have a greater awareness of what’s going on in the world. They remain optimistic. They tend to be more patriotic and more likely to volunteer and participate in civic life than preceding generations. In many ways, Millennials strongly resemble the “greatest generation” in terms of greater commitment to the country and to what they are willing to do in their communities.

I noticed a sea change among students in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. There was a paradigm shift, when the pervasive cynicism of the baby boomers broke down and it became okay and cool to love your country. The Millennials maintain this optimism.

Do TV shows impact their thinking?
I think shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report change how students think about politics and politicians. These shows are smart, funny and edgy, and students have to be well-informed to understand them.

Do you have a favorite TV show?
Hostages! It’s one of the first times I am watching a show when everyone else is watching it. I think I’ve watched four episodes this season.