Dr. Benjamin Knoll, Ph.D.

knoll_benjamin_2017a2I am Benjamin Knoll, the John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. I am a political scientist specializing in American public opinion and voting behavior, specifically in the fields of religion and politics and race and politics.

Information about my current research and public opinion survey projects can be found in the links above.

Blog entries can be found below, starting with the most recently published. My Huffington Post entries can be found here. I am also on Twitter at @benjaminknoll28.

My Google Scholar profile contains links to my various publications, conference presentations, and book reviews.

My academic CV is available here.

For those who are curious, the title of the blog is a very poor pun on the phonetic pronunciation of the word “informational.” Hopefully, readers will find Information Knoll to be at least marginally “information-al”…

Note: the views and opinions expressed herein are those of myself only and do not necessarily reflect the position or views of Centre College or its associated entities.

Election reform measures in the 2018 Kentucky legislative session

A number of bills have been filed for consideration with the Kentucky state legislature whose term begins this month. Several deal with government and election reform and, in my view, would go a long ways to improving the quality of our democracy here in Kentucky.

House Bill 23 (BR 41, also Senate Bill 4) would change Kentucky’s election schedule to presidential election years, subject to approval from the voters. I’ve written elsewhere that this measure is the single strongest election reform that would boost voter turnout in Kentucky for state-level offices. Presidential elections draw the highest levels of turnout and while voters are already there they can then vote for state-level officials. This would also save a lot of tax dollars by consolidating election efforts.

Senate Bill 14 (BR 49) would introduce some early voting options and also extend Kentucky’s voting window from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM. While there is more evidence that the 8:00 PM reform would do more to boost turnout than early voting, both are aimed at making it easier for citizens to vote in Kentucky. (Senate Bill 47 / BR 328 focuses solely on the 8:00 PM extension without the early voting.)

Also, HB 72 (BR 387), HB 78 (BR 388), and HB 112 (BR 4424) all serve to strengthen transparency and accountability on the part of our elected officials which I argue is a good thing.

I also urge my fellow Kentuckians to oppose these bills:

House Bill 53 (BR 305) would 1) make it a misdemeanor to wear a mask or cover one’s face while participating in a public protest, 2) absolve a driver from any legal liability if they unintentionally injure or kill a protester with their car if the protester is not in the area specified in the protest permit, and 3) makes it a class A misdemeanor to interfere with a police officer exercising “official duties” during a public protest. While, in my view, a reasonable argument could be made for each of these, I read the “spirit” of the measure as making it more difficult for citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly, especially in a spontaneous way. Also, how would a court determine if the car driver killed the protester “intentionally” or not?

House Bill 73 (BR 385) would introduce term limits for Kentucky House legislators. There are, of course, reasonable arguments both ways on terms limits, but in general, most political science research tends to show that states with term limits have lower quality policy outputs, more fiscal problems, and in general poorer-quality legislating because legislators are forced to leave before they are able to develop strong specialization. Also, if a legislator is doing a good job and the voters wish to retain him or her, a democratic system should, in my view, permit voters to do so.

You can find your state legislators and their contact information on the Kentucky legislature website.

My quick reactions to the first Mueller indictments

In the interest of engaging in democratic deliberation with my fellow American citizens, here are my thoughts on yesterday’s special counsel indictments of Paul Manafort, et al.:
 
1. The presumption of “innocent until proven guilty” is an important component of liberal democracy. The evidence presented yesterday certainly is damning for those specifically indicated. To my knowledge, though, there is still no clear evidence that Donald Trump was directly involved in the events described in the indictments. There is, however, more than sufficient evidence (in my view) to warrant Mueller continuing to aggressively pursue his investigation, including the possibility of knowledge on the part of President Trump during the campaign regarding the actions of his campaign manager and other advisers.
 
