Poli-Sci for the Trump Era

Political scientists see the discipline’s historical division across four subareas as hindering their collective ability to understand Trump’s America -- and its future.

October 10, 2017
 
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President Trump’s rise to power prompted numerous think pieces from political scientists about the virtues (or lack thereof) of political neutrality in the classroom. But beyond questions about teaching and personal opinion, political scientists are also asking how they should study political science today. Namely, they’re asking whether the discipline’s traditional structure -- semi-siloed subfields including American politics, comparative politics (everyone else), political theory and international relations -- works in the age of Trump.

“For those of us who have been studying this country, it’s been remarkably stable over time,” said Suzanne Mettler, the Clinton Rossiter Professor of Political Institutions at Cornell University and co-author of a new paper on Trumpism and democracy; the article is an outgrowth of a workshop Mettler, an Americanist, and colleagues held at Cornell in June to promote dialogue across political science subfields -- a central message of the new paper.

While democracy “is always a work in progress and it always has its fits and starts, across our lifetime it has seemed to be on an upward trajectory, or improving. And now I think many people have concerns about that trend going forward,” Mettler said. “Some of us have realized we can’t understand the U.S. if we only the study the U.S. We need to put it in a comparative context … Americanists and comparativists can really learn from each other.”

Talking with colleagues who study Latin America, for example, she said, gives insight into the rise and decline of democracies, and which features of a political system promote or stave off what Mettler called “democratic backsliding.” Presidential systems paired with intense partisan divides such as we have now historically drive democratic instability, she said.

“Trumpism and American Democracy: History, Comparison and the Predicament of Liberal Democracy in the U.S.,” Mettler’s new paper, was uploaded a little over a month ago to Social Science Research Network, and its abstract already has been viewed close to 4,000 times. That’s no small feat for an academic article, suggesting Mettler and her co-authors -- a group of four political scientists representing different subfields -- have tapped into some undercurrent among political scientists.

The essay attempts to define Trumpism through a historical and comparative lens. Talking heads aside, it essentially concludes that political polarization within a two-party presidential system, status and class concerns with regard to political enfranchisement, and the erosion of democratic norms at the top of the political food chain and among the masses do in fact pose an existential threat to American democratic order.

Not in Kansas Anymore

“By treating the U.S. as a self-enclosed and fundamentally unique instance of democracy, we neglect the knowledge we have gained about regime change, stability and transition from other countries where these challenges have arisen more frequently,” the paper reads. “Pairing the comparative perspective with our historical and development perspective strengthens what we can learn from each. Although we gain contextual perspective by exploiting variation within the U.S., geographical blinders impose limits on inference and explanation.”

If political scientists cannot articulate “what is both common and distinctive about a political phenomenon, how it is similar to and how it differs from varieties of the same phenomenon elsewhere,” the paper continues, “what hope do we have of observing it clearly, measuring it precisely or explaining it convincingly? In the extreme, the presumption that a country’s politics is unique and thus not susceptible to comparison -- as in the presumption of ‘American exceptionalism’ -- becomes a self-fulfilling axiom.”

In an interview, Mettler didn’t propose the dissolution of subfields but urged more collaboration across them. That’s because the political threads of Trump’s election both predate his candidacy and will outlast his presidency, she said. Put another way, American politics aren’t likely to get any less paradigm challenging any time soon.

Mettler’s collaborators and co-authors are Tom Pepinsky and Ken Roberts, professors of comparative political science at Cornell, and two professors of American political development: Robert Lieberman, of Johns Hopkins University, and Richard Valelly, of Swarthmore College. Over all, their project aims to wed comparative analytical approaches with historical and developmental approaches to studying American politics, Mettler said, “enabling us to assess recent developments against earlier instances of democratic stress and to identify how processes of change have given rise to the present moment.”

A Growing Movement?

A number of other scholars elsewhere are also working in clusters toward more collaboration across subdisciplines, to better understand the political moment. Anna Grzymala-Busse, the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, is currently organizing a conference on the rise of global populisms, for example. The institute’s Global Populisms project centers on the rise of global populist movements and the threats they pose to liberal democracies, from those in Latin America in the 1990s to postcommunist democracies in the 2000s and beyond.

Grzymala-Busse, a comparativist, said she knows of many political scientists “who are concerned both as citizens and as scholars with the threats to democracy and the rise of antidemocratic movements, parties and politicians.” But rather than any movement to abolish existing subfields, she said, there’s more of a “new recognition that Americanists and comparativists, especially, really need to talk more.”

