Romen Borsellino ’12
Major: Interdisciplinary (Political Psychology)
Advisor: Andrew Poe
What is your thesis about?
My thesis is essentially a look at the role of charisma in the elections process. Something that really fascinates me is American politics, especially the elections side, so one thing that I want to study is when people go to the polls, are they looking at the candidate with the best policy decisions, or the person who can just make the best case in general, based on some sort of charisma or personal appeal.
How did you choose this topic?
Well I started out doing a psychology major, and I like psych but it’s such a broad category I decided that I wanted to do something a little bit more specific so I created an interdisciplinary major, Political Psychology. I’ve been working with my advisor Andrew Poe to sort of take ideas that interest me and turn them into something I could write this thesis about.
How did you get to making an interdisciplinary major?
Well that’s one of the awesome things about Amherst. They literally want you to study whatever interests you. The downside is that that’s not necessarily possible unless you have a professor that’s willing to absolutely devote himself to that cause with you. I was very, very lucky to find Professor Poe, who couldn’t be more supportive, who couldn’t be more helpful, works hard with me, makes sure I’m on the right track and allows me to sort of bounce ideas off of him.
What sort of research do you do for a thesis in which you rely on both more abstract ideas and quantitative data?
What I like about it is that it’s a little bit of everything. You start with the dense, boring, classical stuff. You read theories by Max Weber about what the original definition of charisma is and where it evolves from. Then you get into the fun stuff, you get to starting saying, “how does that apply to today?” I look at some elections, I’ll be doing a case study. I’ll be saying, alright, lets look at the past three Democratic candidates for president: We got Gore, Kerry and Obama. And I’m going to compare each of their policies and then I’m going to compare how they fit into this definition of charisma and say, how were each of them charismatic if at all. And then be able to say, did it make a difference, did policy in the end make a difference or did just personal charm work better?
What do you think is the most interesting part of your thesis?
The relevance. The fact that this question that I’m exploring literally determines the leader of the free world. And not just that; this isn’t just an American thing, this is something that can apply to any election across any form of government, literally across the world. You can look at it from a student government level, and you can look at just anything, so I think the relevance is really interesting.
But you’re focusing more on American politics, right?
Yeah, I am. I’m doing something I have known and followed my throughout my life. Because I think when you do a project like this the most important part is doing something that really interests you that you can bring a familiar perspective to.
Any highlights or lowlights so far in your process?
Yeah, actually the idea started forming in my head once I met Sarah Palin this summer. I have always been a big-time Obama supporter — still am — and I sort of despise that woman in a lot of ways. But when I met her, I was really won over by her in terms of her personality, and sort of thought to myself, how was she able to do this? I know I disagree with her, I know that I just think she’s a bad person. Yet, talk to her for 30 seconds and even someone like that is able to sort of win you over. And clearly I’m not alone there; that’s her appeal. But don’t get me wrong: I don’t support her. I’m not a Sarah Palin fan, but I’ll give credit where it’s due. The credit is that she is very personable. So my question is: is that enough, is being personable enough for courting voters?
Do you have any advice for students who are considering writing a thesis?
Absolutely. Do something that interests you. This is really a chance to explore something you’ve always wanted to explore. I mean I wouldn’t really be willing to put in the work for this if it wasn’t something that I really cared about. And also find an advisor who you love, who is also really going to be able to sort of open your mind and challenge you in different ways. I’ve been very fortunate with that.