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In Defense of American Politics

Friday, August 29, 2008
When I first read the headline “Should American Politics Be Abolished (as a Field)?” I thought for a moment that I was reading the Onion. But alas. Apparently, a recent panel of political scientists did seriously suggest eliminating the American subfield. According to the article, critics argued that:

1) American Politics is too focused on the U.S., giving students and researchers an overly parochial perspective

2) The discipline is too narrowly focused on Congress and elections, too small-bore, and too methodological

3) Americanists also tend to excludes considerations of race and class, and does not adequately come to grips with contemporary political questions

While there is merit to some of these arguments, the idea that abolishing the subfield of American Politics would solve these problems is simply absurd. In fact, it would likely exacerbate many of them

First, let's distinguish between American Politics as it is taught to undergraduates from American Politics as an area of research. The basic American Politics 101 course - which I suspect comprises the vast majority of all political science classes taught in the academy - plays a crucial function in our polity. Pathetically few Americans have any idea how or why our political system functions the way it does, or how to be intelligent consumers of political information, or what is good and bad about our system of government. Pol. Sci. 101 classes are one of the few places many people ever consider these questions. It is a class whose primary focus should be cultivating good citizenship. If we were to abolish that class, we would be abandoning one of the most important duties we have as educators and depriving ourselves of one of our most central social functions. And what would we replace it with? A study of the method of political science research? An expanded comparative politics course? If you think students are hard to reach now, try extracting all of the contextual references from the teaching of politics! By all means, let's do a better job of highlighting America's long struggle to deal with social inequality, but let's do so within the context of American political institutions and culture - not outside of it.

As for the research done in field of American Politics, I can agree that oftentimes method trumps substance, and that we are all too focused on easily quantifiable phenomena. But the response should be to expand the space for studying American political institutions and behavior rather than jettisoning the entire project. Far too much of the criticism seems to come from researchers who just don't like American Politics as a subfield, and who would prefer if it were simply annexed to the study of Comparative Politics or transformed into Political Sociology. The reality is that we can often learn more digging deeply into one particular political system than we can integrating it into a broader international subject. Most political scientists in the U.S. are American citizens. Of course they want to study their own country's political system - and it is perfectly natural and right that they do so, if for no other reason than they'll have a much richer understanding than if they immersed themselves in some other system.

As a practical objection, American Politics research is relatively cheap, as there are no expensive travel requirements. Integrate the subfield with others and the volume of output would likely decline radically, particularly as I see little indication that new sources of funding would be made available. What institutions are going to fund work with little connection to specifically American considerations? The scarce resources now available for comparative research would probably not be greatly increased, but would have far more people competing over it.

Finally, I think a diminution of the focus on American Politics is intellectually and morally irresponsible. The study of American Politics is at its core the study of American democracy. I am concerned that the discipline does not do enough to ground itself in questions of uniquely American problems. There is a great deal of evidence that the relatively stable, egalitarian democratic republic we all live in is far more fragile than we realized. It is political scientists who are best situated to analyze the nature of these specifically American and specifically politicalproblems, who are best equipped to understand (and suggest reforms) to a constitutional republic that has seen better days. We need a broader focus on American political life beyond simply public opinion and elections. This does not mean that we should bury our present concerns in some generalized study of western democracies, or that we should latch onto one domestic ideological agenda. We should reform the study of American Politics by restoring its essential focus - not eliminating that focus altogether.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:42 PM

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Obama Gives Good Speech

Thursday, August 28, 2008
Okay, I'll admit it. I'm weepy.

Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:01 PM

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Yay Al!

Ah Al. Brazen wore his button for years until Lieberman just pissed her off too much. I would have too, but I was shy.

I just wish he didn't always step on his applause lines.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:56 PM

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Aggressive Politics

Four years ago I was running around the fringes of Democratic Party circles trying to get somebody's attention. I had an idea, you see: the DNC should spend a ton of money during the Republican national convention, effectively killing any bounce and immediately rebutting any anti-Kerry narratives. I failed.

It sounds like one of the major parties has now come up with this idea on their own. Unfortunately, it's the Republicans.


Oh well. Maybe McCain will just look really bad compared with Obama. We'll see.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:48 PM

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Historic Moments

The campaign has gone on so long, and we've become so used to the cast of characters, that it's easy to take all of it for granted. But whatever our particular ideologies or preferences, I think we should all stop and consider for a moment: a black man has just been nominated by a major political party for President of the United States.

Gee, maybe things can get better.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:58 AM

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Note on Convention Speeches (updated)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008
I love John Kerry, but I really, really hate "call and response" speeches. Ugh.

