Keith Whittington: Tolerating Campus Dissent, Left and Right

WhittingtonThe reminders come nearly daily that tolerating freedom of speech and thought on college campuses—and in American society—is hard. It is very easy to say that we love freedom of speech in the abstract. It is much harder to adhere to that conviction when confronted with speech that we ourselves find to be, well, intolerable. When we encounter ideas or rhetoric that we find abhorrent, we are tempted to look for loopholes in the freedom of speech, to rationalize efforts to silence those who make us uncomfortable. This instinct is only natural and all too human, but it is an instinct at odds with the requirements of a liberal democracy and very much at odds with the ideals of a modern university.

The passing of Barbara Bush unfortunately became the occasion for another such reminder. An English professor at California State University, Fresno took to Twitter to celebrate the former first lady’s death, denouncing Bush as a “racist” and the mother of a “war criminal.” No stranger to provocative Twitter posts, the professor seemed to initially revel in the outrage she had generated before retreating from the increasingly intense public glare.

Fresno State president Joseph Castro was soon engaged in damage control, but in doing so did not represent the principles of either the university or the Constitution well. Castro did not content himself with reminding members of the public that the professor spoke only for herself and not the institution and did not even get around to emphasizing that universities are home to a large number of independent-minded individuals who hold a wide range of views and frequently disagree with one another. Instead, he chose to join the outraged public in denouncing a member of his own faculty for expressing views “contrary to the core values of our University,” which he identified as values of “empathy” and “respect.” The president subsequently emphasized that “we are all held accountable for our actions.” Indeed, the tweet was, in Castro’s view, “beyond free speech,” apparently because it was “disrespectful.”

Castro is, of course, correct that everyone is accountable for their actions. The question is what accounting is appropriate for appalling opinions expressed on a personal social media account. The speech of university professors can and should be criticized when it is wrong. Students and colleagues may choose to avoid quarrelsome professors. University professors are subject to discipline, and even termination, if they engage in professional misconduct. When American citizens who happen to be members of the faculty at a state university express unpopular political opinions in the public sphere, their speech is constitutionally protected from reprisals by state government officials, including university presidents. When members of the campus community spend their free time engaging in public debate, any university leader should refrain from asserting that “disrespectful,” uncivil, or odious comments are beyond the bounds of freedom of speech and subject to official sanction.

Universities should strive to nurture campus communities that are open to intellectual diversity and raucous debate. University professors should strive, even in their free time, to contribute positively to our social discourse and not to drag it further into the gutter. But freedom of speech is often messy and sometimes unpleasant. The disagreements among members of a diverse society are often deep and intense, and those disagreements will sometimes be expressed with passion. We are quick to recognize when others have offended us, but slow to recognize when we have given offense. We make greater progress in overcoming those disagreements and in making productive use of unconventional thinking, however, when we accept that we will sometimes be offended and we tolerate that with which we fervently disagree. Not every expressed idea is a good one. Not every disagreement will give way to greater insight. But intellectual and social progress is best made when we tolerate dissent rather than shout it down, when we criticize rather than punish, when we turn away from the provocateur rather than fan the flames.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a leading authority on American constitutional theory and law. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.

Mark Serreze: Becoming A Scientist

In honor of Earth Day, Princeton University Press will be highlighting the contributions that scientists make to our understanding of the world around us through a series of blog posts written by some of our notable Earth Science authors. Keep a look out for this series all month long.

Mark Serreze, investigating the pressure ridges in the Arctic.

What is it that leads someone to become a scientist? It varies, but from what I’ve seen, it’s often a combination of nature and nurture. Just as some people seem to have an inherent knack for writing making music, or cooking, I think that some of us are wired to become scientists. In turn, there is often someone we can look back to—parents or perhaps a teacher—that encouraged or inspired us to pursue a science career.

I had an interest in science from when I was very young, and I was always full of questions about the natural world. The first book I ever owned is “The Golden Book of Science” 1963 edition—featuring 1-2 page essays on everything from geology to insects to the weather. Each night, at my insistence, my mother would read one of them to me. To this day, I still own the book.

When I wasn’t reading, I could spend hours outside marveling at the organized industriousness of ants as they built their anthills, or looking at colorful rocks with a magnifying glass. I was enthralled with the burgeoning manned space flight program, and, sitting beside my mother and staring at the black TV while she ironed clothes, watched in awe at the Project Gemini rocket launches.   

As for the nurture part, I had an advantage in that both of my parents were chemists with Master’s degrees. This was at a time it was quite unusual for women to hold advanced degrees. They met in the laboratory. Mom was a whiz when it came to thermodynamics, and Dad apparently knew everything there was to know about acrylic plastics. Ours was indeed an odd household. While my siblings and I chafed under a rather strict Catholic upbringing, at the same time we were very much free-range kids, and scientific experimentation of all sorts was quite acceptable.  

At one point, after getting a chemistry set for Christmas, I thought I might become a chemist myself. These were not the boring, defanged chemistry sets of today – back then, they included chemicals that, when properly mixed, yielded career-inspiring reactions. I later got heavily into model rocketry, astronomy, and civil engineering, building small dams across the stream running past our house to improve the habitat for the frogs. Included among the more foolish (albeit highly educational) endeavors was a scientifically-based experiment on the feasibility of riding ice floes down the Kennebunk River. Then there was the time when an experiment in pyrotechnics gone wrong ended up with a frantic call to the fire department to douse a five-acre conflagration in the neighbor’s field.

Years before I ever got into college I knew I was going to be a research scientists of some type, for, through nature and nurture, the roots were already there. As I talk about in my book, Brave New Arctic, a number decisions and events came together – mixed with some blind, dumb luck – to eventually steer me towards a career in climate science. What I could never have foreseen is how, through these events and decisions, and then through 35 years of research, I’d find myself in the position to tell the story about the dramatic transformation of the North.

Climate scientists, like myself, have to deal with an added challenge that climate change is a highly polarized subject. There are the frequent questions from the media: Will there be a new record low in Arctic sea ice extent this year? Why does it matter? Why is the Arctic behaving so differently than the Antarctic? It can be overwhelming at times. Then there are the emails, phone calls and tweets from those who simply want to rant. While I get a lot of emails from people fully on board with the reality that humans are changing the climate and want to get straight answers about something they’ve heard or read about, I also have a growing folder in my inbox labeled “Hate Mail”. Some very unflattering things have been said about me on social media and across the web. I’ve had to grow a thick skin.  

Making a career as a research scientist is not for everyone. Science is not the sort of thing that is easy to put aside at the end of the day. It gnaws at you. The hours are long, and seldom lead to monetary riches. It can also be a frustrating occupation, such as when realizing that, after months of research pursuing a lead, you’ve hit a dead end.

We chose to be scientists because it’s what we love to do. We live for those “aha” moments when the hard work pays off, and we discover something new that advances our understanding.

In writing this book I was forced to dig deeply to understand my own evolution as a scientist, and to document insights from other scientists who, like me, were there at the beginning when the Arctic still looked like the Arctic of old. It’s been an adventure, and when I someday retire (which is a very hard thing for scientists to do,) I hope to be able to look back and say that that this book opened some eyes, and inspired others to follow their own path to becoming a scientist.

 

Mark Serreze is director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, professor of geography, and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the coauthor of The Arctic Climate System. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Dr. John C. Hulsman: Will the US ever escape the Losing Gambler Syndrome in Afghanistan?

HulsmanThe Losing Gambler Syndrome is a fact of the human condition that casino magnates have come to well understand. When someone loses big at the tables, almost always they have an overwhelming urge to invest ever more resources to make good on their catastrophic losses, rarely bothering to think about the reasons for these losses in the first place. Dad cannot go back to Mom telling her he has lost the kids’ college fund at the roulette table, so he keeps playing . . . and keeps losing. The reason for his demise—the terrible odds—is never analytically addressed.

Policymakers are not immune to this folly, often doubling down on a bad assessment emotionally in order to wipe the slate clean of their intellectual mistakes. I saw this doleful analytical process up close and personal in Washington as the Iraq War slid toward the abyss; very often those policymakers urging ever-greater efforts in Iraq from the American people did so largely to make good on their already monumental strategic losses.

History’s graveyard is replete with losing gamblers

Anyone who has ever walked the mile and a half in that beautiful, tragic open field between Seminary and Cemetery Ridges at Gettysburg knows that the Confederate assault on the third day of the battle should never have been made. The simple reason for Pickett’s disastrous charge is that Robert E. Lee had emotionally invested too much at Gettysburg to easily turn back. The famed Confederate general was both desperate and overconfident, a fatal combination. Lee was held intellectual hostage by his tantalizing near success (and actual failure) on the second day of the battle, becoming an unwitting prisoner of the Losing Gambler Syndrome.

Likewise, as the years rolled by without the United States ever finding a political ally in South Vietnam with local political legitimacy, it never seems to have occurred to Lyndon Johnson that the lack of such a partner was a sure sign to get out, not to redouble his efforts.

When will they ever learn?

Tragically, the losing gambler’s curse continues today, with America’s seemingly endless war in Afghanistan being a textbook example. Within of few months of 9/11, American-led forces had routed the Taliban and dislodged al-Qaeda from its bases. However, then the war goals fatefully shifted. To prevent al-Qaeda’s resurgence, the US ended up endlessly propping up weak, corrupt, unrepresentative governments in Kabul.

As these governments did not have sufficient organic political legitimacy, the US found itself mired in an unwinnable situation, as without Taliban involvement in the central government (the Taliban represent almost exclusively the interests of the Pashtun, the largest single tribe in the country) any local rule was bound to be seen as inherently unrepresentative. This political reality is at the base of the 16-year unwinnable war in Afghanistan.

Doubling down yet again

Yet President Trump’s ‘new plan’ (there have been an endless number of these over the past decade and a half) does nothing to deal with this central political conundrum. Despite in his campaign saying the war in Afghanistan had been ‘a total disaster,’ the President was persuaded by his respected Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, to increase American troop levels in-country to 16,000, ignoring the fact that during the Obama administration 100,000 American soldiers had been fighting there, all to no avail.

I suspect a key reason for this strange decision is that both Generals Mattis and McMaster served with distinction in Afghanistan. Like Lee, President Johnson, and the neo-conservatives huddled around George W. Bush, both have invested too much emotionally and practically to turn back, whatever the fearful odds.

So an unwinnable war is set to continue, as the unsolvable political reality at its base goes unremarked upon. The losing gambler’s syndrome tells us that once resources and intellectual credibility have been expended, it is all too tempting, whether met with crisis or entranced by near-success, to keep doing what has been failing up until that point. It is entirely understandable to do this, but as Gettysburg, Vietnam, and Iraq point out, practically disastrous. Policymakers must instead have the courage to look at failure straight in the eye and make adjustments to mitigate its effects, rather than doubling down and inviting more.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and cofounder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent foreign policy organization. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.

Keith Whittington: The kids are alright

SpeakIt has rapidly become a common trope that the current crop of college students belong to a generation of “snowflakes.” Unusually sensitive, unusually intolerant, the kids these days are seen by some as a worrying threat to the future of America’s liberal democracy. High-profile incidents on college campuses like the shouting down of Charles Murray at Middlebury College and the rioting in the streets of Berkeley during an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos give vivid support for the meme. Some surveys of the attitudes of millennials about tolerance and free speech lend some further credence to the snowflake characterization. When the Knight Foundation and Gallup asked college students whether diversity or free speech was more important, a slim majority chose diversity. When a Brookings Institution fellow asked college students whether it was acceptable to use force to silence a speaker making “hurtful” statements, a surprisingly large number said yes.

Should we be worried about the children? Perhaps not. Context matters, and some of the current hand-wringing over events on college campuses has tended to ignore the broader context. In particular, when told that the current generation of students do not seem fully supportive of free speech and tolerance of disagreement, we are rarely told in comparison to what. Compared to a perfect ideal of American values, the current generation of students might fall somewhat short—but so do the generations that preceded them. We aspire to realize our beliefs in tolerance and liberty, but we muddle through without a perfect commitment to our civil libertarian aspirations.

It would be a mistake to be overly complacent about American public support for civil liberties, including free speech, but we should also be cautious about rushing into excessive pessimism about the current generation of college students. It has been a routine finding in the public opinion literature going back decades that Americans express high levels of support for the freedom of speech in the abstract, but when asked about particular forms of controversial speech that support begins to melt away. In the middle of the twentieth century, for example, one study found that more than three-quarters of a sample of lawyers thought that university students should have the freedom to invite controversial speakers to campus, but less than half of the general public agreed. When asked if the government should be allowed to suppress speech that might incite an audience to violence, less than a fifth of the leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union said yes, but more than a third of the members of the ACLU were ok with it. In the 1950s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of Communists should be restricted. In the 1970s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of racists should be restricted. In the 2000s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of Muslims and atheists should be restricted.

Current American college students say that speakers with whom they strongly disagree should be allowed to speak on campus. But a majority of liberal college students changed their mind when they are told that such a speaker might be racist, and more than a third of conservative college students changed their mind when they are told that such a speaker might be “anti-American.” Fortunately, the evidence suggests that only a tiny minority of college students favor activists taking steps to disrupt speaking events on campus. Those numbers are not ideal, but it is important to bear in mind that the college-educated tend to be more tolerant to disagreeable speakers and ideas than is the general public, and that is pretty much as true now as it has been in the past. Public support for the freedom of speech has not always stood firm, and campus debates over the scope of free speech are likely to have large consequences for how Americans think about these issues in the future.

We should draw some lessons from recent events and surveys, but the lesson should not be that current students are delicate snowflakes. First, we should recognize that the current generation of college students is not unique. They have their own distinctive concerns, interests, and experiences, but they are not dramatically less tolerant than those who came before them. Second, we should appreciate that tolerance of disagreement is something we as a country have to constantly strive for and not something that we can simply take for granted. It is easy to support freedom for others in the abstract, but it is often much more difficult to do so in the midst of particular controversies. The current group of college-age Americans struggle with that tension just as other Americans do and have before. Third, we should note that there is a vocal minority on and off college campuses who do in fact question liberal values of tolerance and free speech. They do so not because they are snowflakes but because they hold ideological commitment at odds with values that are deeply rooted in the American creed. Rather than magnifying their importance by making them the avatar of this generation, those who care about our democratic constitutional commitments should work to isolate them and show why theirs is not the best path forward and why diversity, tolerance, and free speech are compatible and mutually reinforcing values and not contrasting alternatives. It is an ongoing project we hold in common to understand and reaffirm the principles of free speech that underlie our political system. Today’s college students are not the only ones who could benefit from that lesson.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a leading authority on American constitutional theory and law. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech

Hilda Sabato: The dilemmas of political representation

SabatoSince the beginning of the twenty-first century, the word “populism” has gained increasing space in the media, initially associated with political events in Latin America. The term is far from new, but it has reappeared to label very different regimes—from that of Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela, to those of Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, and the Kirchners in Argentina. Unlike the spread of populist regimes in the postwar era, however, this latest wave has reached well beyond that continent, to include political and ideological movements all over the world. And while the success of the former was often explained by resorting to the long history of caudillos in Spanish America, it is quite obvious that such an argument cannot be applied to this new spread of populism across the globe. Both moments, however, share some common features that may better account for the flourishing of populism than any reference to a past tradition of caudillismo.

The end of the twentieth century heralded an era of political change on a global scale. Some of the main institutions and practices that had long reigned unchallenged in Western democracies have come under heavy scrutiny. The key political actor of the past century, the party, is in peril of extinction—at best, it will survive in new formats. Analysts talk about the crisis of representation, while most individuals feel foreign to the men and women in government, who they sense operate as a closed caste rather than as representatives of the people. In the words of Federico Finchelstein, “Democracy is confronting challenges that are similar to those it encountered during the Great Depression….” In that context, therefore, “Populism offers authoritarian answers to the crisis of democratic representation.”[1]

We are then, once more, at a critical turn in the history of modern politics, as it developed since the revolutions of the eighteenth century succeeded in introducing the sovereignty of the people as the founding principle of the polity and shattered the edifice of the ancien regime in several parts of Europe and the Americas. Within that framework, a key step in the actual organization of the new was the adoption of representative forms of government. In contrast to former experiences of direct popular rule, in the late eighteeth century the introduction of political representation offered a theoretical and practical solution to the challenge of making operative the principle of popular sovereignty.

Yet such a step posed dilemmas that have persisted throughout the centuries. Thus, the tension between the belief that power should stem directly from the people (an association of equals) and any operation whereby a selected few are set apart to exert power in the name of the many has run through the entire history of self-government. Modern representation did not overcome this quandary, although it offered a partial solution by combining democratic and aristocratic means: elections by all to select the few. Yet the attribute of distinction that marks those few—however chosen—keeps challenging the principle of equality, a value reinforced with the consolidation of democracy in the twentieth century. Besides this conceptual conundrum, the actual relationship between the representatives and the represented has always been, and remains, a crucial matter in the political life of modern times.

A second dilemma involved in representative government has posed even more challenges to the functioning of the polity. At the beginning of this story, although representatives were chosen by individual citizens embedded in their actual social conditions, they embodied, above all, the political community (the nation) as an indivisible whole, thus materializing the unity of the people. For almost a century, this issue informed the public debates around the unanimity or the plurality of the polity, and permeated the discussions on the forms of representation, which found one of its more heated moments late in that period in the controversies around the figure of the political party. By the 1900s, however, parties had become key institutions in the prevailing paradigm of representation, so much so that they were usually considered inseparable from democracy as it consolidated during the twentieth century. But today that whole edifice is crumbling, a clear sign that the challenges and dilemmas of political representation persist.

Republics of the New World addresses these issues at the time when modern representation appeared as a viable solution to the difficulties of instituting forms of government based on the principle of popular sovereignty. It traces the conflict-ridden history of representative institutions and practices in an area of sustained experimentation in the ways of the republic: post-colonial Spanish America. Two hundred years later, political representation remains problematic, and some of the same questions posed by the founders of those republics keep coming up, defying our democratic era. Today, like in the past, the way out of the crisis is uncertain and depends upon our own choices. In this context, populism offers a particular response to this predicament, while other political proposals resist its authoritarian features and seek to address the current dilemmas by enhancing the pluralistic and egalitarian elements of our democratic traditions.

Hilda Sabato is head researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) in Argentina and former professor of history at the University of Buenos Aires. She is the author of Republics of the New World: The Revolutionary Political Experiment in Nineteenth-Century Latin America.

[1] Federico Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History, Oakland: University of California Press, 2017, p.29.

