Q&A: Alexander Hertel-Fernandez
The political scientist spoke with SIPA News about his research into how organized interests shape public policy.
Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor of international and public affairs, studies the political economy of the United States with a focus on organized interests, government, and social policy. The Indiana native, who earned a PhD in government and social policy from Harvard University, joined SIPA in fall 2016. He recently spoke to SIPA News about his current work.
What is your academic focus? What kind of research are you engaged in?
I study how organized interests shape public policy—at the national and especially the state level. I also study the interaction between wealthy donors and democracy.
My current research encompasses a few areas. The first is employer recruitment into politics, which is where managers mobilize their workers to participate in politics to help company bottom lines. I also study business coalitions and interest groups involved in lobbying, at both the state and national level I'm looking at how the political network directed by the two wealthy industrialist “Koch Brothers”—Charles and David Koch—has developed, the way they've made decisions about what to focus on, and their effect on policy, elections, and the parties. And I'm comparing Koch efforts with a similar left-wing network that's developed more recently—the Democracy Alliance –a donor consortium of left-leaning millionaires and billionaires. Lastly, my research looks at the labor movement and how public sector labor unions have come under fire in their ability to bargain and participate in politics in recent years. I’m studying both how conservatives have changed the opportunities available to the labor movement and how unions have responded to those changes.
What are some of your findings?
There is a growing trend of employers recruiting their employees into political involvement and even pushing them to adopt specific political stances. I have just finished a book on this topic called Politics at Work, which uses new survey and interview data to answer questions about how common employer recruitment is across the American economy, how workers interpret such efforts, and what it means for American elections and public policy.
In my other research, I've studied coalitions of business groups and political activists that lobby across all 50 states at once. These interest groups impact legislation across the country by focusing their efforts at the state level rather than the federal level. Conservative organizations have had a head start with these efforts and have invested more in developing their infrastructure. The left has been less successful historically, but that may be changing in very recent times as liberals realize that they are losing ground across the states. It depends on whether they can learn from their own mistakes as well as learn from the right's successes.
What have you been teaching here at SIPA?
I teach Politics of Policymaking: American Institutions in Comparative Perspective, which is a core course in the MPA program. This class looks at how policymaking is done in the United States and other advanced democracies. The goal of the class is to help students to see how the structure of the policymaking process in a country sets the incentives for, and preference of, political actors – and how those institutions ultimately affect practical policy outcomes. We also focus on developing students’ policy analysis and policy memo-writing skills.
I teach another course called U.S. State Politics and Policy: The Promises and Pitfalls of American Federalism, which examines policymaking at the state level in the United States.
These courses both include units on the labor movement, but going forward I will be teaching a new seminar about labor policy and the workplace in the United States.
You're affiliated with the Urban and Social Policy concentration. Why is SIPA a good place for that?
The USP concentration is a great place to have an academic home. Ester Fuchs, the director, is very supportive, and having former practitioners like Mayor [Michael] Nutter on the faculty is a terrific resource.
There is a practical perspective that SIPA students bring with them to class discussions. A lot of them are thinking about state and local politics, or about how they relate to federal policy, given their future career interests. That helps to ground our conversations every week.
The concentration also provides great opportunities for collaborating with other disciplines. I love having the chance to be surrounded by political scientists, economists, and lawyers alike. It's fantastic to get perspectives on my research from such a diverse group of scholars and practitioners.
You're finishing up your first year at SIPA – tell us about the experience of teaching and being here generally. How do you like New York City?
As teacher, it's great to have master’s students who have a clear sense of purpose and mission as well as past work experience. It really focuses our discussions on the practical elements of public policy.
The Trump dynamic also makes for an interesting teaching experience. I lectured the day after the 2016 election in the Politics of Policymaking class, and we held an open discussion about what can we expect from this election based on the history of politics, institutions, and populist uprisings. Even though we were tired—many of us had stayed up till the wee hours of the morning, myself included—it was a great opportunity to apply material we had learned in real time.
In general, my experience here has been great. I love meeting and working with the students, the faculty, and SIPA’s terrific array of political practitioners. Attending a lunch with former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, for instance, was a great opportunity. I also am trying to enjoy everything New York has to offer—running in Riverside Park, Broadway shows and plays, and the museums. I feel fortunate to be living in a such a great city!
— Matt Terry MIA ’17
Interview has been edited and condensed.