Okay, other than that it was a heck of speech. Man, between him and Al Gore, have you considered that George Bush has been been president for the last 8 years? Unbelievable.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:42 PM

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The Age Issue

Let's be honest with ourselves. It's not pleasant to talk about - in fact it seems downright rude - but it has to be said: John McCain is too old to be President. It would be one thing if he were remarkably youthful for his age, if his mind was sharp and his step light. We've all known those senior citizens - people who have more energy than we do even though we're half their age, who demonstrate remarkable perceptiveness borne from experience. Older statesman of this brand are a blessing. Henry Clay and Clemenceau were their old canny selves almost to the day they died, and Reagan displayed some of that character early in his first term.

But John McCain? No. I'm sorry. He's not young for his age. If anything, he's old for his age. He looks every one of his 72 years, and perhaps then some. He forgets things. He is irrationally belligerent. He is easily guided by his advisors. He is afraid to make decisions. He utters stupidities. He's mean. It would be one thing if John McCain were always this way, but he wasn't. Go look at videotape of him even 8 years ago and you'll see what I mean. The John McCain of 2008 is a sad shadow of the John McCain of 2000. Not that McCain demonstrated wonderful judgment before, but his intransigence and unprincipled behavior has become pathetic.

With all of the problems confronting our nation today, the last thing we need is a feeble hand at the wheel. I'm sorry, but it's a fact.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:23 PM

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Monday, August 25, 2008
Via Dr. Crazy.

1. My uncle once let me live at his house for the longest 6 months of my life.

2. Never in my life will I smoke cigarettes. Yuck.

3. When I was five I lived in the panhandle of Florida.

4. High school was when virtually every important trend in my life started.

5. I will never forget the exact circumstances of meeting Brazen Hussy.

6. Once I met Al Gore, who thought he knew me but didn't.

7. There’s this boy I know who leaves messages on my machine but screens his calls and never calls me back. I'm talking to you Brian!

8. Once, at a bar, sang at the karaoke machine. Okay, more than once.

9. By noon, I am wondering how much longer it is until I can leave work.

10. Last night I dreamed that our cats were children.

11. If only I had an unlimited account at the liquor store.

12. Next time I go to church I will probably be struck by lightning.

13. What worries me most is the future.

14. When I turn my head left I see the person I have to share my office with. Who's not that bad. I guess.

15. When I turn my head right I see the hallway with the incline everybody trips on.

16. You know I’m lying when Brazen hits me on the back of the head for lying.

17. What I miss most about the Eighties is summer vacation.

18. If I were a character in Shakespeare I’d be MacBeth?

19. By this time next year I will have had my PhD for a year.

20. A better name for me would be Your Highness. :)

21. I have a hard time understanding statistics.

22. If I ever go back to school, I’ll clearly have gone insane. So stop me.

23. You know I like you if I'm talking to you. I pretty much like everybody.

24. If I ever won an award, the first person I would thank would be Brazen Hussy.

25. Take my advice, never get a PhD.

26. My ideal breakfast is bacon and eggs. Yes, I am boring.

27. A song I love but do not have is The Ocean by Led Zeppelin

28. If you visit my hometown, I suggest you ask someone else because I haven't been there in so long.

29. Why won’t people signal before they change lanes?

30. If you spend a night at my house be prepared to share the futon with the dog.

31. I’d stop my wedding for nothing. Not even an asteroid crashing into the planet. A person has to have priorities.

32. The world could do without conservative Republicans.

33. I’d rather lick the belly of a cockroach than vote for John McCain.

34. My favorite blondie is the kind with cookie and ice cream. Mmmm.

35. Paper clips are more useful than binder clips.

36. If I do anything well it’s political strategizing.

37. I can’t help but talk about politics.

38. I usually cry when I see the last scene in Titanic.

39. My advice to my nephew/niece is take time off between undergrad and graduate school.

40. And by the way, most people in politics are actually pretty nice.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:22 PM

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The Windbag Ticket

Saturday, August 23, 2008
So it's Biden. Not my first choice, but a ton better than Bayh or Kaine - the other two apparent frontrunners (who the hell is Chet Edwards?). There's a lot to consider about Biden. I'll start by saying that I've always had a soft spot for him. He's got a down-to-earth quality I like, and he's a wicked good orator. I used to leave CSPAN2 on the TV in part hoping he'd show up and hold forth eloquently for an hour or so (yes, I am a titanic nerd).

