President Trump’s Downfall as a Democratic Transition

President Trump has had a bad week. Last week’s firing of FBI Director James Comey was followed last night by reports that the President has revealed classified information to the Russians. This news has added to the steady drumbeat of criticism from President Trump’s domestic critics, many of whom have consistently called for his impeachment (see here, here, here, and many other places; this is, of course, an old genre of anti-Trump writing). Recently, Evan Osnos published a long essay in the New Yorker entitled “How Trump Could Get Fired.”

How should we think about the possible end of the Trump administration? The analyses above target the case for impeachment, the partisan politics of impeachment, or the Constitutional provisions for impeachment or removal via the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. These are useful but ultimately narrow perspectives. Analytically, it is more useful to consider the problem of presidential impeachment through the lens of democratic transitions.

Democratic transitions are the bread and butter of comparative politics. They are highly visible, dramatic political moments, as a Trump impeachment or removal would certainly be. Because most political scientists share a normative commitment to democracy, democratic transitions also carry significant meaning to those who study them—again, as a Trump impeachment would. Those of us who have studied transitions (and failed transitions) are humbled by the acts of heroism by ordinary people who stand up for rights and liberties, and by movements who organize collectively to press for political change.

A transitologist’s perspective, can, however, put those actors and movements in perspective. Here are two important things to note in the current U.S. political moment.

First, popular movements write histories in which they are the agents of change. One pertinent example is the People Power movement in the Philippines. This is a classic case of democratic transition via social movement, and has served as a template and an inspiration for other pro-democracy movements since, such as the so-called Color Revolutions of the 2000s. And yet the details of the final days of Ferdinand Marcos point to key decisions made by internal security forces and external patrons such as the United States as the proximate drivers of regime breakdown. Moreover, as political scientist Benedict Anderson observed long ago, Corazon Aquino came from the same network of colonial and postcolonial elites as did Marcos. The transition was made easier by the general sense among that faction of Filipino elites that democratization would ultimately not be that radical of an exercise.

Second, “heroes” are situational. For example, in my view, one of the heroes of Indonesia’s 1998-99 democratic transition was Soeharto’s final vice president, B.J. Habibie. Habibie is an unlikely hero because he was the handpicked subordinate of a brutal dictator, but he did oversee a transition that he had not planned but might have stopped had he cared to try. Habibie’s importance for Indonesian democratization does not depend on whether or not he was a good person, nor on whether or not his intentions at the time were noble.

These observations suggest that if there is to be an actual non-electoral mode of transition in the United States—and that is, after all, what impeachment or constitutional removal would be—mass opposition to Trump may be the background condition, but it is unlikely to be the proximate causal factor that sets in motion the end of the Trump presidency. Making sense of that prospective causal sequence will require looking more soberly to the incentives of different actors and the political game that they think that they are playing. The literature on democratization has a language for this: hardliners and softliners, pacted transitions, elite settlements, uncertainty, and contingency.

The classic statement is Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter‘s Transitions from Authoritarian Rule (pdf). Anyone who is serious about understanding how to build towards impeachment or constitutional removal should read this short book carefully. It makes several observations about democratic transitions: that transitions are moments of high uncertainty, that splits within the regime are the necessary precondition, and “transitional justice” is inevitably an issue. Applied to the problem of contemporary U.S. politics, the key question is not “how much will the Congressional GOP tolerate?” or “will the GOP’s principles ever kick in?” but rather “can the Congressional GOP be convinced that it has a future?”

This point has uncomfortable implications. The extreme polarization of U.S. politics means that Democrats see the only way forward as using President Trump as a symbolic cudgel, to defeat every Republican elected official and then to hold them to account for their actions. The threat of electoral defeat, so the thinking goes, might be sufficient to force GOP elites to break with the administration.

But that is not how you build a coalition to move President Trump out of office. Rather, if one were to chart out a transition pathway that follows the process model of O’Donnell and Schmitter, it would involve identifying softliners within the Trump administration and the Congressional GOP who are “biddable” on impeachment or removal. It would then involve a pact of some sort in which those softliners participate in impeachment or removal, almost certainly in return for something of value to them—perhaps health care, perhaps federal judiciary positions, perhaps support fending off the inevitable primary challenge. That pact is a political compromise which makes change possible by allowing the softliners to free themselves from their dependence on the Trump administration.