Andrew Scull: On the response to mass shootings

ScullAmerica’s right-wing politicians have developed a choreographed response to the horrors of mass shootings. In the aftermath of Wednesday’s massacre of the innocents, President Trump stuck resolutely to the script. Incredibly, he managed to avoid even mentioning the taboo word “guns.” In his official statement on this week’s awfulness, he offers prayers for the families of the victims—as though prayers will salve their wounds, or prevent the next outrage of this sort; they now fall thick and fast upon us. And he spouted banalities: “No child, no teacher, should ever be in danger in an American school.” That, of course, was teleprompter Trump. The real Trump, as always, had surfaced hours earlier on Twitter. How had such a tragedy come to pass?  On cue, we get the canned answer: the issue was mental health: “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed.”  Ladies and gentlemen, we have a mental health problem don’t you see, not a gun problem.

Let us set aside the crass hypocrisy of those who have spent so much time attempting to destroy access to health care (including mental health care) for tens of millions of people bleating about the need to provide treatment for mental illness. Let us ignore the fact that President Trump, with a stroke of a pen, set aside regulations that made it a little more difficult for “deranged” people to obtain firearms. They have Second Amendment rights too, or so it would seem. Let us overlook the fact that in at least two of the recent mass shootings, the now-dead were worshipping the very deity their survivors and the rest of us are invited to pray to when they were massacred. Let us leave all of that out of account. Do we really just have a mental health problem here, and would addressing that problem make a dent in the rash of mass killings?

Merely to pose the question is to suggest how fatuous this whole approach is. Pretend for a moment that all violence of this sort is the product of mental illness, not, as is often the case, the actions of evil, angry, or viciously prejudiced souls. Is there the least prospect that any conceivable investment in mental health care could anticipate and forestall gun massacres? Of course not. Nowhere in recorded history, on no continent, in no country, in no century, has any society succeeded in eliminating or even effectively addressing serious forms of mental illness. Improving the lot of those with serious mental illness is a highly desirable goal. Leaving the mentally disturbed to roam or rot on our sidewalks and in our “welfare” hotels, or using a revolving door to move them in and out of jail—the central elements of current mental health “policy”—constitutes a national disgrace. But alleviating that set of problems (as unlikely as that seems in the contemporary political climate) will have zero effect on gun violence and mass shootings.

Mental illness is a scourge that afflicts all civilized societies. The Bible tells us, “The poor ye shall always have with you.”  The same, sadly, is true of mental illness. Mental distress and disturbance constitute one of the most profound sources of human suffering, and simultaneously constitute one of the most serious challenges of both a symbolic and practical sort to the integrity of the social fabric. Whether one looks to classical Greece and Rome, to ancient Palestine or the Islamic civilization that ruled much of the Mediterranean for centuries, to the successive Chinese empires or to feudal and early modern Europe, everywhere people have wrestled with the problem of insanity, and with the need to take steps to protect themselves against the depredations of the minority of the seriously mentally ill people who pose serious threats of violence. None of these societies, or many more I could mention, ever saw the levels of carnage we Americans now accept as routine and inevitable.

Mental illness is an immutable feature of human existence. Its association with mass slaughter most assuredly has not been. Our ancestors were not so naïve as to deny that madness was associated with violence. The mentally ill, in the midst of their delusions, hallucinations, and fury were sometimes capable of horrific acts: consider the portrait in Greek myth of Heracles dashing out the brains of his children, in his madness thinking them the offspring of his mortal enemy Euryththeus; Lucia di Lammermoor stabbing her husband on their wedding night; or Zola’s anti-hero of La Bete humaine, Jacques Lantier, driven by passions that escape the control of his reason, raping and killing the object of his desire: these and other fictional representations linking mental illness to animality and violence are plausible to those encountering them precisely because they match the assumptions and experience of the audiences toward whom they are directed. And real-life maddened murderers were to be found in all cultures across historical time. Such murders were one of the known possible consequences of a descent into insanity. But repeated episodes of mass killing by deranged individuals, occurring as a matter of routine?  Nowhere in the historical record can precursors of the contemporary American experience be found. It is long past time to stop blaming an immutable feature of human culture—severe mental illness—for routine acts of deadly violence that are instead the produce of a resolute refusal to face the consequences of unbridled access to a deadly form of modern technology.

Claims that the mowing down of unarmed innocents is a mental health problem cannot explain why, in that event, such massacres are exceedingly rare elsewhere in the contemporary world, while they are now routine in the United States. Mental illness, as I have stressed, is a universal feature of human existence. Mass shootings are not. Australia and Britain (to take but two examples) found themselves in the not-too-distant past having to cope with horrendous mass killings that involved guns. Both responded with sensible gun control policies, and have been largely spared a repetition of the horrors routinely visited upon innocent Americans. Our society’s “rational” response, by contrast, is to rush out and buy more guns, inflating the profits of those who profit from these deaths, and ensuring more episodes of mass murder.

The problem in the United States is not crazy people. It is crazy gun laws.

Andrew Scull is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of Masters of Bedlam: The Transformation of the Mad-Doctoring Trade and Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine.

A. James McAdams: What South Korea can learn from Germany

McAdamsWhen athletes from North and South Korea marched onto the field under the same flag in Pyeongchang on February 9, this was not the first time that two fiercely antagonistic states, one socialist and the other capitalist, jointly represent a divided nation at the Olympics. Three times, in the 1956, 1960, and 1964 Olympics, the teams from East and West Germany did the same. Over these years, however, East Germany had no choice in this arrangement. In accord with West German policy and with the IOC’s blessing, this show of unity was meant to prevent the East German regime from claiming to represent a separate sovereign entity apart from the old German nation. Only in 1968 did the IOC finally grant East Berlin’s wish to march independently under its own flag in Mexico City.

Yet the difference in these displays of political symbolism between hostile states is potentially misleading. It prevents us from recognizing how much the South Korean government can learn from the example of divided Germany. Only a year after East Berlin’s modest achievement in the 1968 Olympics, a new West German chancellor, Willy Brandt, took the first steps toward implementing a principle, “change through rapprochement,” that was based upon a simple idea: you can’t influence a state with which you have no relations. Although his government stubbornly refused to recognize its rival’s legitimacy, it did the next best thing from the perspective of its counterparts in East Berlin. It explicitly affirmed East Germany’s factual existence as a separate part of Germany. This concession paved the way for two decades of successful negotiations over practical improvements in the two states’ relations, including the reunification of families, greater opportunities for East German pensioners to visit the West, and increased trade. These ties did not precipitate Germany’s unification in 1990. But, they made the challenge of bringing together the two parts of the divided nation much easier.

