James Campbell: Just how polarized are our politics?

campbellThe United States of today is a divided nation, with two sides resting on opposite ends of a political spectrum.  James Campbell’s new book Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America provides a new and historically grounded perspective on the polarization of America, systematically documenting exactly how and why the current divide came to be. James Campbell recently answered some questions about his book, what exactly has lead to such bitter disputes in the American system, and what this has meant throughout political history.

What is political polarization?

JC: Polarization concerns the level and organization of political conflict in society generally or between groups such as the political parties. Political differences can vary in severity and their relation to one another: cross-cutting or reinforcing. A high level of polarization is one in which there are substantial differences in political perspectives on a wide range of issues organized along an ideological spectrum. Polarization intensifies rather than diffuses conflict. It establishes an “us versus them” politics and it is always the same “us” at odds with the same “them.” High levels of polarization are the basis for bitter disputes, making political compromises more difficult to achieve.

What are Americans polarized about?

JC: The short answer is government. The extent and use of governmental powers is the underlying and organizing subject that causes two sides to be set up for most issues in American politics. It is the great divider setting up quite consistently “us versus them” sides in disputes about public policy. Those with liberal political inclinations tend to be more inclined to see problems as public in nature and best solved by the use of government powers and programs. Conservatives tend to take a more restrained or “last resort” view of the use of government. Views about government and individual responsibilities unify liberals and conservatives against each other.

Why is polarization even an issue? Don’t we know that Americans are polarized?

JC: Most political observers believe that the public and the parties are polarized, but many social scientists doubt that the public is highly polarized. Reviews of survey data of public opinion indicate that extreme views on issue questions are no more likely today than they were 40 years ago. This leads some to believe that polarization of the public is a myth. They suspect that activists and the political parties are polarized, but that the general public is predominantly moderate and not ideological. My research, however, presents evidence that the public is highly polarized, has been so for some time, and has become more so in recent decades. The political parties used to do a poor job representing these polarized views. The realigned parties of the last couple of decades, for better or worse, now represent and accentuate those polarized views.

How can Americans be ideologically polarized when research indicates that they are not very politically sophisticated or informed?

JC: There is no doubt that most Americans are not highly informed about politics or very sophisticated in their political thinking. This does not mean, however, that they cannot be ideological in the sense that they have some fundamental perspectives or values they apply to politics. Pretty much everybody has a sense about what they think is politically right or wrong and that is, at its core, what ideology is about. Unfortunately early studies of political thinking labeled the highest level of political conceptualization as ideological. But ideologies can be based on vastly different levels of political thought, from philosophies to gut instincts. If nothing else, knee-jerk liberals and wing-nut conservatives are both ideological.

How do you know that Americans are highly polarized?

JC: Good question. I examined the extent and change of polarization in the public using three types of evidence. The first was the direct evidence of how people identify their ideological perspectives–liberal, moderate, conservative, or they don’t know. The second type of evidence was the reported attitudes of the public on various public policy issues. In a sense, this is indirect evidence, since attitudes on the issues may reflect an underlying sense of political values and perspectives. The third type of evidence was circumstantial evidence. It is widely accepted that the political parties in government have become more polarized in recent decades. Assuming that this is the case, a largely moderate public would be expected to react to this change in the parties differently than a highly polarized public. A polarized public would likely respond better to more polarized parties than would a largely moderate public. The analysis of all three types of evidence supported the same set of conclusions: the American public was fairly well polarized in the 1970s and has become more so since then.

Did polarized politics develop from the top-down or from the bottom-up? Did political leaders and activists cause the public to become more polarized or did the public lead the way?

JC: The conventional view has been that the increase in polarization was a top-down process. The idea is that leaders are more sophisticated and attentive to political issues and, therefore, ahead of the curve when it comes to political change. At least in this instance, I found the opposite to be the case. The increased polarization of our political system was instigated by the increased polarization of the public in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The polarization of leaders lagged that if the public. Leaders are more attentive to political change, but elected leaders also have a vested interest in preserving the status quo and the tools (incumbency advantages) to help them do so. The lack of a viable Republican Party in the South also impeded a good deal of leadership change until the early 1990s. The public was not so encumbered. The increase in polarization, at least initially, was a bottom-up process.

James Campbell is UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. He is the author of such works as The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National Vote and The Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections. His most recent book is Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.

Michaela DeSoucey: Bastille Day Appetizers

Michaela DeSoucey

desoucey jacketAmid the current political disarray caused by the recent Brexit vote and the ongoing refugee crisis, questions of what determines national identity are hot-button issues in France, and across Europe. Claims to national solidarity and shared symbols of national collective identity often rise to the fore on holidays. These appeals to unique histories and cultural practices are not just internal appeals to common descent or principles; they allege uniqueness vis-à-vis others and can trigger zeal toward a sense of belonging and pride in particular places.

Today is Bastille Day in France – the day that commemorates the July 14th, 1789 storming of the Bastille prison in Paris, which proved a turning point for the oncoming French Revolution and the declaration of a monarch-less French Republic. On this day, people around France will fête the French nation with parties and meals shared with family and friends. What will they eat, to represent this day? Symbolically and substantively, foods can offer multiple identity-laden markers for people and for groups. Eating is one way people demonstrate their political sentiments of national belonging and togetherness. Here in the U.S., for example, we eat turkey on Thanksgiving and call things “as American as apple pie.” Politicians on the campaign trail go out of their ways to be seen eating down-to-earth and local specialties (which can sometimes result in infamy, such as being seen eating a slice of New York pizza with a fork and knife).

Cuisine has long been one of France’s greatest sources of domestic and international pride. One food valorized as a quintessential symbol of French identity on the national plate is foie gras, the fattened liver of a duck or goose that has been manually force-fed with a tube. Foie gras is also a target of critical opposition, fueled by international animal rights organizations who call its production process cruel and inhumane.

In my new book, Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food, I explore how foie gras came to represent French national culture and identity – a multifaceted process and a form of claimsmaking that I call ‘gastronationalism’ – and, for better or worse, what ramifications this has had. My book argues that these sentiments have developed at least in part because people elsewhere have challenged its very existence. In the last few decades, foie gras has been held up by France’s cultural and political leaders as an endangered tradition, at risk from the winds of globalization, Europeanization, and American cultural influences.

Foie gras has come to play a role in gastronational visions of Frenchness within France, too. In fact, the knot connecting foie gras and French identity has been tied so tightly that foie gras has even become a symbol used by some xenophobic political extremists aiming to draw starker lines around what they consider legitimate citizenship. When I was in France a decade ago, one of the country’s largest foie gras producers, Labeyrie, was targeted by several ultra-nationalist groups who condemned the company for marketing some of its foie gras products as halal, meaning suitable for consumption by Muslims. Their base complaint was that by paying a required certification fee to a French mosque to use a halal label, Labeyrie was funding Islamic worship and “taking the risk of supporting Islamic terrorism.” More to their point, it was marketing foie gras in France to people who these groups see as decidedly not French.

After several boycott threats and protests outside its shops, Labeyrie temporarily stopped using a halal label. They reverted the following year and were again subject to ultra-nationalist denunciations. The company was then criticized by members of France’s Muslim community – an estimated 6-7 million people seen by consumer product firms as an emerging and profitable market demographic – for being vulnerable to the pressures of right-wing media, because the company’s website, advertisements, and e-shop no longer showed images of halal foie gras labels, even though the products remained available in retail stores.

Yet, even with recent upsurges of social turmoil around race and religion, not everyone is on board with such a xenophobic mindset. Halal foie gras is now available all the time at national supermarkets and chain stores, produced by several different companies. And, multiple news outlets have reported on the rise of halal foie gras consumption among Muslims, especially upwardly mobile ones, in France over the last decade. Quotes from community leaders attribute this rise to desire for belonging in the category of ‘French’ and indicate popular perceptions that consuming foie gras is a meaningful way to do that.

Food and eating are, and continue to be, important sites where broader conflicts over national culture and identities manifest. In countries increasingly affected by political discord, I see food continuing to communicate both social acceptance and rejection of others. And on national holidays like Bastille Day, foie gras will likely be consumed as part of what it means to celebrate one’s country, or, at the least, its rapidly receding past.

Michaela DeSoucey is assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. She is author of Contested Tastes.

Ethicist Jason Brennan: Brexit, Democracy, and Epistocracy

By Jason Brennan

The Washington Post reports that there is a sharp uptick today in the number of Britons Googling basic questions about what the European Union is and what the implications of leaving are. This is a bit like deciding to study after you’ve already taken the final exam.

Technically, the Brexit referendum is not binding. Parliament could decide to hold their own vote on whether to leave the European Union. Perhaps they should. Perhaps the UK’s leaders owe it to the people to thwart their expressed will.

Leaving the EU is no small affair. It probably will have enormous effects on the UK, Europe, and much of the rest of the world. But just what these effects will be is unclear. To have even a rudimentary sense of the pros and cons of Brexit, a person would need to possess tremendous social scientific knowledge. One would need to know about the economics and sociology of trade and immigration, the politics of centralized regulation, and the history of nationalist movements. But there is no reason to think even a tenth of the UK’s population has a basic grasp of the social science needed to evaluate Brexit.

Political scientists have been studying voter knowledge for the past 60 years. The results are uniformly depressing. Most voters in most countries are systematically ignorant of even the most basic political facts, let alone more the social scientific theories needed to make sense of these facts.

This brings us to the central injustice of democracy, and why holding a referendum was a bad idea. Imagine, as an analogy, that you are sick. You go to a doctor. But suppose your “doctor” doesn’t study the facts, doesn’t know any medicine, and makes her decisions about how to treat you on a whim, on the basis of prejudice or wishful thinking. Imagine the doctor not only prescribes you a course of treatment, but literally forces you, at gunpoint, to accept the treatment.

We’d find this behavior intolerable. Your doctor owes you a duty of care. She owes it to you to deliver an expert opinion on the basis of good information, a strong background knowledge of medicine, and only after considering the facts in a rational and scientific way. To force you to follow the decisions incompetent and bad faith doctor is unjust.

But this is roughly what happens in democracy. Most voters are ignorant of both basic political facts and the background social scientific theories needed to evaluate the facts. They process what little information they have in highly biased and irrational ways. They decided largely on whim. And, worse, we’re each stuck having to put up with the group’s decision. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who has the right and means to emigrate, you’re forced to accept your democracy’s poorly chosen decisions.

There’s a big dilemma in the design of political institutions. Should we be ruled by the few or the many? What this amounts to is the choice between being ruled by the smart but selfish or dumb but nice. When only a small number of people hold power, they tend to use this power for their own ends at the expense of everyone else. If a king holds all the power, his decisions matter. He will likely use that power in a smart way, but smart for himself, rather than smart for everybody. Suppose instead we give everyone power. In doing so, we largely remove the incentive and ability for people to use power in self-serving ways at the expense of everyone else. But, at the same time, we remove the incentive for people to use power wisely. Since individual votes count for so little, individual voters have no incentive to become well-informed or to process information with any degree of care. Democracy incentivizes voters to be dumb.

Going back to the doctor analogy, here’s the dilemma: Suppose you could choose between two doctors. The first doctor prescribes you medicine based on what’s good for her, not you. The second is a complete fool who prescribes you medicine on whim and fancy, without reference to the facts. Roughly, with some exaggeration, that’s what the choice between monarchy or democracy amounts to. Neither is appealing.

What if there were a third way, though? In my forthcoming book, Against Democracy, I explore a way of splitting the difference. The trick is to find a political system that both 1) spreads power out enough to prevent people from using power selfishly and 2) weeds out or at least reduces the power of incompetent decision-makers.

In some sense, republican democracy, with checks and balances, was meant to do just that. And to a significant degree it succeeds. But perhaps a new system, epistocracy, could do even better.

In an epistocracy, political power is to some degree apportioned according to knowledge. An epistocracy might retain the major institutions we see in republican democracy, such as parties, mass elections, constitutional review, and the like. But in an epistocracy, not everyone has equal basic political power. An epistocracy might grant some people additional voting power, or might restrict the right to vote only to those that could pass a very basic test of political knowledge. Any such system will be subject to abuse, and will suffer from significant government failures. But that’s true of democracy too. The interesting question is whether epistocracy, warts and all, would perform better than democracy, warts and all.

All across the West, we’re seeing the rise of angry, resentful, nationalist, xenophobic and racist movements, movements made up mostly of low-information voters. Perhaps it’s time to put aside the childish and magical theory that democracy is intrinsically just, and start asking the serious question of whether there are better alternatives. The stakes are high.

brennanJason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, and Libertarianism. He is the coauthor of Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. His new book, Against Democracy, is out this August. He writes regularly for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog.

Paula S. Fass: How will young Americans vote?

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By Paula S. Fass

As the primary process comes to an end, and the unexpected youth magnet Bernie Sanders now finds himself with practically zero chance to win the Democratic nomination, it will be interesting to see where America’s youth turn their attention. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump are youngsters – both are in their late 60s. Since neither explicitly articulates (at least not so far) the economic needs of millennials or Generation Xers, it might be worth thinking about what kinds of cultural issues could affect younger Americans and bring them to the polls. Three factors seem especially important – race, sex and sexuality, and media savvy. These are pulse points for young Americans and the candidates posture (more even than their positions) and the vibes they emit may provide young Americans with a reason to vote.

A reality TV star with the “in your face” attitude that young people have come to expect and to admire on television (even from liberal figures like Ellen DeGeneres and Jon Stewart), Trump’s ability to control the 24-hour news cycle and his short attention span on issues is both a product of a life lived in the media and one that attracts it. Trump uses the same biting and nasty attacks as reality stars whose insults are at once demeaning and funny. Hillary Clinton’s much more deliberate, thoughtful and well prepared approach to issues may be persuasive to people her age (like me) but can seem uncool and inhibited to young people. I don’t think Hillary should or could change this and no number of changes in hair styles and makeup can compensate for this lack of media friendly self-presentation (indeed it may have the opposite effect), but it may hurt her in turning out young Americans.

Donald Trump prides himself on exploiting the latent racial antagonism in America that some intellectuals and pundits believed had been largely quelled by the Obama election. Deep-lying historical patterns are not so easily overcome and some reaction might have been expected. Hillary manifestly reaches out to ethnic and racial minorities and this may mean that young Latinos as aspirants to full American cultural importance, especially, and African Americans will come out in large numbers where it matters most in states like Florida and Michigan. At the same time, Hillary does not have Bill Clinton’s natural appeal to African Americans (despite his recent missteps on his sentencing legislation) and for various reasons Hillary may be reluctant to bring Bill into the campaign in a maximal way (see below). Young African Americans, men especially, may find Hillary’s style uninviting and unless she begins to offer some real remedies for the problems experienced by black youth in the economy she may find that their appearance at the polls is not a sure thing.

On sex and sexuality (rather than gender), the picture is very fuzzy. Clearly Hillary’s strong pro-choice posture should appeal to young women whose ability to act as full sexual beings (something most of them take for granted today but was not true in the past) is made possible by the contraceptive and abortion revolution of the last half century. At the same time, young women today are haunted by rape and sexual harassment. Since Hillary trails Bill Clinton’s misdeeds (and her own complicit acceptance of his behavior) behind her, the sexual issue is by no means a certain win for Hillary. Trump has just begun his overt references to these matters. There is more to come. Even if Bill never raped anyone as Trump contends, Trump will make the most of how the first Clinton’s presidency was soiled by a man who could not control his sexual appetites and preyed on a young intern. This was a very public scandal, and unlike Trump’s escapades, it took place while Bill Clinton held the highest office in the land and in the White House. Trump, of course, has been married three times and in each case to someone who is or who resembles a model. That can be viewed even by young people as one of the prerogatives of great wealth. The president of the United States, however, is not like the king of France in the ancient régime, someone to whom all women in court were available.

Trump talks about women as bimbos or as disgusting and this is hardly the language of a potential president. This frat boy attitude may wear very thin as the campaign progresses and be viewed less as an expression of Trump’s anti-political correctness temperament than as a real threat to the safety of women. Rape is a real problem and the increasing attention given to it in the media and the growing publicity about sexual harassment in college sports (as well as among professional athletes) suggests that Trump may find that young women will go to the polls in droves to express their fears and signal their anger at being made to feel unsafe and under attack.

What their brothers will do is less clear. While sexism seems to have declined as young women and men become colleagues and share group experiences in adolescence, the growing sexual threats to women (even by friends and colleagues) indicate that something besides a new equality is being signaled. Perhaps it is the result of the latent hostility that has resulted from the real competition women offer as they assume the same jobs and roles as men. This competition and its economic consequences may well make Trump a far more attractive candidate to young men than we expect.

All elections are unpredictable; this one more than most. With Hillary still fighting off Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump gaining in the polls against her, observers should keep a keen eye on the inclinations of young Americans. Their votes may make all the difference.

FassPaula S. Fass is professor of Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of of Kidnapped and Children of a New World and editor of The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World. Fass currently resides in Berkeley, California. Her latest book is The End of American Childhood: A History of of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child.

Peter Lindert & Jeffrey Williamson: Will the rise in inequality ever stop?

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By Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson

Could the steep rise in the share of income gains falling into the hands of the top one percent of Americans since the 1970s have been stopped, and will the rise stop in the near future? A newly revealed history of American growth and inequality suggests the answer is yes to both questions.* What is exceptional about recent American experience is that inequality has risen faster than in other rich countries. Furthermore, it has happened twice in our history – before the Civil War, and again since the 1970s. Without some exogenous crisis like revolution, war, and great depressions, does America have the political will to stop the widening of income gaps between the very rich and the rest?

How hard would it be to stop, or even reverse, the trend? The economics is easy. The politics may be harder. However, to make the policies politically acceptable, just follow a simple equality-growth rule: Make life chances more equal in a pro-growth manner. Prioritize those economic policies that have been shown to equalize people’s opportunities without doing any damage to the growth of our average incomes.

$100 bills lying on the sidewalk

Finding such win-win policies is easy. To see why it’s so easy, just remind yourself: Has our political system seized all the chances to make us richer and more equal at the same time? Of course not. Throughout American history politicians have failed to cash in on equitable growth opportunities, even though they are all around us like so many $100 bills left lying on the sidewalk.

Four easy win-win choices stand out when we compare our experience with that of other countries – and yes, the United States can learn positive lessons from other countries.

Early and basic education for all. The United States has slipped down the rankings in its delivery of early education since the 1960s. At the primary and secondary levels, other countries have caught up with us in years of school completed, and we rank about 27th among all tested countries in the quality of the math, science, and reading skills that students actually learn by age 15.

We are also below the OECD average in the enrollment of three- and four-year olds in early education-plus-care institutions, mainly because we are also below average in our commitment to both public and private funds in pre-primary education. A growing body of evidence shows high returns to early education. Providing it to all serves both equality and growth.

Investing in the careers of young parents with newborns. Our country lags behind all other developed countries in public support for parental work leave. We are failing to invest in both child development and mothers’ career continuity. All of society gains from the better nurturing of our children and the extra career continuity of their mothers, and all of society should help pay for parental leave, not shoving the whole burden onto the young parents or their employers. Other countries figured this out long ago.

Equal opportunity and the inheritance tax. We should return to the higher federal tax rates on top inheritances that we had in the past. This would force rich children receiving bequests to work harder, make Americans more equal, and, by leveling the playing field for new generations a bit, even promote economic growth. A return to a policy which dominated the twentieth century would deliver on the American claim that “in our country, individuals make their own way, with their own hard work and abilities.” To honor that claim, we should make sure that the top economic slots are not reserved for those born very rich. We have done it before. Our top rate of inheritance taxation was 77 percent from 1942 to 1977, years when American incomes grew at the fastest rate this country has ever attained. We haven’t achieved that growth performance since the policy was changed in the 1970s.

Taxing high inheritances is not anti-growth. Instead, it promotes productive work by those who would have inherited the top fortunes. Statistical studies have demonstrated the strength of the “Carnegie effect”. Carnegie was right: passing on huge inheritances undermines the heirs’ work incentives. We also need to stress that bigger inheritance taxes do not take income away from any living rich citizen who has earned it.

Riding herd on the financial sector. Since our Independence, the United States has been above average in its history of financial meltdowns. One could even say that America has been “exceptional” in that regard. Frequent bubbles, booms, and crashes have done great damage to our growth and our equality. The danger of future meltdowns remains, because the Dodd-Frank reforms of 2010 are weaker than the tougher regulatory reforms of the 1930s, which served us so well until the ill-advised de-regulation of the 1980s. More regulatory vigilance, government liquidation authority, and capital requirements are needed to prevent financial breakdowns that tax the non-rich to bail out the rich, and make the poor also pay by losing their jobs.

History is also clear on the inequality connection. When the financial sector was closely regulated in response to the Great Depression disaster, the incomes of the rich in the financial sector fell to more moderate levels. After de-regulation in the 1980s, incomes of the rich in the financial sector soared.

Picking up the easy money takes time – and votes

Implementing just these four win-win policies may or may not be enough to stop any trend toward more inequality, or to raise growth rates from their now-modest levels. We will have to push against a strong headwind coming from competition with poorer countries. Lower-skill jobs in this country will continue to suffer from the competition produced by the long-overdue catching up rise in Asian economies since the 1970s, and from Africa in the future. This new global competition is to be welcomed. There is no reason to wish that poor countries remain hobbled by the bad institutions that have impoverished them for so long. Yet the rising competition challenges the United States to continue to upgrade its own skills to keep ahead. All the more reason to upgrade our human capital.

It will take some time to do these things. Politicians and voters hate to wait for good results that are more than two years away. And such policies may face opposition from those who would not directly gain from such win-win policies.

Still, our democracy can achieve reforms that promote both growth and equality. We’ve done it before. We can do it again. That’s what elections are for.

* The findings reported here are substantiated in Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality since 1700 (Princeton University Press, 2016).

unequal gains lindert jacketPeter H. Lindert is Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of California, Davis. His books include Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. He lives in Davis, California.

Jeffrey G. Williamson is the Laird Bell Professor of Economics, emeritus, at Harvard University. His books include Trade and Poverty: When the Third World Fell Behind. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Both are research associates at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Together they have written Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality Since 1700.

Jason Stanley: How free market ideology perverts the vocabulary of democracy

Election_Blog_Series_Banner2[1]By Jason Stanley

This essay appears simultaneously in Aeon Magazine and is republished with permission in our Election 2016 series

Citizens of the United States are quite taken with the vocabulary of liberal democracy, with words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, which conjure key democratic values and distance the nation from the Old World taint of oligarchy and aristocracy. It is much less clear, however, that Americans are guided by democratic ideals. Or that ideology and propaganda play a crucial role in concealing the large gap between rhetoric and reality.

In truth, the Old World systems have proved extremely difficult to shrug off. In their 2014 paper, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page argue that, as in an oligarchy, ordinary US citizens have no ‘substantial power over policy decisions [and] little or no independent influence on policy at all’.

Moreover, the US regularly subscribes to a form of managerial aristocracy. In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder successfully replaced the mayors and city councils of several cities with ‘emergency managers’ supposedly able to negotiate financial emergencies better than elected officials. In the current presidential race, Hillary Clinton advertises her managerial expertise via the language of policy, while Donald Trump parades his via the language of business. Neither language is democratic. Neither invites self-governance.

Why is there no outcry about these oligarchical and aristocratic methods? Is it because plutocrats have power over the mechanisms of representation and repression? Is it, in short, about power? In my view, power can’t explain why voters are so enthusiastically voting for the very people who promise the least democratic outcomes. Nor are Americans knowingly rejecting democratic ideals. Instead, I see an anti-democratic ideology at work, inverting the meaning of democratic vocabulary and transforming it into propaganda.

Consider the example of mass incarceration in the US. Black Americans make up around 13 per cent of the population, but around 40 per cent of country’s ballooning prison population. Even if we assume, falsely, that black American crime rates justify this disparity, why is the state so punitive? Shouldn’t citizens instead be motivated to address the underlying socio-economic conditions that lead to such dramatic differences in behaviour between equals?

In The New Jim Crow (2010), Michelle Alexander argues that a national rhetoric of law and order has long justified mass incarceration. President Richard Nixon used it to crack down on black Americans under the cover of an epidemic of heroin use; this continued in the 1980s, as a merciless ‘war on drugs’ whose victims were all too often black men. In the US, the ideology of anti-black racism takes the view that blacks are violent and lazy, thereby masking the misapplication of the ideals of law and order.

Compare the ‘war on drugs’ to the current heroin crisis among middle-class white Americans, which has led to a national discussion of the socio-economic distress facing this class. Law and order doesn’t come into it. ‘The new face of heroin’ is new because, unlike the old face, it calls out for an empathetic response, rather than a punitive one. Now that heroin is ravaging white communities not black ones, the language of law and order (deemed appropriate to keep blacks in their place) has been retired. More significant still is that while the ideals of law and order preclude their unequal application, the propaganda of law and order does not: Americans were thus prevented from seeing the disguised gradient of law and order by racist ideology.

But what is the flawed ideology masking the misapplication of democratic ideals? Let’s bring it out by exploring the most cherished US democratic ideal, the ideal of freedom – popularly embodied in attacks on ‘big government’. Voters are repeatedly told that ‘big government’ is the primary source of coercion that limits freedom, which it certainly sometimes does, as the Patriot Act reminds us. But corporations also limit civic freedom in significant ways.

For example, corporations are leading direct attacks on the freedom to collectively bargain. Via outsourcing, free trade agreements allow corporations to move jobs to countries where labour is cheap; meanwhile, as a result of pressure from the conservative non-profit Citizens United, corporations can fund political candidates, thereby increasing corporate control of government. The weaker a government is, the more power corporations have over it. Across the political spectrum, there is anger that government is too influenced by industry lobbyists.

Voters concerned about government – as opposed to corporate – constraints on freedom are under the grip of what I will call a free market ideology. According to that ideology, the world of capital is by its nature free. All other substantial freedoms, including political freedom and personal freedom, are made possible by the freedom of markets.

Why do citizens who cherish freedom as an ideal vote to constrain their own freedoms by increasing the power of corporations? It’s because free market ideology masks the ways in which corporations deploy undemocratic modes of coercion. When a corporation bans employees from expressing, outside of work, opinions it disapproves of, this is seen as a legitimate protection of its economic interests. If workers have to sign non-disclosure contracts that silence them after they are employed elsewhere, it’s accepted as the cost of doing business.

The contradictions here are telling. If our most basic freedoms are self-expression and choiceful action, then corporations frequently limit our most basic freedoms. In liberal democratic theory, it is government that is regarded as the protector of such rights. But it’s precisely because government is attacked in the name of freedom that corporations have vastly greater power to constrain and shape it.