It should be obvious here that an underappreciated problem in mobilizing GOP softliners against President Trump is the problem of mobilizing their Democratic counterparts to accept such a pact. Who is willing to trade partisan principles in favor of broader constitutional stability?

Transitions from Authoritarian Rule is full of other relevant gems. For example, on soft-liners:

they may be indistinguishable from the hard-liners in the first, “reactive” phase of the authoritarian regime. They may be equally disposed to use repression and to tolerate the arbitrary acts of the appropriate ministry or security agency. What turns them into soft-liners is their increasing awareness that the regime that they helped to implant, and in which they usually occupy important positions, will have to make use, in the foreseeable future, of some degree or some form of electoral legitimation.

And on the problem of clemency for past crimes:

Where [the guilty parties] cannot prevent the transition, they will strive to obtain iron-clad guarantees that under no circumstances will “the past be unearthed”; failing to obtain that, they will remain a serious threat to the nascent democracy.

There are limits to this analogy. O’Donnell and Schmitter were writing mostly about hard authoritarian regimes, often led by juntas who murdered their opponents. President Trump is not a hard authoritarian. “Transitional justice” is not the question of whether or not to convene a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate death squads, but rather owning the President’s broadly unpopular legislative agenda and legacy, and allowing some in the GOP to claim credit for its success.

Stepping back, however, the general lessons from transitology are broadly applicable to the present moment. Transitions from authoritarian rule are political processes, not simply constitutional procedures. Put differently, the Constitution has procedures for executive removal that are easily enacted, but only after the political settlement has been reached. Political transitions almost inevitably require some degree of compromise among self-interested political actors, not the discovery of hidden democratic heroes with impeccable democratic credentials Who Have Finally Had Enough.

The smart but unpleasant move for those who believe that President Trump is unfit to serve is to start thinking about what kind of pacted transition would acceptable. The alternative is to wait for the 2018 elections. But if you thought that waiting until 2018 were preferable to a pacted transition now, you probably would not have read this far.

Posted in Uncategorized

Political Islam and the Ahok Verdict

In a forthcoming book, coauthored with Bill Liddle and Saiful Mujani and entitled Piety and Public Opinion: Understanding Indonesian Islam, I make the argument that individual piety does not explain much about Indonesian public opinion. Our book’s argument focuses on the beliefs and practices of individuals: what does it mean to be pious? And once we know that, do pious people think differently about democracy, or about Islamic banking, or about globalization? Although there are nuances, the topline result to all of these questions is not really.

Today, Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama—universally known as Ahok—was found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison. The case focuses on statements he made in a public forum in which he references a phrase from the Quran (al Maidah, verse 51). From a legal standpoint, the Ahok case is simply a mess, a travesty of justice. From a political standpoint, it is dangerous setback for Indonesian democracy. There is no mistaking it: Indonesian Islamists will learn from this case that an effective, legally permissible way to silence non-Muslim Indonesian voices is to threaten them with prison if they speak about Islam at all.

How to square the argument in our book with this recent development? One may easily find statements by prominent Indonesian Muslim religious figures who criticize Ahok’s treatment (one example) and find the charge of blasphemy to be entirely specious. From an analytical standpoint, though, our argument is about individual beliefs. It is not about political process, or elite behavior. If one holds that there is no “autonomy of the political,” that individual preferences uniquely and exhaustively determine democratic political outcomes, then it would indeed be puzzling that Islam can be so mobilized for political purposes.

But that is not what we argue. A society in which piety does not determine political action may also be one in which those who act to further their own interests use religion to do so. And accordingly, here is the last sentence of our book:

To the extent that observers of Indonesia should worry about Islam as a threat to Indonesian democracy, it is not because of the beliefs of Indonesian Muslims. Rather, it is because of the choices of Indonesia’s political elites, or the strategies that Indonesia’s parties—Islamists and others—pursue to secure power. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Indonesia’s Islamists have made a choice to accept democratic elections as the procedure through which citizens allocate political authority. That is, they have accepted as legitimate that democracy is a procedure by which, in the words of Przeworski (1991: 10), “parties lose elections. There are parties: divisions of interest, values and opinions. There is competition, organized by rules. And there are periodic winners and losers.” Islamists in Indonesia have organized political parties, they have lost elections, and they continue to participate in them. Any threat to Indonesian democracy now comes from the often corrupt, sometimes ugly, process of democratic politics itself.

The question that our book raises, but does not completely answer, is why the invocation of Islam remains an effective elite political strategy.

Posted in Current Affairs, Indonesia, Islam, Politics, Research

International and Area Studies in the Era of American Greatness

I have a new essay out in the Chronicle of Higher Education on what are likely to be devastating effects of President Trump’s budget proposal on international and area studies. Subscribers can read here. I make the case that now is the time for U.S. institutions of higher education to make a serious commitment to area studies, as a way to protect the U.S. national interest. This essay may be read profitably next to an earlier essay of mine in the Chronicle entitled “How to Make Area Studies Relevant Again.”

An unedited, slightly longer, and perhaps more interesting version is available for free here (PDF). Features Snouck Hurgronje and Max Havelaar, as anything on national interests and foreign policy written by an Indonesia specialist should.

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics, Research, Teaching

Learning from Marginal Effects Plots

I really enjoy thinking about how to present quantitative information in a visual format rather than in boring tables of digits. However, at the same time, I think that many common ways to visualize quantitative results in political science are actually misleading. How can I hold both of these views at the same time?

The answer is, because we use heuristics to interpret what the information presented in a figure means, and I think that these heuristics are often faulty. And this is more likely when we adopt a disciplinary conventions for presenting results in certain ways, such that these heuristics become so widely shared and automatic that we do not consciously think about them. In this way, I disagree somewhat with the conclusions in Kastellec and Leoni (ungated PDF) who argue that graphs enhance communication relative to tables. I think that graphical presentation of data can do this when we know that both the sender and the receiver speak the same language competently. I made this point some years ago in a presentation to Cornell graduate students (PDF).

The example that brings this to mind is the marginal effects plot, popularized by Brambor, Clark, and Golder (2006) (PDF). These are used to visualize how the effect of one variable varies according to the value of another variable. Like this.


I’ve written up a little essay that illustrates how one common visual heuristic for interpreting these marginal effects plots can result in misleading inferences. Does this figure tell us that the effect of D depends on X? The answer may surprise you.

The problem here is not with the plot itself—the plot does not create information that would not be available if the same data used to draw the lines and bars were presented in a tabular format. The problem is also not the calculation of those lines and bars. The problem is the heuristic through which these are interpreted. One might say, “yes, don’t use that heuristic,” and I agree.

As a postscript, here is a slideshow that includes some of my favorite figures from my own published and unpublished work. I’m sure by some other objective standard (perhaps Tufte‘s) these are ugly, but I think they are effective and that is what I care about. And because you don’t have a ready-made heuristic about how to interpret them, it’s more likely that you’ll slow down and look at them.

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Posted in Research, Uncategorized

Should Colleges and Universities Entertain Discredited Arguments?

Via Savage Minds, I recently came across an interesting discussion of contentious ideas and the role of colleges and universities in entertaining them. The issue at hand is whether colleges and universities ought to entertain presentations by people like Charles Murray, specifically to discuss ideas such as that found in his influential yet widely criticized book The Bell Curve. In the words of Jonathan Marks,

It’s like inviting a creationist or an inventor of a perpetual motion machine. The university should not be a censor, but it sure as hell is a gatekeeper. At this point, sometimes [proponents of speakers like Murray] go all radical epistemological relativist and and say that all ideas deserve a hearing. But all ideas don’t deserve a hearing. The universe of things that do get discussed and debated on college campuses is rather small in proportion to the ideas that people have debated over the years. Should we stone witches? No. Might the speed of light be 140,000 miles per second, rather than 186,000? No. Might the universe just be made up of earth, air, water, and fire? No. Might Africans just be genetically stupid? Might people who want to debate this point have their fundamental civic morality called into question instead?

