We cannot even choose a side

10 08 2017

After the election of the current occupant of the White House, I considered pitching The Atlantic on a story about the unpreparedness of Americanist political scientists for the new regime.

Like with so (too) many things, I never got around to it, but, today, reading Anthony McElligott’s Rethinking the Weimar Republic, I circled back around to this idea.

Political science, as taught in the US, is often divided into 4 fields: American politics, comparative politics, international relations, and political theory. Sometimes comp & IR are combined, and in some of the larger departments, there may be slots given over to methods/quantitative analysis; theory (my field) is almost always the smallest portion of a pol sci dept.

Anyway, one of the big issues in analyzing the rise and fall of the early German republic is the role of institutions: the attempt of the republic to create new, representative ones, and the role of reactionary institutions (namely, the judiciary and the army) in either not supporting or weakening the republic.

And that’s what brought me back to a consideration of Americanists, and their general lack of consideration of institutions qua institutions.

Let me explain. Here’s [my sense of] how the different fields break down, in terms of what’s studied:

  • American
    • Institutions (govt-specif)
    • Policy (general and specif)
    • Parties
    • State politics
    • Interest groups (oft in conjunction with policy and/or institutions)
    • Political psychology (attitudes & behavior, incl voting behavior)
    • Elections (oft crossed with pol psych, parties, state politics, interest groups)
  • Comparative
    • Institutions (qua institutions)
    • Specific countries/regions
    • Human rights
    • Political culture
    • International law/institutions
    • Political economy
    • Non-governmental organizations
  • IR
    • Diplomacy
    • War
    • Militaries
    • International law/institutions
    • NGOs
    • Political economy
  • Theory
    • History of pol thought
    • Ideologies
    • Specific theorists
    • Specific traditions (e.g., critical theory)

(Again, this is simply my impressionistic take; were I writing a paid piece, I’d test this against something more solid.)

As a general matter, all fields except theory rely on quantitative methods, Americanists probably most of all; Americanists and comparativists may also use qualitative methods. IR, comparative, and theory are variously broadly and narrowly historical, while Americanists are usually only narrowly historical.

What do I mean by “narrowly historical”? They might consider the history of the use of executive power, say, or of the evolution of various House or Senate procedures—that is, they’ll look at the history of a policy or institution in terms of that policy or institution, not any wider trends.

And by “institutions, specific”, I mean, the institutions of government and the various procedures therein; they are generally not considered within a larger context of the institutionalization (“qua institutions”) of the American federal republic or American political culture. A while back I asked someone (Daniel Nexon?) on Twitter—or maybe it was Nexon at Lawyers, Guns & Money—whether there were Americanists who studied institutions in terms of institutionalization, and Stephen Skowronek was the only name he could come up with.

And American political culture? There’s plenty of stuff out there, but little of it done by Americanist; for that, you need to hit up the historians.

Think I’m kidding? Type “American political culture” into Google Scholar and see what pops up: historians and comparativists, some sociologists, and yes, a few political scientists (however narrowly focused).

But not a lot.

This is not a criticism of any particular Americanist. I follow Sarah Binder and Amy Fried, both grad school colleagues, on Twitter, and Sarah’s my go-to scholar for Congressional procedure. And it’s not as if Americanists won’t talk perceptively about what the hell is going on in our country on a conversational level. But bringing scholarly weight to bear on these matters? Not so much.

Okay, it’s getting late, so I won’t stretch my speculations any further. Let’s just say I think Americanists need to—perhaps they already have or are doing so!—broaden their focus and deepen their (historical) analysis if there considerable knowledge is to be of any use in making sense of our current, disintegrating, era.

And theorists? Have I mentioned it’s late. . . ?





There are some who are in darkness

9 02 2017

First off, what is this shit? Few inches of snow and schools, CUNY close? If it’s safe enough for kids to go sledding, it’s safe enough for them to go to school.

I hate snow days: I put some effort into plotting out the syllabus, so missed days throws that off. Yeah, I do allow some slack, but I’d rather I, rather than the weather, were in charge of that flexibility.

(Straigtens shirt, smooths hair.) Back to bizness, and another hoisting-up of a dmf comment:

I remember when pol-sci/history types were going around telling us that Trump’s US was not the same as Hitler’s Germany (and I don’t think Trump is a fascist, too self-consumed for that) as if we knew which factors were the determinate ones in bringing facism to bloom, never struck me as being particularly verifiable, what would be the test of such assertions/speculations?

As one of those ranting that the US was/is not Weimar, I’d offer up the following as crucial factors:

1. History. The United States were created in rebellion against the British, and both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were written by those who prevailed in that rebellion. Slavery tore the country apart, but, again, with the victory of the Union and, crucially, the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, the US began a shift from United States to United States.

The Weimar republic, on the other hand, was borne of defeat, and its opponents never tired of blaming the republicans themselves for the loss the autocratic Kaiser and his generals, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff inflicted on the nation. The German populace was completely unprepared for defeat—the Kaiser himself thought well into fall that the Germans were on the brink of victory—and thus willing to entertain the notion that they were ‘stabbed in the back’. Not everyone accepted the Dolchstoßlegende, but the poison injected into the embryonic republic did weaken it.

