Doubts About Political Science and Democracy in US

I minored in Political Science at university, but I’m confused. I’m no longer sure the principles I learned in poli sci apply to America in 2016. Sam Sanders at NPR reports on this phenomenon:

“Many political scientists have had to admit that some basic rules of American politics they used to hold dear have been challenged” this year, he reports.

Several professors told NPR about Donald Trump challenging the rule, onetime nearly iron-clad, that a political party has control over who gets its nomination — and that endorsements from political elites are a sign of that control and good predictors of who will be a party’s nominee.

Others pointed out how Trump has challenged the notion that party nominees will always move to the center once they’ve clinched the nomination.

Political scientists told us that the winner of the “money primary” — that would be Jeb Bush in 2015 — almost always become frontrunners. Didn’t happen. The supposed pattern was that the candidate who listened best to the voters, had the strongest command of the issues and articulated a positive vision for America would win the party nominations. Didn’t happen with the Republicans.

The candidate with the best ground game, using databases to identify their voter base and get them to the polls would have a big advantage in the race for both the nomination and in the general election. The Democrats are still acting as if that is true, but nope, not true in the Republican primaries nor in Trump’s state-by-state campaign.

Supposedly, a candidate who depended on television and a broadcast “air war” instead of grassroots activists knocking on doors, identifying voters and getting out the vote would have a disadvantage. But the Trump campaign is not investing so much in a ground game.

These theories of electoral success did not hold when it came to Donald Trump.

Gaffes and scandals that have destroyed other candidates for decades have not destroyed Trump. It almost seems Republicans this year, or at least Trump, are denying logic, and certainly logical strategy:

  • You don’t deliberately insult constituencies (such as Latinos and women) you need to get elected;
  • You don’t deliberately narrow your base (to whites) and strike an exclusive rather than inclusive pose.

Students have traditionally learned in politics class that America has strong democratic institutions that make powerful politicians accountable to the people and the law through a system of checks and balances. And yet, in 2016, the Republican nominee promises, if elected, to jail his Democratic opponent, as mobs of his supporters at rallies shout “Lock her up!” With his election, democracy could be endangered.

Political science professors now report, shockingly, that for the first time, students are coming to class “with a surging antipathy for democracy,” Sanders reports. The 2016 campaign is like an irrational circus, a carnival, an appeal to prejudices, rather than an elevated discussion over political truths and the future direction of the country.

And some students increasingly see the US as an oligarchy, not a democracy. These views are backed up by a study from Princeton and Northwestern Universities, which concluded that “the US government does not represent the interests of the majority of the country’s citizens, but is instead ruled by those of the rich and powerful.”

This is disturbing, but I understand the sentiments of these students, because I am feeling some of the same sentiments myself.

And my students here in the UAE, who don’t live under democracy but have in the past expressed admiration for American-style democracy, also express new skepticism towards it.

And like the poli sci professors in the U.S., I am introducing texts about democracy as it was supposed to work in its ideal, in ancient Greece, with excerpts from General Pericles’ funeral oration and Sophocles’ Ajax.

I will leave study of Plato’s Apology and Republic and Aristotle’s Politics, texts full of reservations about Athenian democracy, to the more advanced students who have time to appreciate nuance.

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