Free market ideology uses democratic vocabulary as propaganda, obscuring a non-democratic reality. Take education. In a liberal democracy, education equips citizens with the tools and confidence to weigh in on policy decisions and play a role in their own self-governance. Hence, democratic education is at the very centre of democratic political philosophy, as the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, W E B Du Bois, John Dewey and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attest. But the US rhetoric surrounding education is explicitly anti-democratic. Citizens prefer ‘efficient’ education systems that train children to perform vocational tasks, rather than education that fosters community, autonomy and civic participation.

The rhetoric politicians use when running for office is usually explicitly anti-democratic. Managerial culture is paradigmatically undemocratic: a CEO is like a feudal lord. But if markets are zones of freedom, then CEOs ought to be its representatives. Free market ideology also explains why, when politicians with great wealth run for office, voters are not put off by the threat of oligarchy: wealth is acquired in markets – which are the source of freedom. Finally, free market ideology explains why voters so easily give up their right to hold institutions accountable to experts who promise ‘efficiency’. Efficiency is the ideal of business, and business is the engine of the market – again the source of freedom.

Free market ideology has perverted democratic vocabulary, transforming it into propaganda that, in turn, obscures an anti-democratic reality. Yet there’s hope that voters have wised up to this and begun to challenge party elites. Such moments of awareness feel dangerous but offer great opportunities. Voters are using the proper tool – elections – to make their concerns heard. Will anyone listen?

Stanley jacketJason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of Knowledge and Practical Interests, Language in Context, and Know How. His latest book is How Propaganda Works, recently released by Princeton University Press.

An interview with Biancamaria Fontana, author of Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait

Germaine de StaelGermaine de Staël (1766–1817) is perhaps best known today as a novelist, literary critic, and outspoken and independent thinker. Yet she was also a prominent figure in politics during the French Revolution. In her new book, Germaine de Staël: A Political PortraitBiancamaria Fontana sheds new light on this often overlooked aspect of Staël’s life and work, bringing to life her unique experience as a political actor in a world where women had no place. Recently, Fontana took the time to answer some questions about her book.

Though she is probably better known in France than in the English-speaking world, Germaine de Staël is already the subject of various biographies and literary studies. Why write another book about her?

BF: Staël’s reputation is indeed very high in her capacity as a novelist and literary critic; but her political activities and ideas are not so well known. Only her reputation as Napoleon’s vocal opponent has survived. But during the French Revolution, when she was in her early twenties, she was a very prominent political actor who tried to unite political factions and to promote the cause of modern representative government, though of course she could not sit in the National Assembly, except as a spectator; she was also barred from becoming a minister like some of her (male) political friends who owed their positions in government to her. As to her works on political theory, they are more original than it is generally assumed: she addressed novel issues such as the role of public opinion in modern society, the character of national cultures and the prospects of European unification.

She seems to have led a very glamorous life, frequenting castes and royal courts, associating with the high aristocracy, dining with monarchs…or is this just a modern fantasy?

BF: No doubt wealth was a very important factor in Staël’s life: her father, Jacques Necker, was a Swiss banker who became minister of the king of France; when she married at nineteen in 1786 she had one of the largest dowries in Europe, and, unusually, she remained in control of her own fortune even after her marriage. Her social position was also the source of much hostility: aristocrats despised her, as the daughter of a rich parvenu, while radical revolutionaries assumed she must necessarily be an agent of reaction. Although she did live in castles and palaces, she herself did not care much about high life; what mattered to her was being independent, and especially being able to associate with the people she regarded as politically and intellectually interesting, including some sovereigns old and new. One must not forget that hers was an age of extraordinary social mobility (think of Napoleon!), in which personal qualities proved often more important than rank and social status.

To what extent was her intellectual reputation conditioned by her gender? Can she be described as a feminist?

BF: The fact that she was a woman has certainly led even serious historians to assume that her political views were derivative and echoed those of the men close to her (while the reverse was often true). Similarly commentators tend to describe her as an over-active salon hostess and to regard her political canvassing as backstage intrigue. She was very conscious of the fact that being a woman made her more vulnerable to public attacks (indeed she was often the target of sexual insults and calumnies), and took great care to avoid any occasion for scandal. But she did not spend much time complaining about such limitations: she was very pragmatic and took them in stride, making the most of the opportunities offered to her. She was not a militant feminist like, say, Mary Wollstonecraft, but she gave an extraordinary demonstration of what a politically minded woman was capable of.

We tend to consider celebrity as an essentially contemporary phenomenon. Yet in the book you describe Staël as uneasy about her own celebrity. Was this really already an issue in the 18th century?

BF: The development and greater freedom of the press in the 18th century, and especially during the French Revolution, did promote the phenomenon of celebrity, as writers and artists, generals and politicians competed for public attention. Indeed some contemporary observers were very worried by what they saw as the replacement of true moral and intellectual distinction with ephemeral fame. Staël was especially concerned with the decline of aesthetic and moral standards, as she considered the quality of public discourse an essential precondition for the political development of modern societies. She was also embarrassed by the fact that her unusual situation made her famous, before she had the opportunity to “deserve” to be known by the wider public. All her life she tried very hard to merit the status she finally achieved, that of a major international intellectual figure.

What, if anything, can we learn from her views on politics?

BF: Staël is generally described as a “liberal” thinker, someone who supported the values of freedom, moderate government and the limitation of power against the authoritarianism of both monarchical and popular regimes. This of course is broadly speaking true; however what is really interesting about her views is not the fact that she defended a set of abstract values, but that she showed how difficult it was, in any real context, to put them into practice: how can you be a liberal when faced with political instability, international economic crisis, terrorism or military conquest? What I find especially prophetic about her writings is the fact that she saw popular opinion as the true source of the stability and legitimacy of any political system. The question she could not stop asking herself was: what does really give shape to collective mentalities and sentiments? Is it education, cultural or religious identities, or simply the ephemeral influence of fashionable views and ideologies?

This is probably a bit far fetched, but while preparing this book you must have spent some time trying to get inside her world; what would have been like, in your view, to be in her company, as a friend or social acquaintance?

BF: She was, by all accounts a fascinating conversationalist, a great flatterer, but also impossibly overbearing if you had anything to do with her at close range. Her energy, her relentless activity and appetite for company could be exhausting. However she was an extremely loyal friend, especially to women. She was very generous, did not take offence easily, and during the difficult years of the Revolution helped and supported the less fortunate of her acquaintances, including some who had never been especially nice to her. When Marie Antoinette was on trial, she took the risk of publishing a pamphlet in her defense, in spite of the fact that the queen had always treated her with disdain. Even in the writings of those contemporaries who disliked her, you cannot find a single episode in which she acted in a mean or resentful manner.

Biancamaria Fontana is professor of the history of political ideas at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Her books include Montaigne’s Politics (Princeton), Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind, and Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society. Most recently she has written Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait.

