Comparative Politics and the Trump Administration

Last week I wrote a silly post about international relations theory and the Trump administration. The purpose of that post was to poke some fun at the dozens of paradigms employed to make sense of the field of international relations, and also to comment obliquely about the radical uncertainty surrounding Trump administration foreign policy. Careful readers will have identified the last line—“Post-paradigmatic IR Let’s ask a comparativist—as the ultimate insult to post-paradigmatic international relations. If you’re not paradigmatic, just what are you doing?

And yet what would happen if we actually asked a comparativist about the Trump administration? That is the subject of today’s post, which is a bit more serious. It also responds to another disciplinary concern within political science, as many of my Americanist colleagues have commented to the effect of “we need to be talking to comparativists more” in recent weeks. Some colleagues have put together asources on current American politics that focus on questions such as illiberal politics and democratic breakdowns (see e.g. Jeff Colgan here). What I have done instead is more general. I took a general, introductory grad-level syllabus in the field of comparative politics (PDF), and scanned it for readings that seem particularly timely and useful. Below is what I found, based on “required readings” only. At the end of the post, I reflect on limitations of this particular syllabus.

Consider the list of readings below as “comparative politics answers” to “Trump administration questions.”

Theda Skocpol. 1985. “Bringing the State Back In,” in Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (eds.) Bringing the State Back In. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Just what is this thing “America” that will be made great again? A state. Just what is a state, and what allows it to have properties such as “greatness” (if at all)? Skocpol synthesizes an emerging research agenda from the late 1970s and early 1980s on the state that has remained influential for thinking about both the American state and others around the world.

Randall Calvert. 1995. “Rational Actors, Equilibrium, and Social Institutions.” In Explaining Social Institutions, edited by J. Knight and I. Sened. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

One of the more urgent questions that many progressives are asking is how American political institutions will constrain a party that controls all major branches of government. So why do politicians act the way they do? Because institutions constrain them. But who creates institutions? Politicians. Then just how do institutions constrain politicians? No easy answers. Calvert helps us to construct a framework for thinking through some possibilities.

Robert Dahl. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl. 1991. “What Democracy Is…And Is Not.” Journal of Democracy 2(3): 3-16.

What do we mean by “democracy”? These are two classic statements. For Dahl, democracy is an ideal, and actually existing political systems depart from it in terms of how inclusive and how competitive they are. For Schmitter and Karl, the important thing is that democracy is not the same as “all sorts of good things like justice and peace and fairness.”

Adam Przeworski. 1999. “Minimalist conception of democracy: a defense.” In Democracy’s Value, ed. Ian Shapiro and Casiano Hacker-Cordon. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 23-55.

Why do we consider democracy to be something to be valued in the first place? Przeworski entertains lots of possible answers, and gives us a good synopsis of reasons why we ought to dismiss things like “the common welfare.” His answer is perhaps surprising, that it allows us to know who would win in a conflict without actually having the conflict.

Jeffrey Winters. 2011. Oligarchy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

It’s common to hear complaints that the United States is an oligarchy. But what does it mean analytically to say that the United States is an “oligarchy”? Winters offers one answer, in which oligarchy is the defense of wealth by individuals whose political power derives disproportionately from their material resources. Just about every actually existing society is, for Winters, an oligarchy (which makes “the U.S. is an oligarchy!” not a very interesting statement), but oligarchies nevertheless vary, and that is interesting. Winters also distinguishes oligarchs from elites and (although not explicitly) plutocrats.

Sheri Berman. 1997. “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,” World Politics 49 (3): 401-439.

There was a time in which Tocquevillians believed that a strong civil society was a bulwark against illiberalism. Berman uses the case of late Weimar Germany to show how an active civil society can not just allow illiberalism to flourish, but also encourage it.

Kenneth Roberts. 2006. “Populist Mobilization, Socio-Political Conflict, and Grass-Roots Organization in Latin America,” Comparative Politics 38(2): 127-148.

Roberts is one of the best scholars of populism around. This piece provides a typology of different kinds of populism and their relations to different kinds of mass social organization and party organization. I suspect that his category “partisan populism” where “the development of labor and civic organizations lags behind the development of the party apparatus” best describes President-elect Trump’s brand of populism—partisan, but organizationally fragmented.

Contributions by Karen Beckwith, Teri Caraway, Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer, Aili Mari Tripp, Lisa Baldez, and Georgina Waylen to “A Comparative Politics of Gender,” Perspectives on Politics 8(1): 159-231.

Gender is everywhere in politics. It is a lot more than “when are women elected to office?” and “do women represent ‘women’s interests’?”. Read these selections to learn more.

John Aldrich. 2011. Why Parties? A Second Look, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This is one of the few “Americanist” books that makes it onto the comparative politics required readings list, as it helps to understand what political parties are actually for without resorting to the idea that they are an organic expression of some set of interests. Once we take away that assumption, it becomes much easier to understand why partisans are, well, partisan.

Gary W. Cox. 1997. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the World’s Electoral Systems. New York: Cambridge University Press.