Sharing a bit of what she called “comparativist Schadenfreude,” Grzymala-Busse said Americanists have “long thought” their subject of was unique and therefore demanding of a distinct set of analyses. Yet to many comparativists, she said, “what is currently happening in the U.S. is depressingly familiar.” Moreover, she said, “assumptions about the stability and unique dynamics and institutions of the U.S. have blinded scholars to the ways in which the U.S. is not immune, and subject to the same forces.”

Grzymala-Busse said that even before Trump, political scientists had been more willing to work across subfields, especially with respect to co-authorship and methodological approaches. Still, she said, while comparativists in particular know “quite a bit about authoritarian systems, why and how they are durable, and the ways in which they function,” they need to know “why a popular commitment to liberal democracy is not universally shared.”

American Democracy in Comparative Perspective

Also at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, Didi Kuo manages the program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective. The program focuses on problems with American government, such as declining trust and political inequality, as part of a broader look at the challenges facing Western democracies, she said; suggested reforms for the U.S. are inspired in part by reforms that have proven successful elsewhere.

The program not only encourages dialogue across subdisciplines but also dialogue across professions through its conferences. Topics covered include electoral systems, lobbying and campaign finance, budgeting, and bureaucracy. The program also has partnered with Central European University in Hungary, a current target of that country’s illiberal democratic regime.

“All of us involved with the Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective think the demarcation between American and comparative politics is fuzzy,” Kuo said -- hence the program's name. Even the center’s Americanist faculty members do comparative work, she added, and the “rest of us are comparativists who have long believed that the U.S. should be considered a case in comparative analysis.”

Kuo said American politics as a subfield has long been “dominated by formal and quantitative methods and a singular focus on one country.” Calling her group’s program an “early adopter, if not perhaps a pioneer” of the idea that an Americanist approach to contemporary problems can only go so far, she said that political scientists today “need explicitly comparative analysis.”

Scholars of American political development -- a branch of American politics to which Mettler subscribes -- actually have more in common with comparativists than Americanists, Kuo ventured. Why? Both scholars of American political development and comparativists try to answer “big questions about historical processes,” Kuo said, “and look at the complex interplay of structural and institutional factors that influence contemporary outcomes.”

Addressing the “big questions” posed by Trumpism in particular -- such as the durability of American democratic institutions, the question at the heart of Mettler’s and her colleagues’ paper -- Kuo said American political development scholars can help contextualize the current period of populism, nativism and inequality (none of which, she said, are new). Comparativists, meanwhile, can help “us understand democratic rollback and institutional brittleness, among other things.”

Going forward, Kuo said she hoped more political scientists would realize the usefulness of working across subfields, not only to understand what’s happening now but to lay out a research agenda that can “adequately address” the challenges that even advanced democracies now face.

To that point, Mettler’s paper on Trumpism says that looking ahead, “politics will matter, spanning all three of our dimensions, in ways that are hard to predict. The defense of norms and institutions of inclusive citizenship will be exceptionally important as we go forward, for example, as will debates about how to address the corrosive effects of rising inequality. Indeed, all of the norms and institutions [will] require defense and renewal. The very scope of the challenge underscores the gravity of the current moment -- and the need to be open to lessons from other national and political histories that once seemed of little relevance to the American experience.”

Other initiatives include the Bright Line Watch, which was established earlier this year by four political scientists to highlight the risks to the American system of government. Kurt Weyland, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, and Raúl Madrid, another professor in the department, earlier this year hosted a conference on their campus called "President Trump's Populism: Lessons from Europe and Latin America."

Benjamin Knoll, John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College, who has written about the challenges of teaching in the Trump era, said he doesn't expect a major paradigm shift or the doing away with subfields altogether. But he agreed that “more cross-field work is needed between Americanists and comparativists in order to better understand Trumpism and its effects.”

That assessment is based on his experiences at Centre, where Knoll focuses on American politics.

“This last year has forced me to branch out to the comparative politics subfield to try to make sense of the Trump presidency,” he said, noting that he’s teaching himself about comparativist concepts such as democratic consolidation and democratic backsliding, along with democratic transitions in other countries.

“Now in my American politics courses,” he said, “I can no longer take it as a given that the American government or its citizens widely agree on the basic premises of liberal democratic principles and norms.”

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