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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


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

Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders

An essay by Yonatan Zunger entitled “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” is making the rounds. Such essays are frightening to many. And yet they must be read critically. I am equally taken by the argument that everything that Zunger identifies is evidence not of a deliberate planning by an aspiring authoritarian, but of the exact opposite: the weakness and incoherence of administration by a narcissist.

One of the many things that studying authoritarian politics has taught me is that from the perspective of the outsider, weak leaders often act like strong leaders, and strong leaders often act like they are indifferent. Weak leaders have every incentive to portray themselves as stronger than they are in order to get their way. They gamble on splashy policies. They escalate crises. This is just as true for democrats as for dictators. (Note the parallels with Jessica Weeks on constraints on authoritarian rulers and their foreign policy behavior.)

The consummate strong ruler is one who does not issue any command or instruction at all because she does not have to—her will is implemented already. Indonesia’s strongman leader Soeharto was sometimes portrayed as The Smiling General, an almost aloof Javanese sultan. How incongruous this is: When Soeharto came to power, at least 500,000 people were killed! That is strength. More precisely, it is power.

How to square my perspective on President Trump’s new administration with the more frightening alternatives? The problem is what a social scientist would call “observational equivalence” of two diametrically opposing arguments. We have two theories of why something is happening, and yet we cannot tell which is the “correct” theory based on the data that we observe. We have precious little evidence about what is happening within President Trump’s administration. What we observe is its output: executive orders, staffing decisions, and personnel management. What we don’t observe is everything that we need to know to interpret those outputs.

Observational equivalence is a big problem when studying political power, as political scientists have known for decades (PDF, PDF). We cannot infer what someone wants, or whether power is being exerted effectively, based on outcomes alone. It is probably for this reason that there is a genre of political science writing comprised of carefully revisiting an administration’s history and reinterpreting it to show either (1) the surprisingly effective use of power behind the scenes or (2) administrative incoherence or division. The best example of the former is probably Fred Greenstein’s reinterpretation of Eisehower, entitled The Hidden-Hand Presidency. Bush at War gives a moderate view of the latter.

Let me explain how observational equivalence works with an example. President Trump may have brought Steve Bannon into the NSC because he is consolidating power and intends to sideline all regular establishment players in the formulation of American foreign policy. Or he might have brought Bannon into the NSC because he is so isolated that he needs someone who he believes he can trust, and everyone in the foreign policy establishment is dragging feet and dissembling. The former is a sign of strength. The latter is a sign of weakness. Both have the same observable implication.

Another example: the swift release of President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration without much advice or feedback from the affected bureaucracies may be evidence that the administration is completely centralizing control within the office of the president. Or it might be because the administration does not understand standard operating procedures in a presidential administration. Or it might be because they worry that they have lost the narrative, need to do something, and a gross Nazi is calling the shots. Again, only the first is a sign of strength. The latter two are signs of weakness. All three of the same observable implications, but have radically different interpretations.

When reading commentary on contemporary U.S. politics, it is best to recognize any attempt to establish a Coherent Theory of the Trump Presidency based on public outputs for the Kremlinology that it is. The hot takes of “I have a theory that makes sense of all of this!” are the qualitative equivalent of curve-fitting. Don’t ignore these hot takes; one of them is probably right, after all. But understand what is missing. From my view, the conclusion to draw from the past ten days is just how little power this president is able to exert over national politics.

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics

The Unpopular Populist

Vladimir Putin: 86.8%.
Rodrigo Duterte: 83%.
Viktor Orbán: 80%.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: 68.6%.

Gay Marriage (US): 57%.
Abortion legal (US): 56%.
Democratic Party: 52%.
Free Trade is a good thing (US): 51%.

Donald Trump: 45%.

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics
On Twitter
%d bloggers like this: