From Commentary To Classroom: CMC Professor Pitney Discusses His Political Party Shift


Older man smiles
Claremont McKenna College Government Professor John Pitney poses in front of his bookcase. Pitney has been quoted in many articles for CNN, NPR, and The Guardian. (Jaimie Ding • The Student Life)

“[I] was a Republican until election night 2016,” Claremont McKenna College Government Professor John J. Pitney, Jr. said. “As soon as [Donald] Trump was declared the victor, I literally took out my laptop and immediately changed [my] registration to independent.”

Although he has been a lifelong conservative, you wouldn’t always know it from talking to him.

“[Trump is] a disaster. He’s a disaster for the United States, he’s a disaster for the Republican party,” he said. “If we’re really lucky, we’ll avoid a nuclear war.”

Pitney has been teaching at CMC for 32 years. Another CMC government professor, Charles Kesler, remembers voting for Pitney when he was being considered by the hiring committee.

“We always put a premium on … the teacher-scholar model,” Kesler said. “I mean, you have to be good at both, and he is good at both. But his teaching is extraordinary, as any student who’s had him would admit.”

Pitney grew up in a working class neighborhood up on the west side of Saratoga Springs, New York. His father was a milkman, and his mother a homemaker; neither attended college. His interest in politics was sparked when his grandfather told him stories of local political machines and corruption in the 1920s and 1930s.

His interest was further piqued through his experiences working for Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1968, during which he developed what would become a lifelong fascination with the president. He graduated from Union College in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and went on to get his doctorate at Yale University in 1985.

Pitney’s political views and analyses have given him a broad national audience. He has been quoted on a variety of issues in articles for CNN, NPR, and The Guardian, and has also written columns for Politico and USA Today in the past year.

He attributed his popularity to several factors.

“I kind of have a knack for smart-ass remarks, and [reporters] like that,” Pitney laughed. He also noted that he responds to phone calls promptly and speaks in short sentences.

A defining moment in Pitney’s career was working on President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, during which he made connections that later gave him the opportunity to contribute a paragraph to Bush’s 1992 State of the Union address.

He still keeps in touch with his friends from the campaign, Pitney said, and he is writing a book about the 1988 election scheduled to be released later this year.

Before joining CMC as an associate professor, Pitney was a congressional fellow at the American Political Science Association 1983-1984 and a senior domestic policy analyst at the U.S. House Republican Research Committee 1984-1986.

However, “something in me always wanted to teach,” Pitney said. He also desired the financial stability of a professorship, as opposed to the volatile career of a congressional staffer.

Pitney teaches classes such as “Introduction to American Politics,” “Politics of Journalism,” and “American Political Parties.” It is difficult for him to choose a favorite, however.

“It’s like asking which is my favorite child,” he said. The class he has been teaching the longest is U.S. Congress, which is a simulation of Congress. Pitney said many former students from that class have gone on to run for office and told him the class was a valuable exercise.

Pitney’s current and former students from across the 5Cs sing his praises.

“I think that Professor Pitney stands out because he cares so deeply about his students and he’s very devoted to them,” said Melia Wong CM ’19, a government major. “That comes across of course in mentoring, his email list about internships and jobs, and also his faculty advising.”

After teaching for so many years, Pitney has former students in a variety of impressive places. Their names flow off his tongue one after another.

“It’s kind of like remembering family members,” Pitney said.

An especially fond moment for Pitney was when Kathryn Pearson CM ’93, a former student now a professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, placed the doctoral hood on another one of his students, Paul Snell CM ’08.

“If I had to pick top ten proud moments of my career at CMC, that would be it,” Pitney said. “It’s also a reminder I’m getting old.”

Another former student, Steve Bullock CM ’88, is the governor of Montana and a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. Pitney said he believes putting Bullock on the ticket could help Democrats’ weakness in rural areas.

Besides teaching, Pitney is interested in researching autism as a political issue and how public policy deals with autism. He authored the book “The Politics of Autism: Navigating the Contested Spectrum,” released in 2015. He also maintains a blog, Autism Policy and Politics, which offers insights, analyses, and updates on recent events related to autism policy.

Outside of politics, Pitney said he only has one hobby: parenthood. Pitney spends his weekends going on Joshua Tree Girl Scout outings with his 11-year-old daughter and comic conventions with his 16-year-old son.

Pitney calls himself a “mouse spouse,” since his wife works at Disney. The whole family loves Disney and they have two dogs named Mickey and Minnie. He often references popular culture and connects it to politics in his classes.

“I use a ‘Star Wars’ line: ‘this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause,’ and I relate that to the first Federalist paper,” Pitney said.

With regard to the politics in the real world, Pitney said he is incredibly pessimistic about the impact that Trump will have on the world and conservatism in America.

“The stench of Trump will be on the conservative movement for years to come,” he said.

So far, congressional Republicans have mostly fallen in line with Trump’s policies, according to Pitney. In response, as an anti-Trump independent, Pitney said he will have to think more carefully about how he votes.

Voting Republican used to be his default option, but now he has to be “more selective,” he said.

“I never thought I would’ve said something like [this] a couple years ago, but I think it’s important to have a Democratic Congress to serve as a check on Trump,” Pitney said. “Because Republicans have fallen down on their constitutional duties.”

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