Bill Foster, U.S. Representative from the 14th district of Illinois and a former Fermilab physicist, gave the physics colloquium here last week. He, like Cass Sunstein, feels that American politics is getting more polarized, and blames the large number of “safe districts,” carefully drawn to ensure long tenure for incumbents of whatever party. The idea is that a Democrat in a Democratic district doesn’t have to seriously defend against a general-election opponent, but only to guard the left flank against a more radical primary opponent. Thus, almost everyone has an incentive to move away from the center. Good theory, though not true according to my favorite quantitative poli-sci team.
Foster talked a bit about growing up in the 1950s in a fiercely Democratic family in what was a much more Republican Madison. His parents met on Capitol Hill working for Democratic Senators, and his sister‘s middle name is “Adlai.” I’ve heard people say — and I have no idea whether this statement has empirical support — that women in math are disproportionately likely to have a parent who’s an academic mathematician; presumably the presence of an actual mathematician in the house does something to counteract cultural stereotypes about math. I wonder whether the same is true for scientists in politics? Rush Holt, like Foster a physicist turned Congressman, is the son of a U.S. Senator and a West Virginia Secretary of State. The web tells me nothing about the family history of Jerry McNerney, the only member of Congress with a Ph.D. in math.