Studying the Polarization of Healthcare: Spotlight on Robert Brehm

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March 12, 2024
Graphic with a headshot of Robert

In the summer after his first year at the LBJ School, Nonprofit Studies portfolio alum Robert Brehm traveled to Peru to complete an internship as part of his Master of Global Policy Studies (MGPS) degree program. While he was there, he experienced an unexpected health complication and spent several days navigating the Peruvian healthcare system trying to get answers.  

“It was very strange and kind of scary,” Brehm said. “I hadn’t thought about healthcare much before having this first-hand experience.”  

The experience piqued Brehm’s interest in the American healthcare system. Upon returning to Austin, he decided to narrow his focus to health policy-related issues in his final year at the LBJ School. Learning more about public health inspired him to pursue a second master’s program after graduating from the LBJ School in May 2019.  

Selfie of Robert Brehm wearing his LBJ School graduation robes
Brehm graduated from the LBJ School in May of 2019 with his Master of Global Policy Studies (MGPS) degree.

While he was applying to public health graduate programs, Brehm read “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker” by Kathy Cramer, a 2016 book that examines the rise of rural resentment and how this can cause some Americans to gravitate toward controversial political figures. Brehm realized that healthcare was one of these polarizing issues and sought to learn more about how it interacts with and is affected by rural resentment. He was eventually accepted into the MPH program at the University of Minnesota and moved to the area to begin his Master’s in Public Health program virtually in the fall of 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a presidential election.  

“I think a lot more people now know what public health is than they did before,” said Brehm. “But it could go either way where they’re more supportive of things like public health efforts or they’re more against efforts because they see it as government overreach or wasted money." 

As part of his MPH degree, Brehm conducted research on instances of polarizing language from former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker related to health issues, such as framing healthcare as an issue of welfare or work incentivization.  


“I’m interested in the rural versus urban angle, and there’s a lot of theories about how America has become so polarized from each other,” Brehm said. “One theory is the rural-urban divide, but that’s not always true.” 

Brehm's paper, titled “Kinda Tough in a Blue State Like Wisconsin: Political Polarization, Governor Scott Walker, and the Rhetoric of Health Policy,” won the 2022 Cohort’s Best Master’s Paper.  He presented data from this research at a poster session at the American Political Science Association’s annual conference in September 2023.  

A photo of Robert Brehm in his graduation robes, standing with the Minnesota mascot.
While earning his Master of Public Health from the University of Minnesota, Brehm worked with two national nonprofits advocating for healthcare policy change.

While he was earning his MPH, Brehm worked as a Policy and External Affairs Assistant at United States of Care, a nonpartisan nonprofit advocating for better health policies. He also worked as a Policy Intern at Proof Alliance, a nonprofit advocating for better funding for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder programs. Brehm explains how advocating for policy change through these nonprofits exemplified the shift in mindset he experienced throughout his coursework at the RGK Center. 

“Before RGK, I wouldn’t have thought of nonprofits doing that kind of work,” Brehm said. “Nonprofits play a really important role in our public sphere and that’s something I did not know coming into the LBJ School and until I worked for these organizations that operate at different levels of government.” 

Through his RGK Center experience, Brehm was also able to attend several conferences, including ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action). It was at these conferences, Brehm said, that he was able to experience “what a professional academic does” and feel better prepared to enter those spaces later as a doctoral student.  

“When I went to a political science conference in Montreal, it wasn’t my first rodeo, so to speak,” Brehm said.  

After graduating with his MPH from the University of Minnesota, Brehm decided to further pursue his research on this topic and began a PhD program at the University of Virginia, where he is studying how people engage in political learning with a focus on health-related issues.  

Brehm’s current research project involves examining anti-vaccine communities and how they relate to politics, which he will be presenting at the Midwest Political Science Association Conference (MPSA) in Chicago this April and at the American Political Science Association's Annual Meeting and Exhibition in September.   

Robert Brehm stands with the UVA mascot.
Brehm is currently earning his PhD at the University of Virginia. 


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