2. While the indictments yesterday are important, I am watching much more closely President Trump’s reaction in coming days and weeks to Mueller’s investigation. Any objective assessment of the evidence strongly indicates that Trump has shown a willingness to ignore, weaken, and constrict democratic norms and institutions for his own advantage. He’s already fired James Comey for (in his own words) investigating the Russia issue. Will he do the same with the Mueller investigation? Will he blanket pardon anyone indicted in the investigation? If so, this would be a key test of the strength of our democratic institutions in the United States which operate, for the most part, on the “honor system.”
 
3. A key question is also how Congress is reacting to these events. If President Trump were to use his power to issue these blanket pardons and/or eliminate the Mueller investigation, what would be the response of Congress? Would they act as a “check and balance” to preserve our liberal democratic norms and institutions, or would they turn a blind eye in an attempt to secure legislative goals of tax cuts and health care reform? I always thought that they would do the former, but they’ve shown a terrifying willingness to do the latter.
 
4. On that same note, I continue to be strongly disappointed with the gap between rhetoric and actions on the part of Congressional Republicans in terms of their commitment to liberal democratic principles. The GOP has traditionally been a proud defender (however imperfectly) of liberal democracy both at home and abroad. When push comes to shove, though, they’ve (so far) sadly chosen legislative priorities over defending our system of government. (Notable and honorable exceptions include Senators John McCain, Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake, and a few others.)
 
5. Continuing on this theme, imagine a hypothetical where Hillary Clinton had won the election and a special counsel investigation had indicted her former campaign manager for money laundering, tax evasion, etc. and a campaign foreign policy adviser for meeting with a Russian professor to get damaging information about the Trump campaign. How would Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Fox News have responded? How closely does that match how they *did* respond yesterday? Hypocrisy is always to be found in electoral politics, from Democrats and Republicans alike, but this is a whole new level of willful inaction.
 
6. In my view, Congressional Republicans are declining to aggressively “check and balance” the president to defend democratic norms and institutions in our country because they’re betting that a critical mass of their voting bases in their states and districts agree with President Trump’s actions and priorities. Public opinion polling tends to support that conclusion. I encourage my Republican friends to contact your congressional representatives and let them know that while you agree with them and support their fight for tax reform, abortion restrictions, health care reform, etc., you are NOT supportive of the President’s continual attacks on our democratic systems (free press, free speech, rule of law, etc.) and that you will NOT vote for them for reelection if they do not more aggressively “check and balance” the president. This might jeopardize their ability to get tax reform or other legislative priorities. I encourage you, though, to consider that defending our system of government is a higher priority. Without a strong liberal democratic government, it will not in the long run be possible to have the freedom to debate about tax reform, health care reform, etc. Our government is worth fighting for.

My quick thoughts on Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination

  1. Contrary to many of President Trump’s other appointments, Neil Gorsuch appears by all accounts to be an extremely well-qualified, thoughtful, and experienced jurist with stellar credentials. Judging purely on the merits, I have seen no evidence to suggest that Gorsuch is anything other than entirely within the mainstream of conservative jurists that Republican presidents typically appoint to the Supreme Court.
  2. I will admit I was expecting a more “Trumpy” Supreme Court pick. On just about every opportunity Pres. Trump has declined to follow democratic norms and actively tried to delegitimize our political institutions. On this score, however, he made a choice that is entirely consistent with Supreme Court nominee norms and I have not seen any evidence that Gorsuch will do anything other than try faithfully to strengthen the legitimacy of the judicial branch of government. Thus, I commend Pres. Trump for respecting democratic norms on this particular choice and hope that he will continue to do so in his future decision-making.
  3. In my opinion, Democrats should not automatically filibuster the Gorsuch appointment for purely political reasons. Senator McConnell and Senate Republicans did a great disservice to our nation and our political institutions by uniformly opposing Pres. Obama’s Merrick Garland’s for purely political reasons (their inconsistent and self-serving justifications notwithstanding). This jeopardized an important democratic norm and further politicized the judicial nomination process. If Democrats were to return in kind, they become complicit in the further weakening of our democratic norms and institutions.
  4. That being said, if the Senate Democrats choose to filibuster Gorsuch for purely political reasons, any Senate Republican who criticizes them for their obstruction is 100% hypocritical and disingenuous. They insult the American public to pretend that they took the high road on the Merrick Garland nomination.
  5. If the Senate Democrats choose to filibuster Gorsuch, one silver lining might be that it will force Sen. McConnell’s hand to eliminate the filibuster once and for all. Under normal circumstances, I support the Senate filibuster as an important check on the rights of the minority. Over the last two decades, though, it has become standard operating procedure for the minority party to automatically filibuster just about everything, making an undemocratic super-majority necessary to do anything in our political system. This prevents democratic majorities from being able to govern and weakens democratic accountability by allowing the majority to blame the minority if they fail to deliver results. Given these realities, I think the it’s time for the filibuster to go, and a Senate filibuster of a qualified Supreme Court appointment might be a good occasion to make it happen.
  6. It would be a nice gesture if Neil Gorsuch were to publicly say some kind words about Merrick Garland. On the merits, it should be Garland’s seat if Senate Republicans had chosen to put democratic norms and institutions over blatant partisanship.

