Should American Politics Be Abolished (as a Field)?

Political scientists debate whether one of the discipline's traditional specializations has outlived its purpose and is hindering good research and teaching.
August 29, 2008

Should American politics be abolished? The arrival of attack ads for the fall presidential campaign may have many in the public feeling that way. But at the American Political Science Association's annual meeting, the question focused not on the practice of politics, but the study of politics. Spurred by discussion of how the discipline should respond to globalization, the APSA has been talking about whether the way the discipline organizes itself -- with a prime position for American politics -- makes sense any more.

The precise number of subfields within political science is itself the subject of debate. Most people would include American politics, comparative politics, political theory and international relations. Some would add methodologies or area studies or various other topics, but American politics always makes the list. Should it? What would new organizations for the field look like? While the discussion of this issue Thursday at a panel of the political science association's annual meeting didn't find a consensus, there was agreement that the current structure has real flaws.

Scholars who called for the abolition of American politics as a subfield were not arguing that scholars shouldn't study American politics, which may have been reassuring to audience members, most of whom identified by a show of hands as Americanists. But they said that using the United States as an organizational structure, in isolation from the rest of the world, is producing flawed ideas.

Mary Hawkesworth, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said that when the United States is studied in isolation, "certain things get masked." The "notion of American exceptionalism," she said, produces "a social amnesia." For example, she said that that the violence and corruption of the American revolutionaries receives little emphasis, so when students are exposed to the violence of other revolutions, they see no connection to the American revolution and have little tolerance for those other revolutions. Similarly, she said that slavery is taught only as "an aberration in the United States rather than as part of a racist feudalism" imported from Europe.

American politics scholars, she said, largely embrace a view of their work as "non-ideological and moderate," limiting the critique they may offer of American society. And the current organization of political science, she said, isn't producing the kinds of understanding that the public needs. Where was political science in predicting the reunification of Germany or the rebound of Russia? she asked. A more global perspective might make the discipline more aware and useful, she said.

Anne Norton of the University of Pennsylvania agreed that the American politics formulation should go.

Norton said she agreed with the "ethical and scholarly imperative to study the place where we live." In theory, she said, the focus on one's country would produce a particularly deep and meaningful scholarship. The reality, she said, is that the field of American politics is exceedingly narrow, overly methodological and unwilling to explore issues of race and class. She noted that many of the political scientists who study race in American politics tend to define themselves as political theorists, or leave the field for other disciplines, sensing a lack of welcome.

She also criticized scholars of American politics for their failure to jump on key issues. In an era in which executive power has been abused to encourage torture and to deny civil liberties, too many professors in the field seem more likely to study some Congressional subcommittee, she said, using "extraordinarily small-scale, literature driven methodological studies."

The field did have defenders -- at least in part. David Mayhew of Yale University said that there were perfectly legitimate reasons to keep American politics as a key subfield. There is nothing wrong, he said, with the "home field argument." He said that political scientists in Iceland should have a subfield on Icelandic politics and that the same principle applies to American political scientists.

And he also said that there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that the United States' role in the world is such that a subfield makes sense. "It's the argument for studying Rome 2,000 years ago," he said. "The U.S.A., for better or worse, is a very important and consequential country,” he said. When you consider, for example, the U.S. military and the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as international organizations based in the United States, such as the World Bank, there is plenty to study, he said.

That's not to say that American politics scholars are doing the right work, Mayhew said. The growth of executive branch power has not received the attention it deserves, he said, in part because of an excess of work on public opinion and elections. Further, he said that there are issues where it has become apparent that a comparativist perspective may have been needed but ignored.

For example, he said that research on the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 has been too narrowly focused on the United States and its fear of attacks on its still young government. At the same time, he said, similar limits on dissent were being enacted in Britain and Canada -- suggesting that the issues were not "distinctively American." In another example, he said that recent reading he's done of research in Canada on the "cleavage" created in politics there by the mid-19th century rise in Irish immigration has made him question the conventional wisdom that slavery was the issue that destroyed the Whig Party in the United States. A comparative study of the impact of immigration might lead to a different conclusion, he said, such as that immigration played a role in the demise of the Whigs.

Rogers Smith of the University of Pennsylvania said he too agreed that there are in fact topics that merit an American focus. A book exploring the state legislatures in the United States need not add comparisons to other countries to have value, he said. "What matters is the question you are asking," he said.

But even as he defended the idea that some scholars may want to focus on American politics, he said it's time for a larger rethinking of subfields. The current division of the discipline dates to the Cold War and reflects some of the biases of that period. “We’re now in a different period," he said. While there are "deeply institutionalized sources of resistance" to breaking out of the traditional models, he said it may be time to do so. Smith said that already "the comparative and IR [international relations] boundaries have dissolved," but the question is what to put in place. He advocated a system in which more hires are made along new themes, such as violence, representative structures, governance and identities.

Several of the panelists said that they believed graduate education should be changed to promote different divisions of the field -- or at least a broader perspective from Americanists. Norton of Penn said she would like to see every Americanist Ph.D. required to become fluent enough in a foreign language to do real comparative work. Mayhew said that graduate students need to be barred from focusing just on the United States, even if that is their focus.

While most of the audience members didn't question the intellectual arguments being made, several raised practical issues. One person said that many of her undergraduate majors are pre-law, and want to focus just on the United States.

And -- inevitably perhaps -- the job market for Ph.D.'s came up. One political scientist suggested that the association bar departments for placing job ads using the traditional field divisions. Smith said that while he would like to see more hiring that is thematic -- and that he has had a little success encouraging such searches at Penn -- the association could not tell departments how to hire, and would be "contemptuously ignored" if it tried. He said that graduate reform may be the way to go in breaking away from traditional divisions.

But one audience member predicted that without changes in job titles, change would be slow as it would be difficult for job seekers to present themselves in ways other than the long used subfields. “No graduate student can afford to be out of place with the categories," she said.


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