Trust and Waffling

September 14, 2018
Justin Kirkland headshot

Justin Kirkland is the new Associate Professor of Politics. He comes to the University of Virginia from the University of Houston where he was Associate Professor of Political Science. He was recently honored with the 2018 Emerging Scholar Award, Legislative Studies Section of the American Political Science Association.


His is currently focused on networks, particularly in representative bodies and the behaviors which play out over those networks: indecision, cross-pressuring, trust, grandstanding, and more. His research addresses the conflicts politicians are subject to and the punishment/rewards and repercussions meted out for particular behaviors. The sequence of events in these scenarios can be fascinating and not at all self-evident. Follow his research interests below—naturally a network of his where his attention goes.


One of the great additions to the political science vocabulary is waffling. Professor Kirkland notes that no one waffles in private. Waffling is conducted publicly, and necessarily, over time.

He addresses this process in his book, Indecision in American Legislatures, written with Jeffrey Harden. He and Professor Harden wanted to know why legislators change their minds—theirprevious research suggested things should be predictable and easy to understand for legislators. That is not the case—it turns out legislators face competing pressures. Their district wants them to do one thing, and their party leaders want them to do another thing.

These cross-pressures create an environment in which a bill is introduced and the politician doesn’t really know what to do. Supporting the bill may bring constituents closer, but alienate an important person in the legislator’s career. Kirkland and Harden find on particularly unpredictable pieces of legislation, these cross-pressured legislators make a guess at the beginning of the legislative process and over time they find out they were wrong and then change their minds.

Kirkland states, “it looks like they’re waffling, ‘I can’t decide which side of this thing I’m on, I don’t know how to balance these things,’ and the truth is, they’re using deliberative democracy exactly the way we’d want them to. You don’t know something, you learn about it, then you make a decision—as opposed to being perfectly immovable and uncompromising.”

He continues, “Jeff is a big student of representation and how government reacts to what its citizens want, and I’m a big legislature scholar. There’s a strain of research that suggests that legislating is really easy, that they take cues from their party leaders and their ideology, and sort of simplify a complicated environment for their constituents. In my own work I had observed a bunch of unusual situations where legislators really seemed to NOT know what they were doing; they didn’t really have a sense of what was going on, and as a result they changed their minds about stuff over time. The deliberative nature of the legislature gave them an opportunity to change their beliefs, or change the way they thought about the world. “

Kirkland allows that some politicians are duplicitous, but a lot of politicians just don’t know what to do; there is plenty of evidence that these legislators get punished by constituents for their apparent indecisiveness.

He says, “You wind up with a bunch of legislators getting tossed out of the legislature, and you are left with those who are NOT using the deliberative process to learn; that describes much of what you see in legislatures now—those who are not indecisive. That causes problems for policy makers who are learning about solutions. The American public might decry politicians for shifting with the political winds, but there’s a necessary element of learning in policy making.”

Why political science?

Dr. Kirkland says he has been fascinated with politics for most of his life—there are family stories about him campaigning for his great uncle as a cute four-year-old knocking on doors asking for votes.

Like many political scientists, he considered law. He started out in prelaw at Campbell University, where an influential professor, Don Schroeder, pointed out that it sounded like he enjoyed the study of government more than the practice of government. No one had made that distinction to him before—that those were two separate things, both viable career paths. Until that point he assumed one did political science because they wanted to be a civil servant, politician, or lawyer.

The more he thought about it, the more sound it became, “I liked knowing why things worked the way they did. Why our government made the decisions it did and that set me on the path of study and discovery.”


Professor Kirkland also asks why citizens trust government. He’s less concerned about whether you like what government is doing (you’re always going to dislike something), and more interested in if you think government has your best interest at heart. Even if you don’t like what elected officials are doing, you recognize maybe they are making some choices that are important for the country.

He says, “A lot of research shows trust is an aggregate thing – ‘trust is declining in the United States’ or ‘trust is increasing in the United States.’ My co-authors and I wanted to pull this apart and see in which states there was more or less trust, or what causes some individuals to be more trustworthy or less trustworthy. We find that in keeping with the indecision aspect, legislators who don’t represent their constituents very well are generally not trusted.”

He thinks this is nice because it demonstrates a kind of accountability. But on the flip side it causes some problems—it indicates constituents are not granting any leeway to their legislators; if they do something you don’t like, you automatically don’t trust them.

As a professor he says, “If my students mistrusted me every time I did something they didn’t like, they would have no faith in me. It’s a democratic problem—faith in legislators to do the task of legislating has declined and become partisan and polarized” and “there is evidence in political science that it’s getting hard to get people to run for Congress because being a Congress member sort of sucks right now. It’s not a fun task, no one enjoys doing it anymore. Enjoyment of doing something good is important to people. It’s hard to motivate people into politics right now. If you walk a minute out of step with your constituents, you’re in all kinds of trouble.”

Group Structure and Network Theory

Kirkland took game theory classes early in graduate school. Game theory is largely about how multiple players interact with one another, how actors’ strategies, decisions, and behavior are interdependent on one another. In his early work he asked how can we take what we know about legislatures and put it in a social networks context?rather than in a standard quantitative context, which may not be well adapted to game theory environments.

He says, “In legislative studies we tend to think about these legislators as individual actors who have lots of agency and do whatever they want to do in a particular circumstance. However, I come from a tradition that tries very hard to understand aggregate patterns, like ‘why does public opinion in the country shift as it does,’ or ‘why does the approval of the President go up or down?’ I started to think of social networks as a place to bridge these two places. Researchers haven’t spent a lot of time grafting one on the other, but as a guy who studies legislators andinstitutions I was interested in them at the same time.”

