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From Plato to NATO

A visit with Marvin Overby, Professor, Political Science

By Jessica Huang
Published: - Topics: African American advertising LGBT political campaign nation building

Marvin Overby has been described as the Political Science department’s "utility infielder" in American Politics, and over the years his expertise has only spread. His research interests range from legislative procedures in the U.S. House and Senate (and Canadian Parliament, too) to the politics of minority groups. And his interests continue to grow.

Recently it was campaign advertising that sparked his interest. Overby realized that most research on the topic had focused exclusively on television ads, so he decided to investigate radio messages.

He found that there has been an increase in radio advertisements over the past few years, although television campaigns still make up the majority. Overby also found that there are inherent differences between the media. Since the radio market is segmented and radio ads are cheaper to produce, radio messages can be effectively tailored to specific demographics.

“A middle-aged white soccer mom does not listen to the same radio stations as a young, urban, minority teenager,” Overby says. “The fact that the average American listens to only two radio stations and the choice is driven largely by musical tastes that tend to track demographic characteristics allows candidates to target particular groups very efficiently.”

Although some might fear such pinpoint advertising could polarize the population, Overby found that it actually drew previously uninterested constituents into politics. “On radio some politically marginalized groups get messages targeted to them from people who sound like them using language that is directed toward them about issues they care about,” Overby explains. “That tends, we think, to engage people much more than the typically generic messages broadcast on television.”

It turns out that the televised disagreements over the democratic process push average Americans away, but when they hear from people who sound like them Americans are pulled in. TV ads avoid being too radical precisely because they are designed to sway the median voters. Radio ads are targeted directly toward a candidate’s supporters, so they can be more edgy.

“Radio campaign ads are far more entertaining than television ads because people will say things on radio that they won’t say on television,” Overby says. “So radio ads are just tremendously fun to collect and listen to.”

Overby has also done research on minority politics. The job of a political scientist, he remarks, is to test conventional wisdom. It is commonly thought that electing a member of a minority to office will improve the attitudes of that minority population because these role models will provide a sense of inclusion.

“I wish that is what we actually found,” Overby says. “In fact, our conclusions paint a far more complicated, far darker picture that many people are uncomfortable accepting.” He has been examining the effects – over twenty years – of electing black members of Congress. He found that while black constituents do become more involved and interested in politics, they actually become less trusting in and supportive of the political process itself.

“To put it bluntly, black politicians are black, but they’re also politicians, and black politicians behave much like white politicians do,” Overby argues. When things go badly and problems remain unsolved, the politician isn’t going to take the blame. Instead, Overby found that these politicians place a lot of blame on “the system,” a strategy that unfortunately reinforces the negative political opinions held by their black constituency.

Overby collaborates with Jay Barth of Hendrix College in another area of minority politics: public attitudes about gays and lesbians. They focus primarily on two main questions. First, what does the American public perceive as the size of the gay population? Second, does contact with homosexuality influence one’s attitude toward gay rights?

Researchers have long known that the public tends to exaggerate the size of minority populations, with the average American estimating that the country’s gay population is between 20 and 25 percent. Overby and Barth, however, found that Americans offer much more reasonable estimates of the gay population in their local communities, with a mean of 7.7 percent and a median of 5 percent. They also found that such estimations are influenced by ideology, with liberals usually overestimating the percentage and conservatives usually underestimating it.

Overby offers one possible explanation: “We are not entirely sure why that is the case, although we have a working hypothesis that the right (the religious right, the political right) has a vested interest in arguing that there is no need for special rights for homosexuals, and one of the ways of making that argument resonate more with the American public is by trying to substantiate the fact that there are not many of these people.”

The second question was more difficult to research. There are no obvious physical distinctions marking one as homosexual, Overby observes, so it took him years to figure out how to scientifically examine this research topic. Over time, though, he has found that the likelihood of voting for gay rights seems to increase when one has positive interactions with individuals who identify as gay. In other words, voluntary interactions with homosexual people tend to improve one’s attitude toward homosexuals.

Overby has also researched the history of Senate filibusters. Evidently filibustering began when a senator from Virginia, John Randolph, would stand up and begin to ramble. “It’s unclear, given the historical record, whether he was rambling for a purpose, whether he realized this would slow the Senate down, stop things he didn’t want from happening,” Overby comments, “or whether he had begun to lose his contact with reality.” It is possible that the tradition of filibustering began out of people’s respect for an eccentric, perhaps senile old man.

The diversity of the courses Overby teaches reflects his wide spectrum of research interests. He is in direct contact with all levels of Mizzou students, from freshmen just starting at the University to advanced doctoral students. He teaches the introductory “American Politics” course, which provides students with an overview “from Plato to NATO.” He also teaches upper-level undergraduate courses on the U. S. Congress and “Politics of the American South," which Overby considers to be the most defining region in the country. In addition, he offers graduate seminars focusing on American political institutions, including the presidency, Supreme Court, federal bureaucracy, and especially the Congress.

“For some academics, I think the old saying is very true -- they learn more and more about less and less,” Overby cautions. “I’ve taken my career in another direction; I’ve expanded my areas of interest over the years.”