I inadvertently triggered an interesting Twitter conversation the other day. I’d been following the Corey Robin-Levitsky & Ziblatt-Jeff Isaac debates about authoritarianism and the US. I tweeted that a lot of very prominent Americanists don’t seem to have publicly weighed in much one way or another about whether we should be sanguine about Trump or not (Nathan Kalmoe and Jonathan Ladd interpreted this to mean I said no Americanists had ever said anything about Trump – I meant it to focus on the democratic stability question (per Brendan Nyhan); mea culpa if an inaccurate larger claim came across).
I actually thought this would lead to Americanists weighing on whether they thought these arguments were missing the mark (as Matt Grossman later did very valuably, arguing that “status quo expecting area studies specialists (Americanists) are more on target on Trump admin” than the non-US specialists), but it didn’t go that direction.
There were instead three very different reactions, all of which strike me as having real merit – but which also can contradict one another. I was off at the Field Museum for the majority of it and things kind of got away from me, but I’ll try to summarize the basic responses since I think they say interesting things (apologies if your involvement wasn’t noted!). Thanks to everyone who participated – maybe Twitter is more than just a total time sink.
Americanists Can’t Say Much about Trump (at least without comparative data)
The first set of responses agreed with my premise and suggested that Americanists aren’t well-positioned to study key debates around Trump because the relevant data is comparative. Jeffrey Lax wrote that “I think it’s because there is less to say if you study even somewhat “normal” AP. This is off the charts, so it speaks well that many aren’t extrapolating beyond what they study. Some know more & say more. CP more relevant to lots of current ?”.
Brendan Nyhan – who has been very vocal indeed about dangers surrounding Trump – wrote that, while “we can draw on topics listed above in American but whether they cumulate into threat is harder to answer w/just US.” Julia Azari suggested that “the relevant data for a particular kind of argument is non-US – institutional erosion and authoritarian rhetoric.” And Pippa Norris jumped in to argue that “I suspect Americanists lack the conceptual tools to handle this phenomenon”. W.K. Winecoff argued that “Comparativists think about qualitative variation in political institutions. Americanists mostly don’t, because (for the things they mostly care about) there hasn’t been any.”
Some Americanists Can Speak to the (Possible) Dangers of Trump, but Others Don’t Have Much to Say
Another set of respondents agreed with the general claim that a lot of Americanists are keeping their heads down, but suggested that some Americanists can speak credibly to key fears about Trump. A number responded that I was overlooking the public engagement of scholars associated with American Political Development (APD) and Race, Ethnicity, and Politics (REP) – Vesla Weaver, for instance, pointed to Theda Skocpol, Jacob Hacker, and Paul Pierson as prominent voices. Several pointed to a working paper by Robert Lieberman, Suzanne Mettler, Thomas Pepinsky, Ken Roberts, and Robert Vallely (which I mentioned on this blog). Rafael Khachaturian suggested that “AP has never come to grips with an unspoken exceptionalism about the society it studies.”
Corrine McConnaughy pointed to the neglect of REP by the “mainstream” of political science – “It is considered “niche” in political science when it is not actually “niche” in American politics. Hence those of us who do that work have a differently informed take on “American politics” – one that that this moment ought to be making use of.” Kimberly Johnson argued that “Some of us @ the intersection of Race & APD saw this.” Laurel Eckhouse indicated that “mainstream Americanists often ignore serious historical threats to democracy in the US, esp treatment of black activists/voters.” Rob Mickey suggested that there is a kind of assumed-stability bias in the study of American politics.
The basic claim here is that the mainstream of the field ignores many of the nastier and more problematic aspects of the American historical experience (especially as related to race), which leaves it unsure how to deal with authoritarian-tinged demagoguery and threats to basic institutional integrity.
Elizabeth Cohen also pointed out another set of political scientists who have something to say about the present moment – political theorists, including “Alison McQueen, Chris Lebron, Katrina Forrester, Corey Robin, Jason Stanley, Ekow Yankah are just a few names of theorists taking on contemp politics inc but not limited to Trump and doing so in very public venues.”
Paul, what are you talking about?!?!
The third response was dramatically more skeptical of the original premise. Jonathan Ladd pointed to forthcoming work on these issues. As noted above, Nathan Kalmoe thought I was over-claiming from the beginning.