Without weighing in on the specifics of Charles Murray as a scholar or thinker (although I spent a week in summer 2004 going through The Mismeasure of Man and was fairly transfixed), I’d like to redirect this argument just a bit. The actually interesting question is not whether or not the ideas in The Bell Curve are discredited or not, but what is the role of the university in entertaining even discredited ideas in a public forum. In my view there is a strong pedagogical argument that universities must entertain these kinds of contentious arguments, even if they involve ideas that are discredited, or known to be false.

I will make this argument through example. I regularly teach a course on Southeast Asian Politics (syllabus [PDF]). We always spend at least one class on the so-called “Asian Values debate,” which I consider to be dead debate because the premise of Asian Values is itself false and has long been known to be so. So why teach a “dead debate?” Because this debate exists independently of me teaching about it, and students live in a world where they are shaped by those ideas even if they are unaware of them.

This is always best illustrated by the case of Thailand and so-called “Thai-style democracy.” I always have at least one student—never a student who is actually from Thailand or of Thai heritage—who argues that “the Thais” are culturally predisposed to deference, collectivism, and subordination to royal authority. They almost never have a language for describing this, and are unaware of what holding such a view entails about the people to whom it is applied. By providing them with the argument about Asian Values, relating it to this specific instance of a belief that they hold about Thailand, I render their views visible. This gives them the tools that they need to be critical of those beliefs.

It would not make sense for me to hold that the Asian Values debate is dead (and Orientalist, and actually self-contradictory…), therefore I need not teach it, because refusing to teach it allows the ideas to persist unquestioned. It is likewise silly to hold that just because I’ve done the work of demolishing the Asian Values myth in 2001, I don’t have to do so in 2002, and 2003, and so on to 2017. Yes, doing so can feel stale and tiresome, but my classes continually renew themselves with new 18-year olds who need to be taught the things that 22-year olds already know. Doing this work year after year comes with the territory; how could it be otherwise? So too with the university writ large. There is a reason why the ideas in The Bell Curve continue to hold such influence for so many people, and that very reason provides the pedagogical foundation for universities to encourage debate around it.

So no, we should not stone witches—but if witch stoning were a commonly held normative belief it would warrant discussion and teaching. “Might the speed of light be 140,000 miles per second, rather than 186,000?” No, but we know that because we can reason it, and the purpose of the university is to teach students how to reason that way themselves as well. We don’t debate phlogiston anymore, but it remains essential to training in the philosophy of science because understanding what work the concept did helps us to understand how we construct arguments about how the universe works.

One position is that if universities do not acknowledge contentious or unpopular or incorrect ideas, they will disappear or remain marginal because they have not been given the legitimacy of a public hearing. Another position is that giving them a public hearing subjects them to critical scrutiny and argument. My position is the latter. The really dangerous and powerful idea is the one that cannot be taught or acknowledged in public.

Posted in Culture, Current Affairs, Teaching

The Long Arm of Western Crises

What seems a lifetime ago, I wrote a short essay for the newsletter of the International History and Politics section of the American Political Science Association. Here is how it begins:

The events of 2016 represent no less than a crisis of democracy and capitalism in the West. Not since the 1970s have the fundamental pillars of the post-war global economic order been so contested, and the future course of democracy so uncertain. A particular version of nativist populism that combines economic grievances with deep suspicion of regional institutions is now ascendant from the U.S. to Poland and Hungary. The parallels with the 1930s—also a time of economic hardship, challenges to democracy, and skepticism of international institutions—are all too evident.