Which means that if anything, Biden's selection means that we have two very talented public speakers running together. I bring you: the Windbag Ticket! I mean that in a nice way.

Biden is generally a good liberal. His vote for the Iraq War is annoying (although he did try to scuttle the effort before hand) as is his vote for the bankruptcy bill (which can be chalked up to home-state politics in Delaware, the capitol of the credit card industry). Other than that he's a pretty reliable middle of the party Democrat. Actually, he's quite a bit like John Kerry - only with more charisma and middle class appeal.

As Vice President, Biden would provide thirty years of Washington experience, and I can think of few people who would be better prepared to step in to be President. Which frankly is why I suspect Obama chose him. There's always the possibility something terrible could happen, and Biden would be perfectly capable of stepping in to take over.

That's the substantive analysis - he's a perfectly good choice. The political considerations are much more mixed.

On the plus side, Biden is experienced (particularly with foreign policy), and is 66 years old - which might put some older voters at ease. He's quite witty and is a very good debater, and is one of the most effective "attack dogs" in the Democratic Party. He'll be quite good in going after McCain. He's also Catholic, which might help a bit there, and was born in Pennsylvania and lives in the Phillie media market - which might bring a few votes. Finally, Biden is a "regular guy" - he's not a millionaire Senator, which would allow the Democrats to continue their assault on McCain's elitism.

The minuses are pretty serious as well. First, Biden has said some very positive things about McCain and had criticized Obama (in the primaries), so there's the potential for a lot of opposition research. I'm not terribly worried about that, since the Republicans aren't going to win this election by beating Joe Biden, but there will be a cost. Some might argue that putting him on the ticket will in fact exacerbate the perception that Obama lacks experience, and Biden's vote for the war will make it harder for Obama to attack McCain on it (although it looks like the salience of the Iraq issue is fading, and the real questions are about what happens next). Biden also has a tendency to say stupid things, which might prove distracting. But his worst comments have been racially insensitive ones, which I have a suspicion will have slightly muted effects due to who's on the top of the ticket. Just a guess.

Biden's selection also brings with it the risk of losing a Senate seat. He's up for re-election this year, and while he can run for VP and Senate at the same time, if he doesn't the Republicans could run Mike Castle (former Gov and now Rep), who's old and sick but could steal the seat. So it's a risk - but not the automatic loss the way Bayh's selection would be.

Electorally, Biden doesn't bring a big or swing state in tow. He's from Delaware, which is safely Democratic, and the selection of a northern liberal might hurt the ticket a bit in the South.

The bigger question is - why not a woman? I was for Sebelius, because 1) she was a great governor, 2) she was a fresh face, and 3) it's time for a woman. Perhaps she didn't vet (we'll never know), or the chemistry between the two of them wasn't good. Or maybe focus groups indicated that older female Clinton supporters would view it as a slap in the face. But my suspicion is that Obama and his advisors just thought that breaking 2 precedents at once was too big a risk. It's not an evaluation I agree with, but it's an understandable one.

The biggest potential vulnerability this selection creates is if McCain selects a woman running mate - particularly if he tells his party to go screw and selects a pro-choice woman. If he was still 8 points down I suspect he might - it's what I would do. But luckily there aren't that many anti-choice women Republicans elected at the state level, so perhaps we'll dodge a bullet. But watch for a consideration of Kay Hutchinson, Senator from Texas.

So on balance, I think the selection of Biden is okay - but just okay. Not great, but not a major disaster. But we'll see.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:07 AM

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Ha. Ha.

Friday, August 22, 2008
Watching the frenzy over who's going to be Obama's running mate is pretty amusing. Does anybody have any idea how unimportant running mates are? They're worth about 2 points in their home state. Whoop-de-doo. Sure, they can help reunify the party, but it's pretty difficult to disentangle how much of that is due to the convention and how much due to the vice presidential candidate.

Speaking for myself, I just hope it's not Bayh. Throwing away a perfectly good vote in the Senate is simply stupid.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:46 PM

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By Which I Am Better Informed Than John McCain

Thursday, August 21, 2008
I know how many homes I own:

Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:46 PM

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Back Home

Tuesday, August 19, 2008
(Yikes, they went and changed the blogger interface on me when I wasn't looking!)

Brazen and I had a lovely vacation over a long weekend. We tasted some excellent wines, enjoyed beautiful weather, and definitely re-charged our batteries. I was very much ready to be home however, particularly as Brazen has been gone a lot over the last several months. The trip home took forever, too. We got back to the apartment after midnight, so there was no psychological buffer between being on vacation and having to be back at work.

