Challenges in Analyzing Current Events in Politics

Reading this recent article on Salon first made me uneasy.  Looking through comments made me realize why it made me uneasy.

Curry’s argument, in a nutshell, is rather close to my own:  that Hillary Clinton is a flawed candidate for the general election and both Democratic and Republican party insiders are heavily engaged in “nudging” the result of primaries.  However, unlike my usual approach, Curry makes his argument with what, on one hand, might count as much more of rhetorical flair and what, on the other hand, might count as offensive and biased trash talk.  It is clear that he favors Sanders–the years working in the Clinton White House must have really soured him on the Clintons.  His accusations of insider manipulation of the primary process drips of hostility and rancor.  It may make his argument seem more sincere and relatable, but it is also, quite frankly, insulting to those who do not share his political viewpoints.

The fact is that, as the insiders’ choice, Clinton enjoys numerous institutional advantages.  There is no denying that.  But party insiders cannot impose their choice over popular objections of the rank and file:  witness the hapless candidacy of Jeb Bush.  For what it is worth, the Democratic establishment is widely trusted among the Democrats, Clinton does enjoy extensive support among the usual voters, and Sanders struggles to overcome this as his prospective vote base is unreliable.  The real trouble for the Clinton campaign is that it is inherently limiting:  that it constrains the Democratic Party to the voters that it has, not the voters it could have had it approached elections differently…and in so doing sacrificed some of the power that the current insiders and their supporters enjoy.  The Republican problem with Trump mirrors this, in a more extreme fashion:  unlike the Democrats, they have no obvious “establishment” candidate now, since Rubio has effectively imploded.  Their insiders are making the same difficult choice:  accept the new voters that Trump has mobilized that may help them win the general election and the concurrent loss of power and influence, or try to maintain power and influence even at the risk of losing the general election and alienating the many marginal voters currently backing Trump.  Analytically, neither is moral or immoral:  they are both difficult choices, if viewed from the perspective of those making them–which is easy to dismiss from the viewpoint of someone with an obvious preference.

This brings us back to the generic problem of analyzing politics vs. talking about them.  Politics, at least the interesting subset thereof, involves making choices that are often difficult.  Making sense of them requires understanding why, for those who are making them, these choices are difficult–the costs and benefits they impose, for whom, etc.  For those who have an obvious agenda, the costs and benefits are obvious.  It is easy to be oblivious to the difficulties inherent in the big choices and insultingly dismissing the legitimate concerns of many becomes too easy.

I always had the quixotic notion that the biggest problem in teaching political science is that it involves “politics,” about which people often have no consensus.  Explaining why choices are difficult makes little or no sense to many because, given their worldviews, they are obvious, one way or another–much the way Sanders supporters seem offensive to Clintonites or Trumpites look contemptible to regular Republicans.  Political analysis–and teaching people how to analyze–must avoid this.  But can political analysis be taught without using politics?


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