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. . . ?





On and on, on and on, on and on

7 03 2013

For all the problems with his mention of Lochner and his unconcern about the use of lethal and surveillance techs on non-US-citizens and  his multitude of other shitty positions. . .

Rand Paul, after ending his filibuster.           Charles Dharapak/AP

. . . Senator Rand Paul did a solid in filibustering since-confirmed CIA chief John Brennan on the issue of presidential authority over the use of drones against American citizens.

And fie on those Democrats who didn’t support him. President Obama has been dreadful on drones, and there is not a little justification for those who claim that many Dems* who screamed about power grabs by President Bush are rather aggressively silent when it’s their guy doing the grabbing.

I’m not surprised by this silence, mind you, but goddamn Democrats, do you have to be so disappointingly and opportunistically predictable?

(*It is not fair to go after leftists and liberals in general, as this is among a number of issues about which various libs, commies, and other malcontents have excoriated Obama and the Dems.)

I’m sympathetic to (my old grad school colleague) Sarah Binder’s concern that “In an age of intense policy and political differences between the parties, no corner of Senate business is immune to filibusters.” And she notes that Paul’s talking filibuster overshadowed the threat-filibuster of the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the DC Court of Appeals, which meant her nomination was blocked.

I was among those who, back when the Democrats were in the minority in the Senate, believed that the filibuster ought to be reformed; that the old asses of the Democratic leadership knocked back any chance of real reform at the beginning of this session is an ongoing irritation. I believe in effective and accountable government, and the way the filibuster has been all-too-often deployed hinders responsible government.

Still, if ever the filibuster were to be justified, this is it. Given the expansion of presidential power in the ever-expanding national security state—with the acquiescence of the majority of the members of Congress—Senator Paul’s willingness to take a stand on the matter of a presidential perogative to assassinate citizens ought to be applauded.

And so I do.