At present, the focus of debate is mostly local: what are the consequences of Donald Trump’s presidency for U.S. politics; of Brexit for the U.K. economy; of Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Heinz-Christian Strache, Frauke Petry, and Viktor Orbán for the European project? What remains is geostrategic: what is the future of NATO; of U.S.-China relations; and of Russia as a Eurasian power? From the perspective of global history and politics, what interests me are the as-yet unanticipated consequences of this crisis beyond the borders of Europe, North America, and their great power rivals. The West’s political and economic crises tend to have long arms; witness, for example, the Latin American debt crises that followed from economic slowdowns in the U.S. and Europe in the early 1980s. In the context of the current crisis, what does the future hold beyond the borders of the North Atlantic community, in particular for the global South?

You can read the full thing, alongside thoughtful and interesting essays by Deborah Boucoyannis, Margaret Peters, and Stefanie Walter, here (PDF).

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics, Research

U.S. Politics in the Age of the Babbling Equilibrium

Ever since Sean Spicer’s press conference in which he insisted, against all evidence, that President Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest in history, the Trump administration has faced a problem of credibility. Every time the administration issues a message that is demonstrably false, it undermines trust that any future message can be trusted.

One illustration of the consequences of diminished administration credibility is the current debate about the American Health Care Act (no link provided because as I write this, no one knows what it actually says). One argument for repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act is that individual state exchanges are so fragile that the health system will collapse anyway. Here’s a quote from NPR’s Kelly McEvers interviewing Alabama Representative Bradley Byrne yesterday afternoon:

What we are hearing from people in the health insurance industry is that these plans are deteriorating so rapidly that we cannot wait.

There was a time when I would have interpreted this piece of information about the fragility of Alabama’s health system as evidence that there is something fundamentally wrong and that needs to be addressed, regardless of my views about Byrne’s own political views and how he might solve such a problem. Yet as I listened to the interview yesterday, I realized that there has been a fundamental change in the way that I process information delivered by President Trump and his surrogates. My first instinct is now that I simply do not believe what they say. I no longer believe that “these plans are deteriorating so rapidly that we cannot wait.” Or more precisely, the fact that President Trump’s surrogate has uttered that phrase no longer has any effect on whether or not I believe that it is true. It could be, it could not be.

Welcome to the age of the babbling equilibrium in U.S. politics.

The term “babbling equilibrium” comes from game theoretic models of communication, in which a “sender” takes an action that is meant to convey information to a “receiver,” but both the sender and the receiver realize that there are strategic incentives to act in certain ways. This way of thinking is useful for making sense of all sorts of things: poker, nuclear strategy, buying a used car, dating, and so forth. In many situations, such as those just listed, the actions of the sender can be characterized as “cheap talk” (informal presentation here, formal presentation here [PDF]). As an example, when buying a used car, it is almost certainly irrelevant to base your decision on how clean the car’s exterior is, because it is nearly costless to wash a car and it conveys no information about how good the engine is, and you ought to know this, and so should the used car dealer.* The word “babbling” in babbling equilibrium conjures the image of a 6 month old child babbling—the content of the babbles doesn’t tell you anything, and so you don’t change how you respond based on hearing “goo goo” versus “ga ga.” This is an equilibrium in the sense that neither the sender nor the receiver has any information to behave any differently based on how each expects the other to respond.

Political speech has always, of course, been strategic. “Talk is cheap,” and babbling equilibria exist in any cheap talk game. But it is important to contrast the difference between a babbling equilibrium world and a world in which the sender and the receiver differ on how to interpret and act based on the same facts. It was supremely important for the George W. Bush administration to use evidence to support its intention to invade Iraq in 2003. The Obama administration similarly relied on evidence and reasoning to develop its case for health insurance based on the costs and benefits of the ACA relative to the status quo. In neither case did their opponents agree, but both administrations benefited from a general consensus that the arguments would need to be evaluated on their merits. They did so, I presume, because they recognized the benefits of establishing their own credibility for future negotiations.***

In a babbling equilibrium, the Trump administration’s public statements mean nothing. They mean nothing in the precise sense that their interlocutors should learn nothing about what the administration’s actual position is, or what it is willing to do, from the administration’s public statements (see, for example, the negotiations over changes to the draft of the AHCA that are unfolding as I write this). This undermines the administration’s ability to be persuasive, which is bad for the administration’s ability to direct legislation.

