Executive Director's Corner, From the AAPSS|

On a recent cross-country flight, I spent some time editing an article by Jacob Grumbach and Charlotte Hill that was recently published in The ANNALS. Their piece examines a troubling dynamic in election administration, namely, that some states have recently enacted laws transferring responsibility for election administration away from nonpartisan election officials to partisan actors, including the state legislatures themselves. The states that have recently enacted these laws skew Republican and had close margins in the 2020 elections. I felt pretty disappointed after reading their article.

To be clear, my disappointment was not at all related to the quality of their scholarship: their analysis is helpful, their methods are sound, and the question that Grumbach and Hill seek to answer is an important one. Rather, I felt disillusioned at having to come face-to-face (yet again) with evidence of the turmoil that increasingly defines the state of our democracy—in this case, an actual, measurably growing partisan influence over election administration that merits a clear-eyed investigation and some serious stock-taking. 

The Grumbach and Hill piece is just one of many in a newly published volume of The ANNALS that addresses threats to American democracy. This volume both evaluates those threats and asks what we can do to guard against a deterioration of institutional norms that have (for the most part) protected our form of government from the influence of the substantial number of Americans who identify with fascist political tactics (see the volume’s introduction, by special editor Matthew E.K. Hall, for a thorough discussion). In all, the volume strikes an ominous tone.

Is that tone well earned? Sadly, I have come to believe so. I have been very slow to adopt an alarmist view of the state of American democracy, or to be scared by warnings about existential threats to our form of government. I am not inclined to glom onto heated political rhetoric, and my past personal and professional experiences have led me to be unusually optimistic about the durability of our democratic institutions. But I have, of late, come to a position of sincere concern over the integrity and survivability of the American democratic experiment. Much of my conversion has come because of the substantial attention that The ANNALS has recently given to democratic prospects, both in the U.S. and abroad (for just a few examples, look here, here, and here).

Some of my conversion is also due to the fact that I am, God help me, a regular consumer of opinions from a reliably insightful group of public writers. For example, on that same cross-country flight, I read a recent article by Yuval Levin in The New York Times about the rising cynicism of our politics. Levin gives recent examples of how federal employees have tried to leverage their employment status to pressure their employer (our government) into adopting policy positions that are, in their personal opinions, good ones. Levin goes on to discuss what he calls “a characteristic disorder of this moment in our politics—the confusion of roles that leaves insiders behaving like outsiders and makes effective public action awfully difficult.”

I agree with Levin’s general diagnosis, and I am crestfallen over the manifold failures of our political system to deliver “effective public action” that is principally concerned with long-term general welfare and institutional stability. I also think that his argument can be extended to other political actors; for example, are politicians today less willing than their predecessors to separate their personal aspirations from their sworn obligation to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic”?

Where does all this leave me? In my private life, I support local democratic institutions as much as I can; in my professional life, I work to advance scholarship that investigates the current condition of American democracy with scientific integrity and intellectual rigor. I have long known that it is a fool’s errand to try to make social science impervious to politicization. Still, it is important that our work speaks to public concerns in a way that is helpful to the general discourse and not detrimental to the common good, and I look forward to continuing to work toward that goal.

—Tom Kecskemethy, AAPSS Executive Director

Comments are closed.

Close Search Window