Nicholas Dagen Bloom: The Perilous Politics of Housing Poor People

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By Nicholas Dagen Bloom

The rolling disaster of America’s urban poverty housing programs is evident in the packed homeless shelters, tent encampments, high rent burdens, lead poisoning, frequent evictions, and public housing disinvestment featured widely in American newspapers, books, and television shows. The differences in housing conditions that once separated big American cities (such as New York from Los Angeles) are much less important than they were a decade or two past.

To shore up their urban base, the Democratic presidential candidates even made quick visits to public housing developments in New York City, an acknowledgement of a new urban housing crisis in both the quantity and quality of housing. The candidates showed genuine concern, looked earnestly at the damage caused by decades of federal disinvestment, and reminded voters of their generous housing platforms.

Both candidates know that it won’t be easy. Liberals with national ambitions and power who support housing programs have wrestled with the issue of housing poor people for decades. They want to help, but they understand that most Americans distrust direct federal housing programs for the poor. And housing the poor, on its own merits, comes with many liabilities.

President Franklin Roosevelt, under intense pressure from his New York base, may have created the first permanent public housing multifamily program in the United States (the Housing Act of 1937) for the third of the population that was “ill housed”, but he also believed most “families should have individual homes . . . however modest.” His public housing program, attacked by conservatives as “creeping socialism,” thus remained comparatively small and stingy. Roosevelt’s Federal Housing Administration proved, in time, nationally popular as it made single-family homes more affordable, operated in an indirect manner on the housing market (mortgage insurance), left private builders and owners almost entirely to their own devices (redlining), and focused almost exclusively on the lower/middle class rather than the urban poor. The success of the FHA in helping build suburbia in the 1940s and 1950s undermined the mass support for public housing because most of the middle-class got their dream homes.

Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry Truman, made public housing a national priority in the context of a temporary postwar housing shortage, winning the Housing Act of 1949 that called for 800,000 public housing units. Yet the Korean War emergency, which slashed public housing subsides dramatically, stretched those targets out over a decade. As the postwar housing shortage eased in the 1950s, as private builders created miles of affordably priced suburban single-family homes, it was primarily in big cities where residual support for public housing remained, often for purposes related more to commercial redevelopment than humanitarianism.

Even many dedicated liberals wavered in their faith as the public housing towers rose in the 1950s and 1960s. Liberal Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller (R-NY), in an address to the NAACP in 1962, admitted that subsidized housing “has been building up social and economic problems even more serious that the problems it was expected to solve” including racial and social segregation. And while Rockefeller himself remained committed to big government housing programs, building more housing than any New York Governor then or since, subsidized housing figured very little in his national appeal. Most of his state housing programs, even for the poor, also relied on public/private partnerships.

By the 1960s, the “projects” had taken on their full range of negative connotations even though in cities like New York they provided a necessary form of permanent low-cost housing for the urban poor and working class (and still do today). Most American politicians of both political parties ran from programs like public housing, substituting a complicated mix of subsidies for private interests in the low-income housing field.

Many of these new public/private programs proved, in many respects, quite successful. Richard Nixon ended new public housing in 1973 and introduced vouchers (Section 8) in private housing to de-concentrate poverty concentration. Ronald Reagan slashed direct housing programs but signed off on the new Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) which gave tax breaks to corporations who invested in new affordable housing serving income levels generally higher than public housing. The 1990s and Bill Clinton will best be remembered for the Hope VI program which paid for the knocking down and redeveloping public housing as privately run, mixed-income communities.

Even the meltdown of the private housing market during subprime financial crisis in 2007 did not lead to a new era of direct government housing despite the fact the poor, or those just above the poverty line, were far more likely to be victims of predatory schemes and evictions. Presidents Bush and Obama secured trillions to stabilize the big private or semi-private players in housing market (the FHA, Freddie Mac, Citibank, Bank of America, etc.) so that the private market could continue as the primary housing provider for all American households.

Americans on the whole today thus remain well served by the private housing market, but the poor, and those living in expensive cities in particular, face a bleak housing future in the privatized affordable housing system.

Hillary Clinton, now the presumptive Democratic nominee and the only liberal likely running this fall, has endorsed a mix of portable Section 8 vouchers, additional tax credits for affordable housing, home ownership subsidies, and renovation of urban housing. These notable initiatives share in a well-worn path of minimizing direct federal involvement. And tested programs like these are likely to improve the lives of many poor people, particularly those lucky enough to use these programs to find housing in higher-income neighborhoods. But American politicians, even liberals, have yet to face the hard truth that to do right by the poor may take a lot more than more subsidies of private interests.

There is a large and growing population in and around cities that needs permanent, basic housing as a prerequisite to getting their lives in order. Existing large-scale low-cost government run housing for the poor such as public housing (or supportive housing with social services on site) is complicated to manage, a public relations quagmire, and often very expensive to build right and preserve. Yet we are already paying embarrassing amount to house the homeless and poor in “temporary” institutional settings such jails, hospitals, and shelters. Preserving what public housing is left (such as the 178,000 units of public housing in New York) and building more decent, very low-cost housing remains a standing invitation for federal officials—should they accept the responsibility.

BloomLasnerNicholas Dagen Bloom is associate professor of social science and director of the Urban Administration program at New York Institute of Technology. His books include Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century. His most recent book is from Princeton University Press is Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City.

Christopher Kutz on drone warfare: The real moral debate

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By Christopher Kutz

Despite all the sound and fury of the Presidential primary campaign, the candidates have been effectively silent on one issue: our use of drone strikes as the central tool of security policy. Perhaps they could watch Eye on the Sky, by director Gavin Hood. The film vividly imagines two nations’ officials confronting a classic military dilemma, whether to kill an enemy at the risk of civilian life. In the movie, British officials, using drone-based cameras, have identified the home of two al-Shabbab terrorist leaders (one of whom is a British woman) in Kenya as they prepare young militants for a suicide terrorist mission. Given al-Shabbab’s history, which includes the attack on a Tanzanian shopping mall, the British officials have good reason to suspect an attack against large numbers of civilians. Because local forces are unable to storm the compound, the officials request support from an American drone with a Reaper missile.

The movie’s theme is that while drone technology appears to make war ethically easier, by reducing risks to civilians and soldiers, it mainly shifts the scene of responsibility, from the battlefield to the conference room and control center. The movie gains its dramatic power by reintroducing the dilemma, in the form of a little girl who comes to sell bread outside the compound during the crucial moments. The British and American officials and drone operators must now decide how to weigh the likely death of this concrete and identified girl against the unidentifiable civilians who might be killed in a terrorist attack. The film very effectively personalizes this debate by foregrounding a few of the officials and soldiers with clear views, for and against the strike, against the majority of officials who seek only to refer judgment to other layers and departments in government. (The movie indulges in a – perhaps accurate – stereotype of Americans as callously decisive and Brits as hand-wringingly nuanced and unsure.)