But it is also bad for U.S. politics more generally. By now, it is common to observe that the administration will at some point in time need to tell the truth about something important. That doesn’t just hurt the administration, it hurts everyone who is affected by administration policy. The worrying scenario is something like a national security emergency or a homeland security threat. In that scenario, citizens should want to be able to trust the administration to say true things and not false things. Without that, I cannot see how this administration could ever make good policy about the things that I care about, even if we share the same interests.


* The precise definition of a babbling equilibrium from Sobel (PDF) is “the sender’s strategy is independent of type and the receiver’s strategy is independent of signal.”
** Recall how politically meaningful the “Bush Lied, Thousands Died” slogan was?
*** For the argument that the credibility motive can sustain truthful communication over time, see (here [PDF]).

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics

An Interpretive Ethnography of Interpretive Ethnography

While reading Lisa Wedeen‘s “Reflections on Ethnographic Work in Political Science” I was struck by this description of ethnography due to my grad school friend Tim Pachirat*:

Ethnography as a method is particularly unruly, particularly undisciplined, particularly celebratory of improvisation, bricolage, and serendipity, and particularly attuned to the possibilities of surprise, inversion, and subversion in ways that other methods simply are not. If we think of the range of research methods in political science as a big family, ethnography is clearly the youngest, somewhat spoiled, attention-seeking child, always poking fun at and annoying her more disciplined, goal-oriented, and outwardly-successful older siblings. Ethnography is the method who [sic] comes home to family reunions with the new mermaid tattoo, with the purple hair, with yet another belly button ring, and with a moody, melancholic artist for a girlfriend. At the dinner table, she is the method who interrupts her older brother’s endless description of his stock portfolio with tales of the last full moon party on Phi Phi Island in Thailand. Given that kind of unruliness, it’s no wonder that the older siblings and father figures of our discipline often revert to the language of “disciplining” and “harnessing” ethnography, of bringing her wild and unruly impulses under control by making her abide by the rules of the dinner table. In short, ethnography may be fun and exciting, but she might also get you excommunicated from the family.

It is an exciting characterization! Perhaps coming from my background in Asian studies, however, is strikes me as strange. In the community of anthropologists, qualitative sociologists, “Indologists,” critical political economists, and others who together constitute the undisciplined world of “Southeast Asian political studies,” nothing could be more established or conventional than ethnography or interpretivism.

This raises interesting questions when read next to the rest of Wedeen’s essay about ethnography, specifically her invocation of “work” in the Foucauldian sense:

Ethnographers beholden to Foucault do this by analyzing the “work” discourses do—their underlying assumptions, omissions, implications, and effects, as well as their historical conditions of possibility.

What I find interesting is the “work” that the self-understanding of ethnography as an unruly outsider method does, both in the context of the broader discipline of political science and to those scholars who produce texts and train students. I am quite certain that an interpretive, ethnographic approach would be the right one here. What is being conveyed—to whom, for whom—with the bit about “purple hair”? What models of the social world are implicit when we suppose that an academic discipline is like a family? What are the “conditions of possibility”** for ethnographic methods to be understood as “young”? In the true Foucauldian sense, how does this discourse of unruly outsiderness challenge, reconfigure, or even construct relations of power; and between whom?

I mean this completely seriously. The importance of actually understanding how different scholars create meaning is a theme that Andrew Little and I took up in our discussion of critiques of formal models of comparative politics. As an illustrative exercise about the work that discourse can do, I tried to recreate Pachirat’s unruly outsider paragraph from the lens of a different group who consider themselves something of an unruly, insurgent outsider group*** who read voraciously from across multiple disciplines and borrow promiscuously from them:

Causal inference is particularly unruly, particularly undisciplined, particularly celebratory of critique of established scholars and their findings, and particularly attuned to the possibilities of surprise and subversion in ways that other methods simply are not. If we think of the range of research methods in political science as a big family, causal inference is clearly the youngest, somewhat spoiled, attention-seeking child, always poking fun at and annoying her more disciplined, established, and outwardly-successful older siblings. Causal inference comes home to family reunions with a copy of Cryptonomicon under one arm and a TV on the Radio LP under the other, and snickers at her father’s admonition to “use probit or else!” At the dinner table, she interrupts her older brother’s endless description of his last full moon party on Phi Phi Island in Thailand by interjecting “how utterly conventional” and leaving it at that. Given that kind of unruliness, it’s no wonder that the older siblings and father figures of our discipline often revert to the language of “disciplining” and “harnessing” causal inference, of bringing her wild and unruly impulses under control by making her abide by the rules of the dinner table. In short, causal inference may be fun and exciting, but she might also get you excommunicated from the family.