The bipartisan support of democratic norms is eroding

Political scientist Seth Masket wrote the following this week:
“Norms are what really keep a democratic system running. Good constitutional design is obviously important, but it doesn’t ensure a thriving or stable liberal democracy. The American presidential system has been replicated in many other nations, particularly in Latin America, with far less successful results, in large part due to different norms about what is and isn’t acceptable.”
This is different than supporting or opposing Obamacare or having different opinions about ideal levels of taxation. It’s about supporting and defending the political framework that enables those discussions to take place while avoiding civil conflict and political instability.
Traditionally, both Democrats and Republicans have agreed (despite their other differences) that this framework is good and worth defending, but this bipartisan agreement is starting to disappear.
As citizens of a democratic political system (regardless of whether you’re a liberal or conservative or anything else) it’s up to us to fix it. If we’re not up to the task, then we will get the government that we deserve.
I recommend reading his blog post in its entirety here.

Defending American democracy is not a partisan opinion

I take very seriously my professional obligation to not publicly engage in partisan debates just for the sake of partisanship. I also take seriously the importance of not being an alarmist.

But I also take seriously my responsibilities as a citizen of a liberal democratic society, which places upon me an obligation of speaking out when that system of government is under active threat. Now is one of those times.

Please read my recent Huffington Post piece entitled “Not kidding around: Donald Trump is actively threatening American democracy.

Then take action!

 

2016 Colonel’s Canvass Poll: polling results vs. voting results

The 2016 Colonel’s Canvass Poll, conducted October 18-23, showed Hillary Clinton with the support of 44.9% of likely voters and Donald Trump with 40% of likely voters, with a 4.1% margin of error.

That means that there was a 95% chance that Hillary Clinton’s level of support was anywhere from 40.8% and 49% and Donald Trump’s level of support was anywhere from 35.9% to 44.1%.

As of 12/9/2016, Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote with 48.04% compared to Donald Trump’s 46.08%. Our polling estimate for Clinton support was therefore off by 3.14% and our estimate for Trump was off by 6.08%.

It is important to note, though, that our poll was conducted three weeks before the election. It also showed Johnson with 6% support, “someone else” with 2.7%, and “don’t know” with 5.4%. As usually happens before elections, support for the third-party options decreased and support for the two-party candidates increased.

In sum, there is little evidence that our poll was “way off” or incorrect. Our poll correctly predicted Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote. Like most other national polls, we slightly over-estimated Clinton’s level of support and moderately under-estimated Trump’s level of support. In the end, however, our poll showed Clinton winning by 5% whereas she is currently winning the popular vote by about 2% in the final tabulation. A 3% difference is within the traditionally-accepted margins of standard polling error.