In the same way, the two Korean teams’ show of unity at the Olympics could reasonably be defended as the logical first step in a similar direction. As South Korea’s new president Moon Jai-in enunciated in Berlin on July 6, Seoul is now prepared to treat Pyongyang as a serious negotiating partner precisely because it has no alternative to total hostility. Bonn’s relationship with East Berlin was always difficult because of the communist regime’s ability to manipulate its citizens’ contacts with the West. Yet comparatively speaking, these trials are slight when they are viewed in light of the monumental challenge of dealing with a regime that has the power to monitor every bit of information that flows to its population. East Germans could regularly watch West German news on their television sets, but precious few North Koreans have access to foreign radio broadcasts of any kind, let alone cell phones or computers. Hence, even the smallest openings to the North are valuable. In this respect, expanded contacts between Korea’s divided states, even they are small or merely symbolic, are arguably even more important than they were for the Germans. They represent the only way Moon’s government can hope to improve the lives of the people on the other side of his country’s border.

Germany’s example also suggests that improved relations between the Koreas could be strategically advantageous for Seoul. Once West Germany’s leaders proved their commitment to reducing tensions with East Berlin, it was much easier to present themselves as reliable, independently-minded interlocutors to governments throughout the eastern bloc, including the regime that ultimately decided the fate of East Germany, the Soviet Union. Similarly, Moon’s readiness to talk with the North could be a step toward an improved relationship with the country best positioned to influence Pyongyang—China. If the South Koreans are able to convince Beijing that their citizens were marching with their northern counterparts in Pyeongchang for specifically Korean reasons, and not some coordinated policy with the United States, Seoul could provide the key for stability on the Korean peninsula that the Chinese have been seeking.

Predictably, even the existence of these slight gestures between Seoul and Pyongyang has aggravated American policymakers who want to maintain a disciplined wall of hostility toward North Korea. Yet it is interesting to note that many of the same misgivings were present in Washington when Willy Brandt sought to open independent channels of communication with East Berlin. Henry Kissinger and other officials in the Nixon administration worried that the U.S. would lose control of its ability to define western policy toward the Soviet bloc. Yet despite these fears, Bonn eventually played an instrumental role in reducing the East-West tensions that stood in the way of realizing American interests amidst the unexpected fall of communist regimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Similarly, the enunciation of a South Korean version of “change through rapprochement” could be Washington’s best hope for ameliorating the threat that a totally isolated North Korea currently represents to global security.

A. James McAdams is the William M. Scholl Professor of International Affairs and director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His many books include Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification and Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party. He lives in South Bend, Indiana.

John Tutino: Mexico, Mexicans, and the Challenge of Global Capitalism

This piece has been published in collaboration with the History News Network. 

TutinoMexico and Mexicans are in the news these days. The Trump administration demands a wall to keep Mexicans out of “America,” insisting that undocumented immigrants cause unemployment, low wages, and worse north of the border. It presses a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, claiming to defend U.S. workers from the pernicious impacts of a deal said to favor Mexico and its people. Meanwhile U.S. businesses (from autos to agriculture) work to keep the gains they have made in decades of profitable cross-border production and marketing. Their lobbying highlights the profits they make employing Mexicans who earn little (at home and in the U.S.), and by their efforts subsidize U.S. businesses and consumers.

The integration of Mexico and the U.S., their workers and markets, is pivotal to U.S. power, yet problematic to many U.S. voters who feel prejudiced in a world of globalizing capitalism and buy into stereotypes that proclaim invasive Mexicans the cause of so many problems. Analysts of diverse views, including many scholars, often imagine that this all began in the 1990s with NAFTA. A historical survey, however, shows that the integration of North America’s economies began with the U.S. taking rich lands from Texas to California by war in the 1840s, driving the border south to its current location. U.S. capitalists led a westward expansion and turned south to rule railroads, mining, petroleum, and more in Mexico before 1910—while Mexican migrants went north to build railroads, harvest crops, and supply cities in lands once Mexican. The revolution that followed in part reacted to U.S. economic power; its disruptions sent more Mexicans north to work. While Mexico struggled toward national development in the 1920s, displaced families still moved north. When depression stalled the U.S. economy in the 1930s, Mexicans (including many born U.S. citizens) were expelled south. When World War II stimulated both North American economies, the nations contracted to draw Mexican men north to work as braceros. Mexico’s “miracle” growth after 1950 relied on U.S. models, capital, and labor-saving technology—and never created enough work to curtail migrant flows. The Mexican oil boom of the 1970s tapped U.S. funds, aiming to bring down OPEC oil prices to favor U.S. hegemony in a Cold-War world. By the 1980s the U.S. gained cheaper oil, helping re-start its economy. In the same decade, falling oil prices set off a debt fueled depression in Mexico that drove more people north. NAFTA, another Mexican collapse, and soaring migration followed in the 1990s. The history of life and work across the U.S.-Mexican border is long and complex. Through twists and turns it shaped modern Mexico while drawing profits, produce, and Mexicans to the U.S.

The Mexican Heartland takes a long view to explore how communities around Mexico City sustained, shaped, and at times challenged capitalism from its sixteenth century origins to our globalizing times. From the 1550s they fed an economy that sent silver, then the world’s primary money, to fuel trades that linked China, South Asia, Europe, and Africa—before British America began. By the eighteenth century, Mexico City was the richest place in the Americas, financing mines and global trade, sustained by people living in landed communities and laboring at commercial estates. It’s merchant-financiers and landed oligarchs were the richest men in the Americas while the coastal colonies of British America drew small profits sending tobacco to Europe and food to Caribbean plantations (the other American engines of early capitalism).

Then, imperial wars mixed with revolutionary risings to bring a world of change: North American merchants and slave holders escaped British rule after 1776, founding the United States; slaves in Saint Domingue took arms, claimed freedom, destroyed sugar plantations, and ended French rule, making Haiti by 1804; insurgents north of Mexico City took down silver capitalism and Spain’s empire after 1810, founding Mexico in 1821. Amid those conflicts, Britain forged a new industrial world while the U.S. began a rise to continental hegemony, taking lands from native peoples and Mexico to expand cotton and slavery, gain gold and silver, and settle European migrants. Meanwhile, Mexicans struggled to make a nation in a reduced territory while searching for a new economy.