I will note that this wasn’t particularly hard to do. I wonder if it rings true.

I’ll conclude by clarifying what I fear might not be clear from above: If you are reading this as anti-interpretivist snark, you have missed my point. I take it as incontrovertible that interpretivist methods and ethnography have value and place in political science. I am suggesting that we use these methods to understand ourselves better.


* Tim’s Every Twelve Seconds is the closest thing to a new classic of anything written by anyone near to my grad school cohort. At least, that’s what I think.
** I have never been able to pin down this term satisfactorily. It is not good that I can still use it in a sentence.
*** For example, “the credibility revolution” and “randomista.”

Posted in Research, Teaching

This Is the Best Time Ever to Study Political Science

Here are ten questions that might be interesting to Americans these days.

1. Is the Trump administration’s immigration executive order constitutional?
2. Is the United States a democracy? How do we know?
3. How does presidential leadership style affect U.S. foreign policy?
4. Do bureaucrats have a moral obligation to refuse to implement laws that they oppose?
5. How do authoritarian regimes work? Where do they come from?
6. Is protest effective? When, why, how?
7. Does racial resentment or economic despair better explain the GOP surge in 2016? Are these competing explanations?
8. When do partisan legislatures sanction presidents from the same party? Does that differ between presidential and parliamentary systems?
9. How do you organize a team to win an election? How do you change that team when it is time to govern?
10. Has there ever been anything like 2017 in U.S. political history?

In a time in which the key buzzword in higher education is “interdisciplinarity,” we may lose sight of the value and purpose of disciplinary education. In fraught political times, citizens need a way to organize the information they obtain from the news, to process data from surveys and elections, to put contemporary events in historical and global perspective, and to ask critical questions about their moral and ethical obligations as citizens. Citizens need a way to discipline their thinking about politics. That discipline is political science.

Imagine that you are a new college student who wants to learn about politics in these times. What should you do? Well, I would hope that you would first put together a broad course of study that involved arts, humanities, sciences, statistics, and so forth. But I would not look to that broad course of study for insights into today’s politics.

Instead, I would visit your local Political Science department (perhaps called a Government or Politics department). You will find a community of teachers who have organized their department into a couple of teams: teachers who work on American politics and policy from today and from history, on questions of ethics and philosophy, and on politics around the world. Some will work with texts and influential thinkers, some with case studies from other countries and in other languages, some with quantitative data. Each teacher will have a specialty: race and ethnicity, power and justice, strategy, economies and politics, voter psychology, bureaucracies and institutions, and so on. They certainly won’t all agree with one another about politics, or about how best to teach it. And yet of them will have been trained to ask a series of interrelated questions about how politics works.

Returning to the ten questions above, not only does the discipline of political science provide tools for answering each question, but political science uniquely does this. Sure, a lawyer could help with question (1), and a moral philosopher could help with question (4), a movement sociologist could help with question (6), and a management consultant could help with question (9). But political science allows one to think about these questions together, to see how each is related to the others.

I am not proposing that interdisciplinary research and teaching is somehow inappropriate. Quite the opposite: I hold the opinion that somewhere between 1/2 and 2/3 of what a political scientist reads ought to be outside of the discipline of political science (a view I attribute originally to James Scott). So too for undergraduates studying political science, although I’d put it closer to 50% outside the discipline and 50% inside. I am also not proposing that interdisciplinary research and teaching cannot contribute to better teaching and research. Events like this are fantastic opportunities. Disciplinary thinking does not imply disciplinary silos.