Eye on the Sky is right to remind us that the ethical dilemmas of war survive the shift to drone warfare. But I believe it makes a dangerous mistake about the real ethical problem with drones. The real problem is not that officials are too rarely courageous or principled. The problem is that we citizens have given up our own responsibility for the choices of war. What ought to be a wrenching decision for a democracy, about when to kill foreigners in pursuit of its interests, has been confined within the consciences of a few.

Few doubt that a state can use lethal force in the classic circumstances of national self-defense, with an invader at the border or missiles and bombs raining in. But drone campaigns are not like this: they involve decisions made through national security bureaucracies about killing people (or categories of people) identified through disparate intelligence as members of hostile networks, whose hostilities are often directed not at the US but at local and temporary allies of US security policy. According to public information, far from strapping suicide vests onto would-be martyrs or assembling dirty bombs, most of the targets identified in intelligence or surveillance reports are, essentially, young men with rifles. What used to be a strategic decision to go to war, with Congress involved and citizens rallied, has become a matter of executive decision making at the tactical level, made by the President and his security team, and the director of the CIA.

The personalization of the decision to kill is not unique to the drone program: special forces killing teams have been part of US security policy for decades. But the emergence of drone warfare has both let the policy of secret killing come out of the shadows on the one hand, while keeping it even more deeply in the shadows in another respect, placing it largely within the confines of the CIA, with White House oversight. While even former CIA Director Michael Hayden acknowledges the myth of the surgical strike, since inevitably non-combatants, including women and children are killed, the lesson we citizens are asked to accept is that these are difficult but reasonable choices for the President, not for us.

We should fear the loss of our accountability as citizens more than the myth of the surgical strike. Presidents and CIA advisors, not to mention drone operators, may well agonize over the potential deaths of innocents. But I fear our own complacency, in wanting these dilemmas to be theirs, and theirs alone. The deaths of civilians and militants alike belong to us as citizens, and we must be prepared as citizens to deliberate about our killing policy, and accept its consequences. Instead, the complicity of the media in personalizing drone warfare keeps us citizens in a fraudulent innocence.

How can we stop the fraud we are perpetrating on ourselves? We must put ourselves in the imaginary position of the drone warriors, and come to think of ourselves as making the decision when to kill. President Obama has done little to make good on his promises of greater transparency in the drone program. To the extent the primary candidates have addressed the issue at all, Bernie Sanders has said only that he would seek to use drone strikes rarely, while Hillary Clinton has praised drone strikes as a critically effective counter-terrorism tool. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, on “carpet bombing” and killing terrorist families, does not suggest much reticence on their parts. Only John Kasich has offered a specific position that moves in the right direction: to effectuate the transfer of the drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon — a shift that was promised two years ago by President Obama but later abandoned. Such a move would work to increase accountability for drone killings, and to locate decisions within an institution historically better suited to considering legal and ethical limitations on the use of force. (Recall that the use of torture in interrogation was much more firmly resisted by military than CIA officials.)

We need to force our candidates, and our media, to do better than this, to discuss what we citizens must know if we are to take honest responsibility for the deaths of the children and other bystanders in our security policy. While Eye on the Sky does a terrific job of provoking a debate on the way out of the movie theatre, we need a debate that extends all the way to the voting booth.

kutz on war and democracy jacketChristopher Kutz is the C. William Maxeiner Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Kadish Center for Morality, Law, and Public Affairs at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age.

Taxing the Rich

Taxing the RichIf you didn’t file your taxes on April 15th, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Thanks to the Emancipation Day holiday in the District of Columbia, the tax deadline was switched to April 18 this year. Already ahead of the game? While the final hours tick down, we have just the history of fiscal fairness for you.

In Taxing the Rich, Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage analyze the history of taxes and take a look at when and why countries tax their wealthiest citizens. The authors argue that governments don’t tax the rich simply because of striking inequality—they do it when its citizens believe that such taxes compensate for the state unfairly privileging the wealthy. What matters most is society’s views on how the inequality is being generated in the first place.

The Atlantic recently wrote about the book, including quotes from Scheve and Stasavage:

Relative to the past 200 years of U.S. history, how heavily are the rich being taxed today? Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage, professors of political science at Stanford University and New York University respectively, looked into when countries have taxed their wealthiest citizens most heavily, and what societal conditions might have produced those tax rates. In a project that took five years, the two constructed databases of tax rates and policies in 20 countries over the last two centuries in order to answer those questions. They recently published this research in a book, Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe.

One of their motivations for starting the project was a disconnect they noticed between rising inequality and static tax rates. “With inequality rising over the last three or four decades, why have there not been public policies that seem to address that in an important and substantive way?” says Scheve. But while it would seem intuitive that taxes would increase at the times when inequality is highest, Scheve and Stasavage found that this relationship hasn’t held true over the course of history.

You can read the full piece in The Atlantic here, and an exclusive interview with Scheve and Stasavage here.

What do We Really Want in a President?

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by George C. Edwards III

It is only natural that citizens focus on the traits of candidates during a presidential election. After all, why do we hold an election if it does not matter who wins? One answer is that candidates support different policies. Presidents must do more than aspire to prosperity and peace, however. They also have to govern.

It is safe to stipulate that everyone wants the president to be honest, intelligent, strong, empathetic, and balanced. Most candidates claim to possess such traits, and, in truth, many of them do. What about political skills and knowledge, traits necessary for governing effectively? These dimensions of candidates receive much less attention than, say, integrity, but they are essential for successful leadership. Just what are the essential leadership traits and skills?

Understanding the Potential of Leadership

Successful leadership is not the result of the dominant chief executives of political folklore who reshape the contours of the political landscape, altering their strategic positions to pave the way for change. The evidence is clear that presidents rarely, if ever, mobilize the public behind their policies in order to pressure Congress to pass their initiatives. Nor do they convince many members of the legislature to switch from opposition to support of White House proposals.

Rather than creating the conditions for important shifts in public policy, effective leaders are facilitators who work at the margins of coalition building to recognize and exploit opportunities in their environments. When the various streams of political resources converge to create opportunities for major change, presidents can be critical facilitators in engendering significant alterations in public policy.

It follows that recognizing and exploiting opportunities for change—rather than creating opportunities through persuasion—are essential presidential leadership skills. To succeed, presidents have to have the analytical insight necessary to identify opportunities for change in their environments carefully and orchestrate existing and potential support skillfully. Successful leadership also requires that the president have the energy, perseverance, adaptability, and resiliency to take full advantage of opportunities that arise.

Knowledge and Temperament

We hear from some quarters that presidents do not require a mastery of the details of public policy. All they need is able and knowledgeable advisors. Although every chief executive certainly relies on such aides, expert advisors are not sufficient to produce quality decisions.