This is basically the careful, scientific explanation for why we in the U.S. always have to choose between Kang and Krodos. “Go ahead, throw your vote away.”

David J. Samuels and Matthew S. Shugart. 2010. Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers: How the Separation of Powers Shapes Party Organization and Behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.

This book is a great introduction to two things. One, the difference between presidential and parliamentary systems. Two, to the relationship between presidentialism and the types of parties and legislative-executive relations that follow. In our presidential system, parties are presidentialized, which means that the GOP and the Democrats (and also the Greens and the Libertarians and the Reform Party) reflect the style and the priority of the executive much more than is the case in a parliamentary system. Basically, forget “A Better Way,” focus on whatever it is that President Trump stand for. Maybe The Party Decides the nomination, but the president decides what partisanship will mean. The introduction to this book also contains some helpful snark on what Americanists and comparativists have not learned from one another.

Kenneth M. Roberts. 2013. “Market Reform, Programmatic (De)Alignment, and Party System Stability in Latin America,” Comparative Political Studies 46(11): 1422-1452.

Roberts again, this time on party systems, arguing that when leftist parties embrace neoliberal or pro-market principles, they may reap temporary electoral gain but at the cost of severing the link between party and ideological position. When that happens, the party system itself is at risk. Originally developed to explain Latin America; apply to New Democrats and New Labour at your own risk.

Robert Putnam. 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press.

A classic explanation of “why government works” in northern Italy but not southern Italy, focusing on civil society and social capital. Americanists are usually familiar with Putnam’s Bowling Alone, but Making Democracy Work raises some questions about politics around the U.S. Does “democracy work” equally well in the Rust Belt and in the Bay Area? Might we link the decline of civic associationalism to the kinds of anomie and despair we learn about in Hillbilly Elegy?

Herbert Kitschelt. 2000. “Linkages between Citizens and Politicians in Democratic Polities,” Comparative Political Studies 33(6/7): 845-879.

Kitschelt provides the best typology out there of differences in how politicians get votes from citizens. “Charismatic politicians disarticulate political programs thatwould distract from their personality and force them to invest in techniques of resolving the problem of social choice. They tend to promise all things to all people to maintain maximum personal discretion over the strategy of their party vehicle.” It also usefully breaks down the notion that “programmatic” linkages are characteristic of “advanced” democracies and “clientelism” or “charismatic” of “developing countries.”

Bo Rothstein and Jan Teorell. 2008. “What Is Quality of Government? A Theory of Impartial Government Institutions.” Governance 21(2): 165-90.

Everyone is in favor of “good governance,” but almost no one can define it. Rothstein and Teorell focus on impartiality, and are suitably thoughtful about what it means for a government to be impartial. There are interesting implications for swamp dwellers and swamp drainers alike.

Gøsta Esping-Andersen. 1990. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Welfare systems are not an “on-or-off” variable, and there is no single dimension along which we can categorize welfare provisions. Esping-Andersen identifies three “systems” or “worlds” of welfare in capitalist societies: means-tested programs that identify the needy and support them, solidaristic or corporatist arrangements that tie benefits to types of employment, and universalistic arrangements that grant benefits to everyone regardless of need or station. Behind each kind of system there is a political story.

Torben Iversen and David Soskice. 2015. “Democratic Limits to Redistribution: Inclusionary versus Exclusionary Coalitions in the Knowledge Economy.” World Politics 67(2): 185-225.

The current mantra among many cosmopolitan liberals is that the real source of disappearing jobs for low skilled workers is not globalization, it is technological change. Assume that this is true—that the problem is not the global economy, it is the knowledge economy. Iversen and Soskice explain that defending the interests of unskilled labor in a knowledge economy requires coalitions between the unskilled workers and skilled workers. Such coalitions are unlikely in majoritarian political systems such as the United States.

Errors and Omissions

Obviously I did not design the syllabus above to be maximally useful for making sense of contemporary American politics. Were I to construct such a syllabus, what would I change? Not very much, but here are three things that I would do.

First, I would move into the required reading some pieces on elections and “the control of politicians,” perhaps Ferejohn (1986) or Fearon (1999). The question to ask is, under what conditions do elections incentivize politicians to respond to the interests of their constituents, which is only addressed indirectly in the assigned readings.

Second, I would look harder for something else on identity and comparative politics that goes beyond attempts to estimate the effect of ethnic diversity on something, or old-fashioned Parsonian functionalism, and asks why identity motivates political action in the first place.

Third, I’d find a way to address race explicitly. Comparative politics is good at identity, including ethnicity and nationalism. On the comparative politics of race as a distinct analytical category, this syllabus is weak.

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics, Teaching
2 comments on “Comparative Politics and the Trump Administration
  1. […] scramble to make sense of political developments in the United States, these developments seem rather familiar to people used to looking at cross-national patterns of contentious politics, regime […]

  2. […] Berman’s treatment of social capital and the fall of the Weimar Republic in my post on Comparative Politics and the Trump Administration, which is an excellent example of what the rise of fascism actually looked like. One key point that […]

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