Nor am I arguing that political science is either perfect or monolithic. Political scientists disagree, and they disagree most forcefully with themselves about their own discipline.

Instead, I am arguing that it is both natural and appropriate to look to a community of scholars who have thought long, hard, and critically about politics in order to…think about politics. I will go further: it is intellectual and pedagogically distracting to invent interdisciplinary “solutions” to pressing world “problems” without first appreciating disciplinary approaches to those questions that presuppose those problems.

Put otherwise, the proper relationship between disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives is a dialectical one. Disciplines emerge and coalesce around problems. As they mature, they eventually reach limits of their explanatory or conceptual productivity, and enterprising researchers look beyond their disciplinary boundaries for different perspectives. Perhaps an interdiscipline emerges, which after 100 years is a discipline on its own.

And this, to a first approximation, is the story of political science itself—an interdiscipline that emerged from the interstices of law, political economy, and the emerging field of sociology. Contemporary politics requires us to remember this interdiscipline-turned-discipline emerged from the realization that the study of politics cannot be reduced to class, economy, identity, ethics, law, organization, or anything else. Politics is political. That is why today is the best time ever to study political science.

Posted in Current Affairs, Research, Teaching

Democracy is not Government by Democrats, and Authoritarianism is not Government by Authoritarians

In a post from October 2015, “Democratic Disappointments, Authoritarian Reformists, and Political Equilibria,” I mused about a seemingly ironic feature of contemporary Malaysian politics. The former dictator Mahathir Mohamad, a staunch defender of ruling party hegemony who happily jailed opponents to his regime, has emerged as one of the key critics of Najib Tun Razak. I suggested that the focus on Mahathir’s potential “change of heart” is entirely misplaced. Such a focus, I argued,

…reflects a common belief that the views of individual elites are central to understanding the essence of a country’s politics. There are lots of people who demand reform and openness in Malaysia, but when Mahathir does, this clearly changes the game. This belief in turn draws on a common view that the problem of political reform is getting the right people with the right beliefs in office. That is why it is so disappointing when someone like Aung San Suu Kyi fails to live up to her reputation once in office, and why it is so important for so many to ask whether Mahathir has “really” had a change of heart.

In an interview with ThinkProgress yesterday, I made a related point about President Trump and his administration. Many observers worry that President Trump is at heart an authoritarian, or that he has surrounded himself by authoritarians. The effort then goes to trying to divine the internal mental states or private beliefs and desires of key administration figures. In that interview, I pushed against this tendency, urging a focus instead on administration actions and decisions.

Why? Because the better way to think about political regimes—the general term for democracies and dictatorships—is to think about them as systems. Systems may have features that are independent of the features of the units that comprise them. Political regimes are comprised of individuals arranged into parties, bureaucracies, factions, movements, organizations, and other social aggregates that interact with one another and with the individuals that comprise them. “Democracy” then is a feature of a system—the regime—rather than a feature of the individuals who comprise it. This view draws on political science research since O’Donnell and Schmitter [PDF] which has focused less on mass or elite attitudes and more on the choices and strategies of actors and groups.

Viewed this way, democracy is not government by democrats, rather it is nothing more than

the outcome of struggles among individuals and factions, none of whom may actually value democracy but who may nevertheless find themselves overseeing a democratic regime because no one faction can defeat all others (one such account, by Przeworski, is here [PDF]).

It follows that an authoritarian regime is also not a government or rule by authoritarians. For some this may be reassuring, but it is not necessarily so. As I commented to ThinkProgress,

You can become authoritarian without trying. If you corrode systems of parliamentary order to get things done you might undermine institutions that sustain them.

Just as democracies can be governed by authoritarians, so too can true-believing democrats lay the groundwork for authoritarianism.

This, to me, is where those concerned with American democracy in these times ought to focus. Not on what elites believe, but what they do to the norms and institutions that sustain our current political regime. And then focus as well on how those democracy-sustaining norms and institutions might be strengthened, regardless of the actions of any administration or any elites.

Posted in Current Affairs, Malaysia, Politics, Research
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