The Accidental Provocateur: Betsy Sinclair

Christopher Weber

One can have a long, laughter-filled conversation with Betsy Sinclair without realizing how subversive her ideas are. The young assistant professor’s favorite themes include such common ones as music, restaurants, parenting—and upending the last 70 years of scholarship in political science.

In her new book, The Social Citizen, Sinclair resurrects a long-ignored topic: peer networks and their influence on political behavior. The last three generations of political scientists have thoroughly vetted such familiar institutions as candidate debates and advertising campaigns. In the process, they have ignored another sort of institution: that longwinded aunt who claims to know every detail and badgers family members to vote a certain way.

That’s Sinclair’s specialty—not just aunts, of course, but the friends and family who determine whether a person enters even a voting booth. Or as Sinclair puts it, with characteristic originality, “Politics is like mono. You can only get it from someone whom you’re close enough to share a drinking glass.”

Such creative dissent has given her, within the scholarly community, the outlier status of someone who brings beer to a wine party. But then Sinclair is not a typical political scientist.

“Most people go into political science because they are interested in politics,” she explains, surrounded in her office by textbooks on calculus and computer programming. “My pathway was through mathematics and data.”

Sinclair started down that pathway in 1996, when she turned 16, got her driver’s license, and landed her first job working for a congressional campaign in her district. “I was good with numbers,” says Sinclair. “They needed someone to help with volunteer data and campaign finance filing.” After the congressman won the seat, Sinclair was hired. “At the time, I wasn’t even interested in politics. It was just a great summer job.”

Most Americans care about politics a great deal less than Sinclair. That bothers a lot of people, and not just scholars.

“The question we are always asking is, ‘Should people be more interested in politics?’ The assumption is always that, Yes, they should be.”

In Sinclair’s view, however, that detachment doesn’t threaten our democracy. In fact, not caring about politics may be the way politics actually works. People don’t care—until that noisome aunt telephones and demands they vote.

It’s always shocking to political scientist students when I say this, but the average person doesn’t care about politics. But there are a few people who care intensely. As election cycles near, those people start spouting off about how intensely they care.

“If you’re in a network with these people, you do things to please them. You say, ‘I guess I’ll vote, or campaign, or contribute.’ You don’t want to hurt their feelings. All those brush encounters with people in our social networks who care about politics—when elections come around, they influence us.”

In making this argument, Sinclair draws on scholarship from 1930s and 40s that argued that voters rely on their social connections. This school of thought fell out of favor with the advent of modern political surveys. After all, it’s much easier to ask a person a series of questions about party affiliation than to investigate his or her political relatives.

 “Any person who survived junior high probably has a negative experience with social pressure,” says Sinclair. “The fact that a person can change your behavior is what makes people active, engaged citizens.”

But, she cautions, that’s not how people want to think about democracy. Both scholars and civic leaders cherish the individualistic notion of one person, one vote—whereas Sinclair’s research that suggests that it’s more likely one aunt can produce twelve votes with just a few phone calls.

Campaigns have known of and exploited peer networks for a long time. “Campaigns had a sense that this worked to influence voters,” Sinclair explains. “They just weren’t able to quantify it until now.”

To quantify that difference, Sinclair reviewed dozens of political experiments and conducted two of her own. In one, her team sent out reminder postcards to registered voters. Some of the postcards noted that the recipient had not voted in the two prior elections. People who received these “personalized” postcards were up to 5 percent more likely to go to the polls—probably because of the social pressure induced by the fact that their absentee had been noticed.

In another experience, Sinclair led a team of volunteers who went door to door reminding people to vote. Canvassers who knocked on doors in their own neighborhoods proved more effective at getting people to vote. Again, social pressure seems the likely cause.

“This research helps campaigns and scholars understand that dynamic,” Sinclair concludes.