Stephen's conducts research in the field of American political development. His research agenda is motivated by an interest in institutional and ideational development, parties in government, legislative behavior, and political strategy. Stephen focuses on qualitative research, with inquiries heavily influenced by constitutional law, history, philosophy, and political science.

"I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions... But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."

Thomas Jefferson (1816)

Stephen standing in front of lectern at a conference with a co-author.


Stephen's dissertation examines the link between American constitutional development and equality under the law. A well-established body of interdisciplinary research focuses on the relationship between periodicity and civil rights, and a largely separate literature expounds the effects of constitutions on political development. Despite their connection, few attempts have been made in political science to link these topics and investigate how American constitutional development shapes our shared understanding of equality under the law and vice versa. Using process-tracing and causal modeling, I examine the policy processes surrounding the consideration of three statutes and constitutional amendments, during the progressive and civil rights eras. Specifically, I analyze how public and private actors, through the lens of policy entrepreneurs, utilize constitutional and political mechanisms and strategies to pursue reconstitutions of equality politics.

Working Papers

Philadelphia Reconsidered: Political Strategy, Heresthetic, and Legislative Design

Stephen C. Phillips, Alex P. Smith, and Peter R. Licari

William Riker began the study of heresthetic by examining the adoption of the Electoral College and vote-trading on the issues of slavery and navigation acts. Yet, Riker did not examine heresthetic in what he identifies as the most significant debate of the Constitutional Convention: representation in Congress. Utilizing heresthetic, we examine debate over representation at two critical junctures: the New Jersey Plan and Gerry Committee. Acknowledging James Madison’s agenda-setting Virginia Plan, we identify an instance of agenda stenting—preventing the foreclosure in dimensionality of a decision-making space—after the failure of the New Jersey Plan, keeping the proposal for equal representation alive. We assert the appointment of the Gerry Committee precipitated an eremic shift of structural and creative liberty. The Committee bypassed institutional gatekeepers and veto players and can be seen as a signaling game that provoked concession. These tactics were essential in maintaining unity amongst the states, allowing small-state nationalists such as Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut to craft a proposal capable of approval at the Convention and ratification. Furthermore, we contend the Constitution is the product of many “fathers,” rather than the creation of a few key delegates.

Ways and Means: Teaching Political Strategy and Heresthetic by Simulating the Budget Process

Alex P. Smith and Stephen C. Phillips | Download

William Riker argued political skills and strategies can be developed through two methods: instruction or practice. Simulations offer opportunities for students to receive instruction in political strategies and practice developing political skills without the real-world consequences faced by policymakers. Budget simulations introduce students to collective action problems prevalent at all levels of American government. While developing and passing a budget provides students with practice, carefully constructing the simulation introduces the heresthetic tactics of agenda setting, strategic voting, and dimension manipulation. By incorporating these strategies into the simulation, students must navigate conflicting interests—maximize personal gains and risk not adopting a budget, or cooperate and approve a budget that may not align with personal preferences. When used in American government and political institution courses, the budget simulation helps students identify choices policymakers encounter and develop the skills necessary for navigating those situations and the broader policymaking process.

Partisanship at Water's Edge: Aplpying the Two-Presidency Thesis to Procedural Votes

Stephen C. Phillips

Previous research on presidential action in the legislative arena focuses almost exclusively on final passage roll call votes, not procedural votes. Rationalist literature holds presidents are more likely to take action when the costs are minimal and the benefits high. Taking a stand on a procedural vote is often characterized by low cost and high potential benefit. While political capital may be expended, the president can influence the agenda, attempt to prevent floor action, or use his or her support to craft a legislative coalition suitable to his or her own position. Wildavsky, and McCormick and Wittkopf, posit the president is more successful in areas of foreign policy, and specifically when foreign affairs are salient. Scholarship also demonstrates presidential popularity and polarization are significant elements in executive success. Through an analysis of cloture motions between 1959 and 2017, I examine presidential success on procedural votes. Specifically, I analyze the difference between success on foreign and domestic policy and nominations.