As we get ever closer to the US presidential election, American politics dominate the news nationally and internationally, inspiring commentators of all ideological stripes to write countless pages on American political life. Yet, in this conversation, American political thought is rarely called upon by political theorists on the left who are more likely to invoke major European thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, or Carl Schmitt to support their analyses. To understand this strange absence, we asked BISR faculty and Executive Director Ajay Singh Chaudhary to tell us more about the American political tradition, what characterizes it, and what it can tell us about contemporary America.
Despite America’s overwhelmingly dominant position in the international arena since the early 20th century, American political thought is strangely absent from the canon of political theory. Students of political theory are taught Plato, Machiavelli and Carl Schmitt but not, or rarely, Thomas Paine. Why is this the case?
Well, there is definitely a case to be made that a lot of American political thought – beyond some bits of the Federalist Papers and John Rawls, who’s the glaring exception in the 20th century – simply wasn’t picked up around the world. I think political thinkers, particularly on the left, here in the United States have always considered US political thought to be something of a footnote to predominantly European (and even some non-European) political thought and their counterparts around the world have been perfectly happy to reciprocate. At the same time, the fact of the United States and some of its institutional forms did have more significant global impact than is sometimes granted. Still, in terms of political theory, I think we can say that now a figure like Paine has been getting more attention recently for his pioneering – if still liberal – radicalism, in thinking through just how high the costs of liberal property rights would be for a truly democratic republic and what kinds of social insurance and other guarantees from the state would be necessary.
It also seems that, at least here in the US and perhaps in Europe as well, Du Bois is finally getting his due as not only one of the pre-eminent thinkers on the challenges of race and class in a modern liberal republic, but also as one of the key founders of contemporary sociology tout court. However, there are documents from what we might call “informal” American political theory, like Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, that are so wholly unique and yet which I think might really speak beyond the American context. The pamphlet is a defense of democratic graft that I imagine would have few defenders from any part of the political spectrum and yet is reflective of the way local politics works in many democratic contexts, particularly those dominated by a kind of communitarianism like modern India (or, say, many American states and cities!)
How can the rich history of American political thought help us better understand our contemporary moment?
The United States is the first modern republic born out of the great age of revolutions — and also has an extremely idiosyncratic political system. While some features of the American political system can be found in some form in almost any modern liberal republic, many are specific to US history. Some seemingly bizarre configurations – like the electoral college, the Senate, etc. – stem from both the early hostility of American political elites to democracy, even liberal democracy, and the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery. But some of those institutions also demonstrate the rickety work of building what was and is in effect a supranational or multi-state union. The American example is certainly not the only way to achieve this kind of formation, but it can be a particularly instructive one as other parts of the world struggle between balkanization and greater political union.
Many aspects of contemporary American politics, from the electoral college and campaign financing to attack ads and gerrymandering, baffle foreign commentators and American citizens alike. In your view, what is it about American politics that is so different from that of the rest of the world?
Some of these things can be overplayed, other less so. For example, the American “attack ad” has venerable cousins in the deep and powerful traditions of political satire in Europe, the Islamic World, South Asia and no doubt elsewhere. However, the particular American version of a two-party system though is wholly, well, American. There are many local political actors who hew to one version or another of a “good government is the answer” point of view, and claim that if you can just reform institutions like the electoral college or the two-party system, all of our political problems would vanish. Now there is some truth there; we do have some horrific institutions in the American political system for which legal reform could have profound effects. When we think about something even as basic as electoral participation, the United States has multiple levels of institutional problems. We have, especially after the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the continued targeted suppression of African-American voters. Right here in New York, we have a bizarre and arcane primary system, one of the most complicated in the United States and possibly the world, spread out over many months, with the perfectly de jure but obviously intentional discouraging of participation. And though solving these formal, procedural problems would do much to realizing suppressed potentials in a democratic republic, it is naïve to think that formal and institutional solutions alone would solve the fundamental problems they set out to eliminate. One of the reasons I’m excited that we’re reading some of these classic American politics texts like E.E. Schattschneider and Richard Hofstatder – aside from the fact that they’re political science classics in and of themselves! – is that they point at this limitation. Schattschneider provokes, for example, on the two-party question: is there really as profound a difference between parliamentary and pluralistic systems as some political theorists speculate? Or does it just mean you build your coalition before an election or within a party? Hofstadter takes us across a broad swath of American history and asks us: outside the Civil War over the fundamental issue of slavery, what exactly has been the range of debate? I think the example you cite above, campaign finance, is a particularly telling one. Many American political actors indicate the necessity of overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Yet, few can possibly believe that American politics wasn’t largely shaped by cash flow in the “heady days” of McCain/Feingold.
If anything, the current electoral season seems to have highlighted the deep crisis of confidence on the part of American citizens in relationship to their elites. How do you anticipate the situation will evolve in the coming years?
I will take the classic out of social and political theory and try not to prognosticate!
To learn more about the topic, please join us for Ajay’s upcoming course The American Political Tradition: Parties, Policies, and People , which will begin on October 17th.