He discovered, having worked with legislature data for a while, that there was much more room for legislators to influence one another than previous studies had acknowledged. He began to think of a chamber being legislators as individuals on a networkrather than some kind of massy legislature object. For example, with an individual legislator, a small effort may affect their decisions, but as a legislature gets larger a more partisan environment emerges. Small legislatures tend to be very cooperative, large ones tend to be very partisan.

The repercussions of this cascade can be problematic. Kirkland states, “If you just trust 5% of your colleagues and distrust 95% of them, as you scale up, that compounds across the legislature in a complicated way and makes partisan events happen really fast—it’s one of the reasons I don’t trust large legislatures very much.”

The Political Scientist and the Social Media

Are Facebook, Twitter and Google viable career paths for political scientists? Yes,says Kirkland. Several peer scientists he met during school are employed at Google and Facebook. He indicates they were researching “techy, quantitative stuff” and that research now looks directly into the problems Twitter and YouTube are having.

On YouTube the Next Suggested Videois a small design element which algorithmically recommends a video based on your own viewing history. If it were a randomly chosen video, there would be no repercussions, but since the algorithm is based on the viewer’s past, they go down a rabbit hole of stories, ever-reinforcing what they already believe.

“Most of the problems Facebook, Twitter, and Google face are social science problems, they’re not technical, mathematical problems. How does the content on my newsfeed influence my decision making?That’s a social science question.

Nerd Cred and Weak Ties

Despite what might be otherwise suggested, Kirkland maintains high nerd credibility. “I’m an R guy, some Stata, and enough Python to be dangerous. R is a native language for me. I think in R,” he says. These packages come in handy for his geospatial research (e.g. in New York City where districts are really compact and oddly drawn, sometimes legislators aren’t sure where their districts begin and end at the street level), and his work on grandstanding (e.g. extreme Republicans like Michelle Bachmann and Ted Cruz vehemently opposing a Republican proposal—they took extreme positions to appease constituents who didn’t want them to appear to compromise… and yet by not compromising their anti-votes became tacit support for Obama policy).

Professor Kirkland notes that legislative scholarship and representation hasn’t always taken networks as seriously as it should. He says, “More generally, I’m interested in unusual, substantive problems. The network lens is helpful, but I use it to try and look at stuff I’m interested in rather than an end goal in itself.  The embeddedness of networks within unusual geography is how my first big publication came about.”

He continues, “The weak ties in a legislature are the ones which are important—Ted Kennedy working with his fellow Dems isn’t surprising, but Ted Kennedy working with Orin Hatch is VERY important. That original work comes from how do we circulate information in a small geographic environment and what happens when we scale it up? How do we circulate information in an efficient way at that scale?”

The Near Future: Teaching, Research, Service

Professor Kirkland is excited to be among ambitious students who are close to Washington, D.C. and plugged into the political environment. As a recent outsider he notes UVA has a strong presence in the social sciences and humanities.

“I’m getting to teach classes on Congress for the first time this fall, I’m a legislature guy and excited about being in a classroom with this topic.” He also expects to do some quantitative instruction for both grads and undergrads. He considers Big Data—quantitative approaches—important to thinking about politics.

Professor Kirkland is optimistic, enthusiastic even, about the new semester, “UVA students are some of the best in the country. Being around students who are comfortable about pushing back and who are comfortable challenging me—these are things which are exciting. Hopefully I can provide them with experiences that are different than they already get and we can have some engaged and enjoyable discussions.”

He also anticipates strong connections with his colleagues (strong ties!). He says, “these are wonderful colleagues and I’m looking forward to doing research with them. There are lots of folks interested in the same kinds of questions that I’m interested in. (In the department) Comparative Politics is strong, American Politics is strong, and it will be fun to have a collaborative environment I can get plugged into.”

And he will continue his current research with authors outside the University. Big projects include generalizing findings on grandstanding in legislatures, building on the earlier, more specific work he’s done on the British Parliament and U.S. Congress with Jonathan Slapin.

He will also conduct new research on empathy and the construction of political ambition. Where, and in what cases, are people interested in running for office? In what locations and scenarios are they notinterested? This continues Kirkland’s work with Scott Clifford and Elizabeth Simas at University of Houston.

His bounteous research agenda also includes figuring outif open-meeting laws, that is, allowing citizens to observe meetings are good for the policy process or not. Professor Kirkland acknowledges they are obviously good for combating corruption and for keeping people accountable, but not necessarily good for making policy and solving problems. He conducts this research with Jeffrey Harden.

He says, “The environment at UVA encourages high-risk research, the opportunity to maybe be wrong about something, but try to say something important. I’m excited about trying to take a stab at some important questions that maybe I won’t get right, but will get the chance to say something important.”

“In terms of service, I tend to live and breathe the college environment. I’ve been on a campus for a really long time. I spent most of my graduate school living on campus as a residence hall director. I’m excited to be at a place that has a lot of spirit and is the center of town and is motivating most of the action that’s happening in town. It’s good to be back in a small-town environment like where I got my graduate degree, Chapel Hill.”

Kirkland indicated, somewhat pathetically, that he is excited about being on the East Coast and in ACC country and getting to watch Carolina beat up on Virginia for several years in a row, first hand. I remind Professor Kirkland that the future is unknown.