Presidents need to possess detailed knowledge of the issues with which they will deal. They require information about both public problems and policies, including tangible details, to construct a necessary frame of reference for decision making. How else can they effectively evaluate options and ask probing questions? How else can they sensibly choose among options?

It also matters whether the president has correctly identified a problem. If you think the Chinese are manipulating their currency to the detriment of American jobs, you may ask your advisors to formulate a policy to combat it. If you are wrong in your understanding of the Beijing’s actions, however, you will implement policy destined to fail. The devil is in the details.

In addition, presidents cannot assume that any person or advisory system will provide them with the options and information they require, and thus they must be actively involved in the decision-making process, setting the tone for other participants, maintaining the integrity of the advisory system, and reaching out widely for options and information.

President George W. Bush often described himself as an instinctual decision maker, a view shared by other close observers. Many of Bush’s predecessors shared his orientation to making decisions. A drawback to relying on instincts is acting impulsively rather than delving deeply into a range of possible options. Gut reactions also discourage investing time in soliciting and cultivating the views of others and asking probing questions of advisers.

Worldviews

Presidents and their aides bring to office sets of beliefs about politics, policy, human nature, and social causality—in other words, beliefs about how and why the world works as it does. These beliefs provide a frame of reference for evaluating policy options, for filtering information and giving it meaning, and for establishing potential boundaries of action. Beliefs also help busy officials cope with complex decisions to which they can devote limited time, and they predispose people to act in certain directions. Although sets of beliefs are inevitable and help to simplify the world, they can be dysfunctional as well.

There is a psychological bias toward continuity that results from the physiology of human cognitive processes that are reinforced from thinking a certain way and are difficult to reorganize. As a result, there is an unconscious tendency to see what we expect to see, which may distort our analytical handling of evidence and produces what is called a confirmation bias.

The George W. Bush administration operated on several basic premises regarding the aftermath of the war in Iraq: (1) Iraqis would greet Americans as liberators; (2) the Iraqi infrastructure would be in serviceable condition; (3) the army would remain in whole units capable of being used for reconstruction; (4) the police were trustworthy and professional and thus capable of securing the country;, and (5) there would be a smooth transition to creating a democratic nation. Each of these premises was faulty, but the administration made no systematic evaluation of them before the war and was slow to challenge them, even in the wake of widespread violence.

At other times, worldviews may encourage policy makers to assume problems rather than subject their premises to rigorous analysis. Because after 9/11 the Bush White House was highly risk adverse and because it was certain that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the United States, the administration never organized a systematic internal debate within the administration on the fundamental questions of whether Iraq actually possessed WMD, whether the Iraqi threat was imminent, whether it was necessary to overthrow Saddam and, if so, the likely consequences of such an action. Instead, it focused on the question of how to invade successfully.

It is not surprising, then, that the weakness of the data on Iraq never called into question the quality of basic assumptions. Intelligent, hard-working, and patriotic public officials who wished to protect American saw what they expected to see. We are still paying the price for their faulty analysis.

Policy preferences aside, it matters whom we elect as president. The winner’s understanding of the potential of leadership, skills to recognize and exploit opportunities, policy knowledge and temperament, and worldviews will strongly influence the good the nation will enjoy or the harm it will suffer during his or her tenure.

George C. Edwards III is University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. His many books include Overreach: Leadership in the Obama Presidency and The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership (both Princeton). His most recent book is Predicting the Presidency: The Potential of Persuasive Leadership.

McGovern scholar Thomas Knock on classic presidential reads

election blog banner logoThomas Knock is the author of The Rise of a Prairie Statesman: The Life and Times of George McGovern, the first volume of the first major biography of the 1972 presidential candidate and eloquent critic of the Vietnam War. Called “the standard bearer of all future biographies” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Knock’s reconsideration of the politician is a perfect pick for election season. Recently we asked Knock what classic books on presidents we would find in his own library.

By Thomas Knock

I’m happy to recommend five books about major presidents and the politics of their times— from the early 20th century to the early 21st century—all classics in their field and favorites of mine. My list of personal favorites encompasses several historically great presidents or otherwise quite notable ones—Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton— who still have something to say to us today.

1.  John Milton Cooper, The Warrior and the Priest, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard, 1983).  This is a dual biography of two progressive presidents—one a Republican, one a Democrat—and the two most literate chief executives of the 20th century.  Together TR and Wilson recreated the modern presidency and, in their respective programs (the New Nationalism and the New Freedom) they laid the foundations for Big Government as we have come to know it today.  Cooper has definite and persuasive reveries about who is the Warrior and who is the Priest.

2.  Robert McElvaine, The Great Depression and the New Deal (Times Books, 1993).  A sweeping account of the crisis of the 1930s that gives both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt their due and even stresses a significant element of continuity between the policies of the two antagonists.  In this, while providing a most lucid interpretation of New Deal politics and culture, one also can see a parallel between Hoover and FDR, on the one hand, and George W. Bush and Barack Obama, on the other, as the latter pair struggled to contain the gathering disaster of 2008-09.

3.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and his America (St. Martin’s, 1976, 1991).  This remains one of the two or three best, and most moving, books ever written about Lyndon Johnson, who I myself would describe as half a great president.  Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this work are the implications of a single remark of Johnson’s to Goodwin:  that he believed when he entered office that he had only 18 months or so to get done whatever it was he was going to accomplish.  And that—the concept of the 18-Month Presidency, so to speak—is something that too many presidents have never grasped.

4.  Sidney Blumenthal, Pledging Allegiance, The Last Campaign of the Cold War (Harper/Collins, 1990).  This study offers a trove of insights into American politics at the end of the Cold War.  Its most significant achievement is to establish Reagan and Gorbachev as an irreducible team–that the advent of each was fundamental to the other’s well being if either was to have the salutary legacy that they are both credited with today.  Along with the entire cast of candidates in the 1988 knock-down, the volume also addresses the matter of the presidential sex scandal, something new in the politics of the ensuing post-Cold War era, which fatally ensnared the formidable Gary Hart, a former McGovern protege.

5.  David Maraniss, First in His Class, A biography of Bill Clinton (Simon and Schuster, 1995).  An essential work about the first post-Cold War president, this biography also includes substantial instructive coverage of the early life of Hillary Rodham.  The thrust is the striving of the first Boomer to enter the White House, who left Arkansas to be schooled at Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale Law; lived the politics of the Sixties and Vietnam and earnestly embraced McGovern’s campaign (learning chastening lessons along the way); and then returned to Arkansas as his means to power.  From a 2016 perspective, one can fully appreciate his enormous capacities while apprehending the bridge the two Clintons constitute between past, present and future.

KnockThomas J. Knock is Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor at Southern Methodist University. He is the author of the prize-winning To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order and the coauthor of The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century (both Princeton). He lives in Dallas, Texas.