The Mexican Heartland explores how families built lives within capitalism before and after the U.S. rose to power. They sought the best they could get from economies made and remade to profit the few. Grounded in landed communities sanctioned by Spain’s empire, they provided produce and labor to carry silver capitalism. When nineteenth-century liberals denied community land rights, villagers pushed back in long struggles. When land became scarce as new machines curtailed work and income, they joined Zapata in revolution after 1910. They gained land, rebuilt communities, and carried a national development project. Then after 1950, medical capitalism delivered antibiotics that fueled a population explosion while “green revolution” agriculture profited by expanding harvests while making work and income scarce. People without land or work thronged to burgeoning cities and across the border into the U.S., searching for new ways to survive, sustain families, and re-create communities.

Now, Mexicans’ continuing search for sustainable lives and sustaining communities is proclaimed an assault on U.S. power and prosperity. Such claims distract us from the myriad ways that Mexicans feed the profits of global corporations, the prosperity of the U.S. economy, and the comforts of many consumers. Mexicans’ efforts to sustain families and communities have long benefitted capitalism, even as they periodically challenged capitalists and their political allies to keep promises of shared prosperity. Yet many in the U.S. blame Mexico and Mexicans for the insecurities, inequities, and scarce opportunities that mark too many lives under urbanizing global capitalism.

Can a wall can solve problems of dependence and insecurity pervasive on both sides of the border? Or would it lock in inequities and turn neighboring nations proclaiming shared democratic values into ever more coercive police states? Can we dream that those who proclaim the liberating good of democratic capitalism may allow people across North America to pursue secure sustenance, build sustaining communities, and moderate soaring inequities? Such questions define our times and will shape our future. The historic struggles of Mexican communities illuminate the challenges we face—and reveal the power of people who persevere.

John Tutino is professor of history and international affairs and director of the Americas Initiative at Georgetown University. His books include The Mexican Heartland: How Communities Shaped Capitalism, a Nation, and World History, 1500-2000 and From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750–1940.

Ya-Wen Lei: Ideological Struggles and China’s Contentious Public Sphere

This post has been republished by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University.

Lei

Ideology was a critical theme at China’s 19th Party Congress in October 2017. In his speech, President Xi Jinping emphasized China’s “cultural confidence” as well as “Chinese values.” Attempting to import any other kind of political regime, he argued, would fail to match China’s social, historical and cultural conditions. Interestingly, however, at the same time that he rejected foreign political models, Xi promoted China’s particular version of modernization as a valuable model for other countries.

At the domestic level, Xi stressed the importance of controlling ideology, regulating the internet, and actively attacking “false” views within China’s public sphere. For Xi, ideology is a powerful tool that can, at best, unify the Chinese people or, at worst, turn them against the Chinese state.

In fact, ideology has been a priority for Xi ever since he became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012. This focus is understandable, I argue, precisely given the rising influence of liberal ideology within China’s public sphere.

Let me illustrate this by discussing one example, explored in greater depth in my book, The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China. In Chapter 5, I analyze the political orientation of the top 100 opinion leaders on Weibo—one of China’s most popular social media sites—and the connections among them in 2015.

I classified Weibo opinion leaders into the following categories: political liberals, political conservatives, and others. I defined political liberals as those who express support on Weibo for constitutionalism (government authority derives from and should be limited by the constitution) and universal values (e.g., human rights, freedom, justice, equality), and political conservatives as those who argue against those principles. I classified as “others” those who expressed no views either way. I looked at people’s views on constitutionalism and universal values because these are particularly contested and politicized ideas in China given their association with Western liberal democracy. These are, in short, ideas that would not be popular in China if ideology were functioning “properly” from the government perspective.

Despite the Chinese government’s ideological control and censorship, I found that 58% of the top 100 Weibo opinion leaders in 2015 were political liberals, while only 15% were political conservatives. My analysis looked specifically at January of 2015, after the Chinese government launched its “purge the internet” campaign in August 2013 and arrested several opinion leaders. This was also after the government’s effort to use Weibo to create more “positive energy.” Presumably, then, the percentage of political liberals among opinion leaders might well have been even higher before the Chinese government’s intensified crackdowns.

In the following graph, I map the connections among the top 100 Weibo opinion leaders using social network analysis. Blue, red, and white nodes represent political liberals, political conservatives, and others, respectively. The graph reveals the greater level of influence of political liberals in general online, the dense connections among liberals themselves, and their seemingly greater influence on those who may be “on the fence” politically or simply more cautious about expressing their views of constitutionalism and universal values online. Importantly, political liberals would not have become so popular and influential had it not been for the direct and indirect endorsement of Chinese citizens.

Lei

Figure: Top 100 Weibo opinion leaders. Note: An edge between two opinion leaders is directional, showing that one opinion leader follows the other on Weibo. Blue, red, and white nodes represent political liberals, political conservatives, and others, respectively. Squares, triangles, boxes, diamonds, and circles denote media professionals, lawyers and legal scholars, scholars in non-law disciplines, entrepreneurs, and others, respectively. Gray and black edges show“following” across and between people with the same political orientation, respectively.

In short, the graph reveals a situation that contrasts sharply with the Chinese public sphere the government would like to see. The dissemination of liberal discourse and ideology, as well as growing public criticism of social and political problems in China, has only heightened the Chinese state’s concerns regarding ideology.

So, is ideology even “working” in China—at least in the way Xi would like? If constitutionalism and universal values are Western views that need to be discouraged and even attacked as “false,” this map of online opinion leaders in China suggests the government has its work cut out for it. How this happened, how it has changed China’s public sphere, and whether and how the govenment might attempt to regain ideological control moving foward are all questions I explore futher in my book, The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China.

Ya-Wen Lei is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and an affiliate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China.

Ian Hurd: Good medicine for bad politics? Rethinking the international rule of law

When an international crisis erupts it is common to hear experts say that the situation will be improved if all parties stick to international law. From the Syrian war to Burma’s massacres to Guantanamo torture, faithful compliance with the law of nations is often prescribed as the best way forward. I wrote this book because I was curious about the idea that international law is good medicine for bad policies, a kind of non-political, universal good. International law often appears like a magical machine that takes in hot disagreements about how things should unfold and produces cool solutions that serve the interests of everyone. How to do Things with International Law examines this idea with a degree of skepticism, holds it up against some empirical cases, and suggests more realistic ways of thinking about the dynamics between international politics and international law.

The standard model of international law is built on two components, one more institutional and the other more normative. On the one hand, international law is seen as providing a framework for the coexistence for governments. Laws on diplomatic immunity, non-interference across borders, and the peaceful settlement of disputes help organize inter-governmental relations and give a kind of civility to world politics. On this view, following the rules makes it possible for diplomacy and negotiation to happen. The second, normative strand adds substantive values such as a commitment to human rights, to the protection of refugees, and against nuclear proliferation. Here, following the rules is said to be important because it enhances human welfare and the other goals encoded by the law. The two strands agree that compliance with international rules is beneficial and that violations of the rules lead to international disorder at best—and violence and chaos at worst.