I am WAY behind on my blog reading, but I'll do my best to catch up.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:11 PM

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See Ya Later

Thursday, August 14, 2008
I'm off to vacation in the wine country with Brazen.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:04 PM

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Case of the Blahs

Wednesday, August 13, 2008
One place where the Obama campaign has patently failed to break new ground is in political advertising. Most political ads - particularly by Democrats - are just terrible. They're full of rapid cuts, and lists of disjointed arguments, and the ads are usually one-offs, failing to cohere into a broader picture. Obama poured millions into states against Hillary Clinton and lost them, and his ads have failed to make much of a dent against McCain. It's the biggest weakness in his campaign operations, and so far I don't see much change. At the moment it's easy to see Obama's campaigns being run by Kerry or Gore or any old Senate campaign.

It doesn't have to be this way. For all his (multitude) of sins, Eliot Spitzer's gubernatorial campaign in 2006 was a sight to see. The ads were emotional, simple, and memorable, and they all hung together in a single storyline. They were really top-notch, and I don't know why everyone doesn't learn from them.

I'm not saying Obama's going to lose because his ads are so-so - I just think he's missing an opportunity. So far in this cycle the best ads I've seen are the independent web ads by volunteers - the ones nobody sees. The political professionals? I suspect they don't know a thing about advertising.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:18 PM

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The Mystery of Conservative Bellicosity

Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Watching the right-wing response to the war in Georgia, I am reminded of how I viewed international relations when I was 16 years old. Clearly these guys need girlfriends or something.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:22 PM

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Turn Off The TV

The presidential election is about to become incredibly annoying - or at least the coverage of it is. Yes, I know coverage of the election is always pretty annoying thanks to our peerless press corps, but we're about to experience the roller coaster ride surrounding the two national conventions. Every year the same things happens: the election is at one stage (say, a narrow Obama lead). Then the Democratic Convention happens, and Obama has a huge lead!!!! Then the Republican National Convention happens, and McCain has it tied/has a small lead!!! ZOMG!! And then two weeks go by and the spread goes back to something like it was before the conventions, albeit with fewer undecideds as the parties consolidate their base. The zig zag around the conventions happens every 4 years, and every 4 years the press treats the poll numbers as "real." Well, they aren't. So don't pay any attention to them. Any poll between now and October 1 are pretty much worthless. The idiots at the cable news are just trying to juice the ratings. Don't fall for it.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:12 PM

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Stupid Turd-Boy Alert

Friday, August 08, 2008
John Edwards.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:42 PM

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Nobody Gets Paid Enough For This

What is it about bosses? Brazen Hussy is extremely lucky - she actually has one of those supportive, nice supervisors. I have one the stereotypical "bad boyfriend" bosses who alternates between being friendly and being a jerk.

For example: There's this big proposal due later today. I'd been waiting weeks for my boss to give me the documents so I could do my part, and asking him if there was anything I could start on.

No reply.

Tuesday night he sends his draft of the proposal to me and then - goes on vacation!

So I worked on it some on Wednesday and then had to leave early to pick up Brazen at the airport. I sent him an email with a bunch of questions and told him that I'd spend however much time I needed to on Thursday to get it ready. That night before I went to bed I made the major mistake of checking my work email, and there was a crabby email from my boss telling me how "disappointed" he was that I'd left early, and how little had been done. Fine, whatever. But do you know what wasn't in his email? Any responses to my many questions - he was apparently too busy being pissy to think it might make sense to give me some information if he wanted his stupid proposal ready.

Yesterday I killed myself trying to get the damn proposal finished, but did I hear word one from him all day in response to my repeated phone calls and emails? Nope. So finally I do everything I can manage without hearing from him and email him what I've done. He finally responds with a message replying to an earlier email saying that I should mail him what I'd finished that day and he'd look over it at night. Of course I had JUST SENT HIM THE DAMN DOCUMENTS. But I'm a nice guy, and shoot him another email asking him if he received the documents.

No reply.

Yes I'm ranting, but this is the sort of crap I have to deal with. Major projects dropped on me at the last minute with no guidance and no communication while principal parties leave town. And then when problems occur I get condescending comments about how "disappointed" people are. Go. to. hell.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:59 AM

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Happy A-Bomb Day

Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Sixty three years ago today, the U.S. nuked Hiroshima.

Thirty four years ago today, I was born.

This fact has always disturbed me.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:37 PM

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My Lack of Posting

Monday, August 04, 2008
Brazen Hussy's gone off to do science stuff again. So sad.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:58 PM

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