José Antônio Cheibub is a Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University with the Bush School of Government and Public Service. Professor Cheibub’s research interests include comparative politics, with a focus on the emergence and effects of democratic regimes and specific democratic institutions.
Hi. I’m José Antônio Cheibub. I am a professor of political science at the Bush School. I was born in Brazil and I moved to the U.S.. I came here to study and then I got my PhD here. And then I met my wife and stayed here for the rest of my life.
What research are you currently working on?
I work on political institutions and I have a number of projects going. I have one about political electoral competition in proportional representation systems that allow voters to choose a candidate and not only a political party. I have another one with a student here on parliamentary democracies. We are examining and producing some new data on government duration, information in parliamentary democracies and I just finished a paper on presidential elections in the world since 1789. And so this is an interesting paper that we show that, there has been sort of a hidden dimension to democratization when it comes to presidential elections, that the weight that voters have had in their choice of presidents has increased considerably over the years.
So just to give you a little sense of what we do, we have data for all presidential elections since 1789 for the whole world. And one of the things we show is that, you know, at the beginning of these elections, like in the U.S. and then in many Latin American countries that chose presidential systems, they were indirect either with electors like we have here today or with Congress choosing the president. The problem with these kinds of elections is that the preferences of voters did not determine the result of the election. So somebody could be elected that was not preferred by the voters. Then elections tend to move to what we call conditionally direct. When the voters had a choice of the president, but in order for their preferences to prevail, they had to choose somebody with the majority of the vote with 50% plus one.
If this didn’t happen, the decision was going to be made by Congress. And finally, we have direct elections for president in which the preferences of voters are decisive, what the voters choose is whoever is going to be the president. Most elections today use this method in two rounds so they first vote for a set of candidates.
If nobody makes 50% of the votes, then they have a second round in which only the top two candidates compete. And in this way, one candidate is assured to have a majority. The interesting thing, just to conclude this, is that the U.S. is the only country in the world today that still uses the system that all the other countries that ever used it have abandoned because it didn’t work well and it doesn’t look like it’s working well for the U.S. either.
How does this research impact society?
It impacts society in the sense that it teaches us what kind of institutions may work for some purposes. I mean, institutions are something that we can design as a society, so learning the facts that they have and how they came about is important because it informs us in thinking about the institutions for the future.
What do you like most about working at the Bush School?
I’m new to the bush school, the political science department, just joining the school. But I like very much the collegiality. We have been very well received here. It seems that most people are hospitable to our presence here. So I like very much the people I’ve been meeting. I like the fact that, you know, I like the students, of course. The few ones that I met who are already at the school. I enjoy talking to them. And I like the resources. We have pretty much everything we need to do our research and do it well.
What experience do you have outside of the world of academia?
I never had an employment that was not either getting trained to become an academic or being an academic. The closest to non-academic work I’ve done is when I consulted for teams of people who are writing constitutions. I was brought in either alone or as a member of a team of people who were going to sometimes explain to the constitutional makers or to other people how some institutions worked or didn’t work. I did that recently for Chile, who just had the process of writing a constitution for Kenya, for South Sudan. So, I mean, that has been very interesting, but I still see these as more or less part of my academic work.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
That’s a tricky one. I mean, I’m proud of everything that I’ve done. I mean, I will not say that everything was great, but I enjoyed doing it. Writing every article that they wrote or every book and I enjoyed teaching. But, the thing I’m most proud of is when you were teaching and you can see that students kind of have that moment when they realize that something that they took for granted was the product of some history or something that could have been different. I call that the “aha” moment when they go, “Oh yeah”. I think that that’s the nicest thing that you know, and I really enjoy it. I’m actually proud to have been the cause of that reaction.
What is your favorite class to teach?
Honestly, the one I like the most, I recently started doing it, is the introductory course in political science. It is the basics course we offer called Foundations of Political Science. It’s interesting because we have mostly freshmen or sophomores or people who are not majors in political science and that is when those [aha] moments have tended to happen most frequently. It’s really interesting to see when people realize that political science, after all, is not that boring and that there are some things that can be interesting. So I like that one.