This represents what I see as a conventional view of the international rule of law. It is a commitment to the idea that governments should follow their legal obligations and that when they do the world is a better place. It is an ideology, in the sense noted by Shirley Scott.

My book explores the premise and the power of this ideology and its influence in global politics. I look at the presumptions that it rests on and the practices it makes possible. I see the power of international law on display in the ways that governments and others make use of legal resources and categories to understand, justify, and act in the world. This is a social power, built on the idea of the rule of law and employed by governments in the service of a wide array of goals.

The book does not aim to answer questions about why states comply with or flout the law. Instead, it asks what they do with the law – and why, and with what effects. As a methodology, this points toward looking for where international law appears in the strategies of governments. On substance, it suggests a close connection between international law and political power. International law has influence in certain situations, when powerful actors find it useful. For instance, the US gave legal arguments for why Russia’s annexation of Crimea was unlawful and therefore should not be accepted by other countries. In response, Russia gave legal arguments to sustain its behavior. Legal experts may well conclude that one side had the stronger legal argument; disagreements about interpretation and application are central to legal practices. But my curiosity comes from seeing both sides use legal arguments as political resources in defense of their preferred outcome.

The use of law to legitimize state policy is a central feature of contemporary international politics. And yet to some, the instrumental use of law is said to reveal the inappropriate politicization of law, contradicting their idea of the rule of law itself. I see it the other way around: the international rule of law is the instrumental use of law. The legalization of international politics gives legal rationalizations their political weight. Their political weight makes them important sites of contestation. In a legalized world, it makes sense for actors to contest their actions in the language of law. To borrow Helen Kinsella’s example, the line between civilian and combatant in a war zone distinguishes those who should be killed from those who should not; the line is defined by the Geneva Conventions and other legal instruments and it is brought to life (and death) as governments interpret it in relation to those whom they wish to kill. Legal categories have political valence and this makes them important resources of power and thus worth fighting over. How else to make sense of the energy that governments put into shaping rules that reflect their interests?

Recognizing the close connection between international and power politics opens a way to considering the political productivity of international law. Law is not only regulative and constraining; it is also empowering and permissive. By defining some acts as unlawful and others as lawful, it makes the former harder for governments to do (or more expensive) and the latter easier. The availability of a legal justification smoothes the way for action just as much as its unavailability impedes it. If we look at one side of this balance, we see for instance that the UN Charter outlaws the use of force by governments and limits their autonomy with respect to going to war. On the other side the Charter also authorizes them to go to war as needed for ‘self-defense’ against an armed attack. In ‘self-defense,’ the Charter creates a new legal resource with the capacity to differentiate between a lawful and an unlawful war. This is a powerful tool for governments, a means for legalizing their recourse to force, and they have used it with enthusiasm since 1945. The Charter produced something that previously didn’t exist and as a consequence changed how governments go to war, how they justify their wars, and how they think about their security in relation to external threats.

With the political productivity of international law in mind, the book shows that international law is inseparable from politics and thus from power. For powerful governments, international law puts an instrument in their tool-kit as they seek to influence what happens in the world, and for the less powerful it is a tool that they might also seek to take up when they can but may equally be a means of control whose influence they seek to escape.

There isn’t much evidence to back up the presumption that international law steers global affairs naturally toward better outcomes. How to Do Things With International Law is neither a celebration of international law nor an indictment. It offers instead a look into its practical politics, a messy world of power politics that is as full of interpretation, ambiguity, violence and contestation as any other corner of social life.

HurdIan Hurd is associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. He is the author of After Anarchy and How to Do Things with International Law.

Gary Saul Morson & Morton Schapiro: The Humanomics of Tax Reform

CentsThe Trump administration is now placing tax reform near the top of its legislative agenda. Perhaps they will garner the votes for tax reduction, but reform? Good luck.

It has been three decades since there has been meaningful tax reform in this country. In 1986, tax shelters were eliminated, the number of tax brackets went from 15 to 4, including a reduction of the highest marginal tax rate from 50% to 38.5% and the standard deduction was increased, simplifying tax preparation and resulting in zero tax liability for millions of low-income families. At the same time, a large-scale expansion of the alternative minimum tax affected substantial numbers of the more affluent.

President Reagan insisted that the overall effect be neutral with regard to tax revenues. That demand made it possible to set aside the issue of whether government should be larger or smaller and instead focus on inefficiencies or inequities in how taxes were assessed. Two powerful Democrats, Dick Gephardt in the House and Bill Bradley in the Senate, were co-sponsors.

Economists might evaluate the merits of this monumental piece of legislation in terms of the incentives and disincentives it created, its ultimate impact on labor force participation, capital investment and the like, but there is another metric to be evaluated – was it perceived to be fair? Accounts from that day imply that it was.

The notion of fairness is not generally in the wheelhouse of economics. But the humanities have much to say on that matter.

To begin with, literature teaches that fairness is one of those concepts that seem simple so long as one does not transcend one’s own habitual way of looking at things. As soon as one learns to see issues from other points of view, different conceptions of fairness become visible and simple questions become more complex. Great novels work by immersing the reader in one character’s perspective after another, so we learn to experience how different people – people as reasonable and decent as we ourselves are – might honestly come to see questions of fairness differently.

So, the first thing that literature would suggest is that, apart from the specific provisions of the 1986 tax reform, the fact that it was genuinely bipartisan was part of what made it fair. Bipartisanship meant the reform was not one side forcing its will on the other. Had the same reform been passed by one party, it would not have seemed so fair. Part of fairness is the perception of fairness, which suggests that the process, not just the result, was fair.

Fairness, of course, also pertains to the content of the reforms. What are the obligations of the rich to support needy families? Are there responsibilities of the poor to participate however they can in providing for their own transformation?

In Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, two main characters, Levin and Stiva, go hunting with the young fop, Vasenka, and as they encounter hard-working peasants, they start discussing the justice of economic inequality. Only foolish Vasenka can discuss the question disinterestedly, because it is, believe it or not, entirely new to him: “`Yes, why is it we spend our time riding, drinking, shooting doing nothing, while they are forever at work?’ said Vasenka, obviously for the first time in his life reflecting on the question, and consequently considering it with perfect sincerity.” Can it really be that an educated person has reached adulthood with this question never having occurred to him at all?

