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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
  • you're my favorite political blogger.

    By Blogger Anastasia, at 5:51 PM  
  • Aw, thanks!

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 9:29 PM  
  • I find your answers interesting but limited. I have found, as an educator of American politics in the CUNY system, that the students who are "hard to reach" with American politics are simply bored with it, like I was, by the excessive parochialism and methodological emphasis. Many students have traveled widely to other countries, and even those who haven't at least have traveled around the U.S. They want more than their professors give them, and so they intellectually tune out. A comparative approach will excite them much more.

    I agree that American Politics should be expanded as a field. Its current practice is too limited, and, frankly, boring.

    However, you are incorrect about the idea of the U.S. being a relatively stable, egalitarian democracy. Many students who travel abroad realize just how backwards the U.S. is in its democratic practices compared to other, even newer, democracies. Israel, Germany, Japan, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and India all do a better job of democracy than the U.S. Mandatory Voting, a voting holiday, more efficient balloting mechanisms, etc.

    Students who go abroad often discover that American Politics has become something of a joke as a field of study. Hence, I understand the desire to make it an accessory to Comparative Politics. Personally, I studied American Politics obsessively in college, then I got bored with it. The same lessons and topics kept coming up. Besides, the U.S. lacks the rich historical heritage and culture that many other countries have, thus leaving the U.S. less interesting as a subject of study.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 10:26 AM  
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