Executive Director’s Corner
Recently, I was discussing the benefits of interdisciplinary perspectives on contemporary society with a senior scholar who used to serve on our board of directors. Mulling over ideas for events that the AAPSS might host this coming fall, he said something along the lines of, “just don’t use ‘the future of American democracy’ as the theme of your session – everybody is doing that right now.” His caution is reasonable, of course, it’s harder for our voice to be a distinctive one in the public discourse if “everybody” is already talking about a concern that we might want to highlight.
On the other hand, though, it is relatively easy to make an argument that “the future of American democracy” is present in, if not central to, serious thinking about almost everything that the social sciences should investigate these days. For example:
- A couple of weeks ago, I moderated a discussion at the APPAM conference in Austin, Texas that focused on the importance of national investments in Latino youth: the point of departure for the conversation was the fact that Latinos are the largest and fastest growing youth population in the country, and that a fair share of the United States’ social and political future will be tied to whether this population of youngsters is embraced or neglected by the policy and institutional infrastructure of their own country. Rolling around in the back of my head all through that session was everything we have learned about the political heterogeneity of Latinos in recent election cycles, and whether, moving forward, our local and national politics will absorb that heterogeneity in ways that are constructive or in ways that only exacerbate our extreme political tribalism.
- The next day at APPAM, I moderated a different conversation about what has happened to the American working class since the great recession. There, the focus was largely on the ways in which public policies influenced the economic well-being of the working classes from the great recession through the long recovery and into the COVID recession. During that conversation, again my mind was drawn to political concerns: whether and how stagnant wages, extreme (and growing) economic inequality, and lost opportunities to invest in family well-being are undermining hopes for a shared national identity and common sense of patriotism among us.
- The following week, I attended a small conference of authors who are contributing a terrific, broadly interdisciplinary set of papers forthcoming in an ANNALS volume on gun violence in America. The conversation was so rich and the empirical work so illuminating that it ended up depressing me, just a little bit: it seems to me that guns and gun violence in America have become topics that are so politically toxic we have little appetite to engage in constructive dialogue about the ways in which we can actually reduce harm to one another.
My point here is relatively straightforward: I am increasingly persuaded (not least by our recent ANNALS volume on democratic vulnerabilities and resilience in the United States) that our current political climate is appropriately consuming. Our increasing hostility toward ideas that differ from our own, our transactional disposition toward law and institutions of government, and our tolerance of political polarization and economic inequality make this moment a formative one in the history of our nation. I’ve come to this conclusion grudgingly, as I am not attracted to arguments of current politics as historical exceptional. Whether we remain a full and liberal democracy will rest by no small measure on the extent to which we are able to use social science to constructively build a common knowledge in an increasingly diverse nation.
Tom Kecskemethy, AAPSS Executive Director