The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Frances McCall Rosenbluth, a Yale University scholar, understood Japanese politics and so much more

From party politics to gender inequality, Rosenbluth’s research broke many long-held assumptions

Frances McCall Rosenbluth. (Michael Marsland/Yale University)

Frances McCall Rosenbluth, the Damon Wells professor of political science at Yale University, died in late November. A prolific scholar and author or editor of 10 books and dozens of articles, she was a beloved mentor across different areas of political science. Through her research, teaching and mentorship, she made major contributions to the fields of political economy, institutions and parties, politics and gender, and Japanese politics — and to our understanding of war and peace.

Rosenbluth revolutionized scholarship on Japan’s economic miracle

Rosenbluth began her career as a scholar of Japanese politics and economics. Her first two books challenged the academic orthodoxy of the time, which held that the Japanese economy of the 1980s was characterized by a professional and relatively autonomous bureaucracy that had steered the country to an era of rapid economic growth.

Strikingly, however, much of the commentary on Japan’s rapid growth came from scholars with limited knowledge of that country’s politics and society. Born in Osaka, Japan, and a fluent Japanese speaker, Rosenbluth had that knowledge. She used it to counter the dominant explanations of Japanese politics rooted in culture or some ineffable “Japanese-ness.”

Her deep understanding of Japan, with a distinctive take on political economy, put the interests of Japanese businesses, politicians and bureaucrats at the center of analysis. At the time, Rosenbluth’s focus on these groups’ incentives and constraints was highly controversial. But her unique insights into Japanese politics and society led her to conclude that Japan’s bureaucracy was far less independent than others had perceived. When the Japanese economy stalled in the 1990s, it was her work that proved most useful for explaining what had gone wrong.

These insights on Japan apply to party politics elsewhere

Rosenbluth’s work on Japanese politics also helped scholars understand how seemingly small institutional differences can fundamentally alter party politics. Rosenbluth and her co-authors made a series of important discoveries in the late 1990s about the role that electoral rules played in shaping political parties’ fortunes and behavior.

Scholar Robert L. Jervis pushed policymakers to see the world’s complexity

For instance, Rosenbluth showed that factional divisions within Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party — which has held power with only brief interruptions since 1955 — were the result of politicians responding strategically to electoral institutions. Shifts in electoral rules resulted in shifts in the nature of cleavages within the party itself. Rosenbluth explained how Japan’s 1994 electoral reforms actually undermined the factions in subsequent elections, and that the different electoral rules across Japanese legislative bodies produced disparate forms of factional politics.

Once again, Rosenbluth and her co-authors worked against prevailing culture-based arguments about Japanese political life, embracing an institutionalist framework that asked how aspiring candidates respond to electoral incentives, given a factionalized dominant party. Rosenbluth demonstrated how scholars of parties and elections anywhere in the world should learn from Japan’s experiences.

Rosenbluth shifted how political science views gender inequality

A hallmark of Rosenbluth’s career was the wide range of her scholarship. In more recent work, she applied her formidable intellectual tool kit and skepticism of essentialist explanations to the politics of sex and gender. Dissatisfied with existing work that linked gender-based differences in society to deeply ingrained, patriarchal cultural norms, Rosenbluth and her co-authors made clear how political institutions and economic incentives play an outsize role in shaping women’s labor market participation, policy preferences and political careers.

For example, she uncovered that political systems with strong parties are better for women’s career advancement than those in which voters primarily choose between individual candidates. In party-centered systems, candidates can run on the strength of party labels. But in candidate-centered ones, a successful career requires the development of long-term ties to constituents and to political insiders.

In a world where the burden of care work still falls disproportionately on women, it’s easier for men to make the demanding and long-running investments that a political career in a candidate-centric system requires. Rosenbluth demonstrated that this institutional distinction explains stark differences in the success of female candidates across democracies since 1945.

This work also brought to the fore how changes in women’s options — in both the labor and marriage markets — shape their policy preferences.

Rosenbluth emphasized that women vote for leftist economic policies, such as subsidized child care or public employment, because these policies make it easier for them to enter the labor market, to invest in marketable skills, and to improve their bargaining position within the household, especially when divorce is more likely. The well-known gender gap in political preferences, she convincingly argued, makes sense only if we view women as individuals looking out for their interests, not simply as complements to their husband’s labor.

She was an inspirational teacher and mentor

The breadth and depth of Rosenbluth’s scholarship ensures that her intellectual contributions will live on. She continued to make important contributions to Japanese politics even while turning to entirely new research fields, such as improving democratic politics and parties’ ability to govern responsibly or tracing how democracies have relied on warfare to survive.

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But as her former students would attest, perhaps Rosenbluth’s greatest legacy is in her role as teacher and mentor. During her time at Yale, she guided more than 40 students through the PhD program, serving as the chair of 22 completed dissertations, and informally mentored countless more students across all subfields. She was known for having a light touch, an open door and an uncanny ability to help students see their own research from a fresh — and often more compelling — perspective.

For former students like us, she was a role model. In a profession in which women face pressures to hide their personal lives, Rosenbluth was unapologetic about her role as a mother of three sons as well as her roles as scholar, teacher and leader. She shared her own stories as a young scholar coming up in a political science profession that was just beginning to admit women in significant numbers, and she often pointed out positive models of men who supported women in their workplaces, as well as partners who supported these scholars’ careers. Her death leaves a void in many of our lives, and we miss her terribly.

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Rafaela Dancygier is a professor of politics and public and international affairs and director of the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice at Princeton University. She is the author of numerous articles on immigration and party politics and has written two books on the topic, “Immigration and Conflict in Europe” (2010) and “Dilemmas of Inclusion: Muslims in European Politics” (2017).

Tarek Masoud is a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and co-editor of the Journal of Democracy.

Tom Pepinsky is the Walter F. LaFeber Professor of Government and Public Policy and director of the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is “Piety and Public Opinion: Understanding Indonesian Islam” (2018).

Dawn Teele is a Stavros Niarchos Agora Institute associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. Her recent work on the political economy of gender includes “Forging the Franchise: The Political Origins of the Women’s Vote” (2018) and an article in the American Political Science Review, “The Ties that Double Bind: Social Roles and Women’s Under-representation in Politics,” co-written with Joshua Kalla and Frances Rosenbluth.