2. Constitutional legitimacy. The US Constitution is widely and deeply accepted as legitimate across the political spectrum, although there are, of course, wide and deep differences as to the appropriate interpretation of said constitution. Those differences, significantly, break along whose interpretation is more legitimate, not whether the founding document is itself legit.

The Weimar Constitution, on the other hand, was never widely accepted, and the parties which ushered it into existence were themselves ushered out of power within a few years of its adoption. The Social Democrats and the German Democratic Party did serve in multiple governments between 1919 and 1932, but after 1920 elections, they never held the majority in the Reichstag. Further, after Social Democratic Friedrich Ebert’s death, the anti-republican Hindenburg took over as president; while he did little during the 1920s actively to undermine the republic, he did little to support it, either.

Which leads to the third point:

3. Constitutional structure. The German republic was, like the US, a federated one; unlike the US, however, the selection of the political leader was non-democratic.

Citizens did vote directly for members of the Reichstag (varying terms) and for the president (fixed 7-year term). Unlike in most parliamentary systems, however, where the majority party (the party with the best chance of forming a majority coalition) is offered the chance by a president or monarch to form a government and take over the prime minister’s/chancellor’s office, during Weimar the president could select whomever he wanted as chancellor.

This became an issue once Hindenburg took over. Given that he despised liberalism and republicanism and distrusted universal suffrage, he was loath to select a chancellor from the majority party/coalition. In fact, he was so opposed that he initially denied Hitler the chance to form a government which, as the leading party after the July 1932 elections, was his due. It was only after the failure of various conservative chancellor’s that he agreed to offer Hitler the chancellorship, along with only two (albeit crucial) cabinet posts.

Finally, the Weimar constitution under Article 48 gave the president emergency powers to suspend the constitution—a power which Ebert himself exercised rather too often—and which was used by Hindenburg and Papen to overthrow the Prussian state government; the coup was a death blow to the republic.

There is no equivalent power available to the US president.

These are the three most important factors, I think, in arguing against any kind of equivalence, but there are others as well. While the US is a violent society, the levels of political violence are in no way comparable to those of the Weimar republic: throughout the 1920s paramilitary organizations were aligned with all of the major parties, and they regularly engaged in brawls, intrigues, and, especially on the right, assassinations. Furthermore, the judiciary indulged right-wing violence—Hitler, a non-citizen, was nonetheless able to use ‘patriotism’ in his defense of the beer-hall putsch and to secure a light sentence—and the political parties routinely agreed to amnesty deals for their respective fighters.

Let me pull out that bit about the judiciary: it, like the civil service, the army, and most police forces, was hostile to the republic and unconcerned about its health. Many of those who served in these institutions, as well as in the universities, held to a notion of an ‘eternal Germany’ to which they devoted their loyalty—not the liberal-infested and hopefully-temporary republic; they were biding their time to a return to (authoritarian) normalcy.

In short, almost all governmental and a number of major civil society institutions were explicitly anti-republican and would at best do nothing and at worst abet those plotting to overthrow it. There are certainly those in the US who don’t accept the legitimacy of Democratic rule—see the Obama presidency, assaults on voting rights, or what’s happening in North Carolina—but there are institutional (largely although not solely judicial) barriers to wiping out the rights of Democrats and their sympathizers.

One last thing: As much as I don’t think we’re Weimar, I’m also not as confident as I was 4 months ago that we are exceedingly unlikely to become Weimar. I still consider it unlikely—there are far more buffers against collapse in the US than there were in 1920s Germany—but I admit that I will paying very close attention to those buffers over the next 2-4 years.

I was complacent before November 8, believing a defense of our republic unnecessary; no longer.





Singing songs and carrying signs

17 01 2017

My Congressional representative, Yvette Clarke, is not attending the inaugural. Yay!

My senators, Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, are attending. And that’s fine, too.

I have, over the years (decades. . .) come to appreciate the importance of institutional norms and of the necessity of recognizing the peaceful transfer of power. That a nation is able to vote out leaders and peacefully replace them is an accomplishment.

That’s why I’m fine with my senators attending the inauguration. But why then cheer Rep. Clarke?

Because the President-elect has no interest in institutional norms, has stated his disdain for the notion of a peaceful transfer of power when the voting citizenry elected someone he didn’t like, and has barely acknowledged that he is, in fact, the president-elect of the entire nation, not just the minority that voted for him.

Regular folks (i.e., non-political scientists) are often frustrated by what they see as the hypocrisy of politicians—the paeans to “my dear colleague” in the Senate, the inclusion of members in the opposite party in the Cabinet, a partisan president vowing to rule for all of the people, etc.—but these gestures matter. They are way of saying politics isn’t war, and we are not enemies.

That matters. A lot.

So some Democrats will attend the inauguration to uphold the principle that we, however fractious, are a people, and we honor the institutions by which we are so constituted, and some will boycott to uphold that same principle.

That seems about right.