Adam Berinsky (whose In Time of War I recommend in the strongest terms) offered the most sustained critique. He argued that “the assumption that am politics scholars are not engaged is flatly wrong” and that many Americanists are deeply involved in contemporary politics, even if it’s not publicly visible: “Is it more valuable for me to talk to members of multiple branches of the us govt and tech companies in an informed in depth way about the implications of my research for information transmission or get on a soapbox?” and “Smart people in industry and government are interested in serious research. And I am only one of many Americanists talking to them.”
He further argued that critiques of the subfield emanating from REP and APD (i.e., the claims in the previous section) are “taking a provincial position as well.” Berinsky pushed back (about which I agree with him) against the idea that public engagement/studying important topics is intrinsically in conflict with using sophisticated methods.
This led to some pushback in turn by Dan Nexon and Julia Azari, who didn’t love the use of “soapbox” (which I also agree about). Mike Horowitz offered a broad and useful way to think about policy relevance. There’s a lot worth taking very seriously in Berinsky’s critique of my (rather more limited than it may have come across) critique.
What do I make of all of this?
I’m not 100% sure how to parse this as an outsider who was expecting a radically different set of discussions – some Americanists (and non-Americanists) argued Americanists can’t fully engage on big Trump questions, others argued that a small subset are (mainly drawn from REP and APD) but the mainstream was “unprepared” for Trump, and yet others argued that Americanists are in fact broadly engaged, in a wide variety of ways (some visible, others not), with the issues of the present. Some of this disagreement seems to be based on visceral and hard-to-adjudicate disagreements about what is, and should be, the center of intellectual and political gravity in the study of American politics, and I don’t see any easy resolution to that kind of debate (if it were up to me, American politics research would be exclusively about right-wing militias, leftist radicals, the FBI, security state surveillance, US defense politics, prisons, and the police, which I fully acknowledge would be ridiculous).
An argument that might be able to partially bridge some of the gap, however, also came up – my original tweet had in mind the kind of super-senior people with chairs at ultra-elite universities who you’d (or at least, I’d) expect to weigh in on a fundamental question like “Is America at risk of authoritarian backsliding?” That wouldn’t be soapboxing, but instead offering to the public the best, social scientifically-informed answers to a pressing and scary question (note: comfortable and secure academics on Twitter mocking political actors who have actual skin in the game doesn’t quite count, as much fun as it is for all of us).
Naunihal Singh instead remembers that “[Ken] Shepsle disdained engagement with “politics” & the Harvard Americanisms [sic] of that generation agreed & tried to inculcate that approach. Our generation is different, but I think there is a legacy.” Nyhan agreed but also pointed to important, commendable changes over time: “True that older gen of Am pol folks stepped away from public life [he links to a New Republic article from the 1990s]. . . .but I think those impressions are out of date.” Azari pointed to the online public sphere as a way for various kinds of scholars to engage, many of whom do; Berinsky argued it was “time to update.”
So maybe that’s part of what’s going on, in addition to deeper and enduring intellectual disagreements – shifts over time that lead to conflicting visions of what the level of public engagement actually is. Anyways, a fascinating set of discussions at an important time.
P.S. a thread that indirectly emanated from mine led to an interesting thread by Joe Soss, including the following:
“Scholars of race and US politics have been writing for decades about authoritarian modes of governance, the easy blending of law-and-order politics with official-led lawlessness, willingness to undermine liberal-democratic institutions to achieve repressive ends… 2/n
and their connections to xenophobic and racist strands of US politics. All along the way, such scholars have argued that their insights tell us something quite general about US politics, governing practices, and their future possibilities 3/n
And most of the time, the broader discipline of pol sci (like discussions of US pol in general) have treated these studies as a sidebar to the “real story” of American democracy. The experiences of subjugated groups (racial and otherwise) were treated as important, yes… 4/n
but ultimately distinctive in their departure from the main story of how US politics really works. Such studies illuminate a story of exclusion from the liberal democracy that is US politics, not a key and defining element of US politics itself. 5/n
So, many of us have seen something pretty familiar (and bitter) in the great wave of writings suggesting that, to make any sense of our ugly political moment today, we all must look outside the American experience. This is the point that began this exchange. 6/n”