Morris Fiorina: “I would love to believe that Obama read ‘Culture Wars’”
If there is an afterlife, I hope that Professor Lasswell has a sense of humor. Those of us in the rational choice school operate with a minimalist conception of human psychology (our critics say an impoverished conception), whereas Lasswell believed that Freudian psychology was the key to understanding human behavior. Oh well, perhaps there are similarities between us that I am unaware of.
All false modesty aside, I can be brief. When the letter arrived instructing me to speak for five-seven minutes tonight on my contributions to public policy I was somewhat taken aback because I was not aware that I had made such contributions. I have been an ivory tower academic for most of my career with only sporadic attempts to alter the course of public policy
. But I don’t want to leave the impression that the Academy made a mistake in selecting me, so I will briefly summarize my possible contributions, and stimulated by a recent Washington Post op-ed by Joe Nye, I’ll reflect on the motivation for periodically stepping down from the Ivory Tower, and the reaction among my professional peers when I did so.
In 1977 I published a little book, Congress—Keystone of the Washington Establishment. In that book I tried to apply the coup de grace to the New Deal Model of public policy making. According to that model Congress should pass legislation that established general public interest goals, and delegate the specifics to an agency staffed by experts. The courts, in turn, would defer to agency expertise, and the result was good public policy.
Political scientists had already identified problems with the model—agency capture for one–but I argued that the model had completely degenerated so that a one-time means to making good policy had become an electoral end. Members of Congress took credit for passing a law while avoiding responsibility for the specific consequences. In fact, they would step in to remedy problems created by the legislation–blaming bureaucrats and judges for them–thus profiting again from their initial irresponsibility.
This line of work evolved into a more general interest in inter-branch relations and in the 1980s I had a fair amount of contact with academic lawyers who were attempting to construct a new model of administrative law that took account of empirical realities.
In the 1990s I wrote another general interest book, Divided Government. Our two parties were becoming more distinct and more differentiated, as political scientists had long advocated, but the evidence suggested that Americans didn’t like what professors did. In fact, they persisted in electing Republican majorities and Democratic Congresses, thus vitiating the theoretical positive effects of responsible parties. This struck me as a puzzle worth exploring, and those explorations eventually led to my most recent contribution.
In 1998 I moved to Stanford and (half) of my job description changed. Hoover Fellows are encouraged to reach out and touch the larger world of journalists, politicos and interested laypersons. And as I did so I began to realize how poorly the popular picture of American politics reflected reality. The result was Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. (Incidentally, the first sentence of the preface quotes Senator Moynihan’s pithy observation that “we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.” That has been my credo). Culture War? was all about facts. My collaborators and I showed that the views of blue and red state residents were not nearly as divergent as generally supposed, that hot button issues like abortion were not very important to most Americans, that even on hot button issues, there’s lots of common ground, and that the polarized political class doesn’t look like most of America.
A New York Times feature story that discussed the book was published in June of 2004 and a flurry of publicity ensued. A little more than a month after publication an obscure Democratic Senate candidate took the podium at the Democratic National Convention and said, among other things, that “…we worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”
I would love to believe that Obama had read the book, or at least that someone on his staff had told him, “hey, there’s this professor on the West Coast who says all this polarization stuff is overblown,” but I guess I’ll never know.
Many of you have seen Joe Nye’s op-ed decrying the separation of academic social science from the real world of practice. Reading it made me reflect on my own attempts to bridge that separation. I think Joe overlooked the most obvious reason most of us don’t actually serve in governmental capacities: we become academics because we don’t want a 9-5 job, so the prospect of a 7-7 job is that much more horrifying. But his more general point about the lack of interest in policy-relevant research is worth serious consideration.
In my own case dissatisfaction with the status quo was the principal motivation for reaching out to a more general audience. American politics professors don’t have high expectations for government. That’s not a cynical observation, only a reflection of our appreciation of the difficulties of governing a big heterogeneous country through highly decentralized, politically responsive institutions. But sometimes government seems to be doing even worse than usual. Judging by the gray hair in the audience a lot of you will remember the 1970s—environmental crises, energy crises, stagflation—a bad decade all around. But there was a lack of critical analysis in the American politics literature, a reluctance to evaluate. I believed there was something between dispassionate description and polemics, and Keystone was an attempt to hit that in-between spot.
Similarly, in the 1990s I realized that I didn’t like the two parties as they were evolving, and my reaction might be common among the general public.
And in the 2000s I just got fed up with journalists and politicos blaming voters for the sorry state of national politics.
Peer reaction to these efforts may shed some light on Joe Nye’s complaint. Keystone won no professional prizes. In fact, it received several negative reviews, and I heard through the grapevine that some senior congressional scholars were unhappy with me. I certainly had some worries that publishing the book was not a good career move. In fact, as soon as the manuscript went off to Yale Press I went right back to another project and in a few years published a mainstream political science book, Retrospective Voting. This one was aimed squarely at professional political scientists and sold accordingly. When I was negotiating with Harvard in 1982, Joe, our late colleague Arthur Maass told me flatly that he didn’t like the Congress book, but that Retrospective Voting was in the tradition of V.O. Key, so he didn’t oppose me.
Similarly, Culture War? has won no prizes. Indeed, to my knowledge there has not been a review in any professional journal. There’s been little professional criticism. Rather, the more typical reaction seems to be that “we all knew that already.” Yes, if “we all” means the several hundred professionals who spend their lives mucking around in public opinion data, we all did.
But there may be grounds for optimism. After 32 years, Keystone is still in print, very slowly closing in on 90,000 copies sold. Culture War? sold 65,000 copies during President Bush’s second term, and there have been about 650 class adoptions to date.
So just as the political class is not representative of the public at large, so the academic class—the elite research professoriate—may not be representative of the academic public at large. I suspect there is much greater appreciation of research that makes policy contributions than we realize, and Joe’s attempt to push academics in that direction may meet with less resistance than we might think.
Thank you all for this honor.
Morris Fiorina is the Wendt Family Professor of Political Science and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. These remarks were prepared for his induction as the 2009 Harold Lasswell Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
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