And yet, isn’t that the position economists find themselves in when they ignore fairness? When they treat tax reform, or any other issue, entirely in economic terms? Levin recognizes that there is something unfair about his wealth, but also recognizes that there is no obvious solution: it would do the peasants no good if he were to just give away his property. Should he make things more equal by making everyone worse off? On the contrary, his ability to make farmland more productive benefits the peasants, too. So, what, he asks, should be done?

Levin also knows that inequality is not only economic. If one experiences oneself as a lesser person because of social status, as many of the peasants do, that is itself a form of inequality entirely apart from wealth. In our society, we refer to participants in government as “taxpayers.” Does that then mean that to exempt large numbers of people from any taxation entirely demeans them – not least of all, in their own eyes?  There may be no effective economic difference between a very small tax and none at all, but it may make a tremendous psychological difference. Isn’t the failure to take the psychological effect of tax rates seriously as disturbingly innocent as Vasenka’s question about inequality?

Combining a humanistic and an economic approach might not give us specific answers, but it does make questions of fairness, including symbolic effects, part of the question. And in a democracy, where popular acceptance of the rules as legitimate is crucial, that would be a step forward.

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University. His many books include Narrative and Freedom, “Anna Karenina” in Our Time, and The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture. Morton Schapiro is the president of Northwestern University and a professor of economics. His many books include The Student Aid Game. Morson and Schapiro are also the editors of The Fabulous Future?: America and the World in 2040 and the authors of Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities.

Matthew Simonton: American Oligarchy

SimontonThe 2016 election brought the burning issue of populism home to the United States. Donald Trump is, in many ways, part of a larger movement of populist politicians worldwide who have claimed to speak in the name of the “ordinary people.” (Marine Le Pen in France and Viktor Orbán in Hungary are other examples.) As with other populists, Trump’s presidency brings with it unsettling questions about illiberalism and ethno-nationalism. But in all the talk about “making American great again,” we are in danger of losing sight of a deeper problem, one which Trump will not change and in fact will likely exacerbate: the steady creep of oligarchy. The United States Constitution is enacted in the name of “We the People.” Abraham Lincoln famously described America’s political system in the Gettysburg Address as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Yet how much authority do ordinary citizens truly possess in today’s America? As the ancient Athenians would have put it, does the demos (people) in fact have kratos (power)?

Several indicators suggest that that power, if it ever was actually held by the people, is slipping away. Princeton University Press authors Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens have brought before our eyes hard truths about our “unequal democracy,” the fact that, too often, “affluence” brings “influence.” Gilens and the political scientist Benjamin I. Page demonstrated in an important article from 2014 that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens … have little or no independent influence.” Readers familiar with the findings of the economist Thomas Piketty have heard that the U.S. and other advanced capitalist economies are entering a new “Gilded Age” of wealth concentration. Can anything turn back inequality—what President Barack Obama called “the defining challenge of our time”—and the widening gap in political power and influence that comes with it?

The ancient Greeks had an answer to the problem of inequality, which they called demokratia. It is well known that Greek-style democracy was direct rather than representative, with citizens determining policy by majority vote in open-air assemblies. Yet democracy meant more than just meetings: political offices were distributed randomly, by lottery, on the assumption that every citizen was qualified (and in fact obligated) to participate in politics. Office-holders were also remunerated by the state, to ensure that poorer citizens who had to work for a living could still share in the constitution. Princeton author Josiah Ober has examined the ideology and practice of ancient democracy in multiple publications. In his latest work—similar in its conclusions to those of the ancient historian Alain Bresson—he has argued that democracies created fair rules and equal access to opportunity that secured citizen dignity and discouraged runaway economic inequality. Thus, as much as ancient democracies fall short of our contemporary standards (and they had grave faults in the areas of slave-holding and gender relations), they might constitute a model, however imperfect, for thinking about reducing both economic and political inequality.

On the other hand, many Greek city-states had a form of constitution based on diametrically opposed premises, and which encouraged opposite tendencies. This was oligarchia, the “rule of the few.” Ancient Greek oligarchs—members of the wealthy elite—most assuredly did not believe in citizen equality. Oligarchs thought that their greater wealth, which (by their lights, anyway) afforded them greater intelligence and virtue, made them uniquely qualified to rule. The non-elite, which then as today represented the poorer majority, had to be kept out of politics. (For a recent argument in favor of such an “oligarchy of the wise,” see Princeton author Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy.)

In my book Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History, I chart the rise of oligarchic thinking, showing that it emerged in conscious reaction to democracy, or the “power of the people.” Faced with the challenges democracy brought to their affluence and influence, oligarchs devised a new set of political institutions, which would ensure that the people could make no inroads into oligarchic privilege. This was not simply a matter of attaching property requirements to office-holding, although oligarchs certainly considered that essential. Oligarchies also stacked the judicial system in elites’ favor; sought to control the people’s speech, movement, and association; hoarded and manipulated information crucial to the city’s well-being; feathered their own nests with economic perquisites; and on occasion even resorted to extra-legal assassination to eliminate subversives. Oligarchies were, in short, authoritarian regimes. Engaging with contemporary scholarship in political science on authoritarianism, I show that ancient Greek oligarchies confronted the same basic problems that haunt modern authoritarians, and experimented with similar institutions for preserving their rule. In ways that have not been fully apparent until now, oligarchs and demos resemble today’s dictators and democrats.

As history shows us, inequality in one area (wealth) tends to convince elites that they have unequal abilities in another (politics). Yet in situations like that of Classical Greek oligarchy, when the wealthy obtain the unaccountable political power they desire, the result is not enlightened government but increased oppression. It would do citizens of modern democracies good to bear this in mind. In the United States, many are frustrated with politics, and with democracy in particular. Liberals worry about the supposed ignorance of the electorate. Conservatives want to restrict what majorities can legislate, especially in the area of economics. And the last election saw countless voters openly embrace a vision of America as headed by a billionaire strongman. In longing for a restriction on democracy, however—even if “only” meant for those with whom we disagree—we increase the likelihood of a more general oligarchic takeover. We play into oligarchs’ hands. If the Greek example is any indication, such short-term thinking would bode ill for the freedom of all citizens—and it would only make inequality worse.

Matthew Simonton is assistant professor of history in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University. He received his PhD in classics from Stanford University. He is the author of Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History.