Why Academics Should not Comment on Politics, especially Hot Button Issues.

I did not realize that Princeton University Press had been running a blog that invited its authors to comment on current events.  I think it’s a horrible idea, and this post by Mike Chwe pretty much makes the case.  I would not have noticed it except for an indirect reference to a right wing site (Daily Caller) drawing attention to it, with the usual flourish about how academics are claiming, more or less, that white males are evil, and, the truth be told, the less than diplomatic language used by Chwe pretty much makes it difficult to say otherwise.

I have two problems with the post, and the idea of the blog.  The kind of post that Chwe contributed is not something that draws on academic skills and background.  Chwe is a game theory, a brilliant one at that, with odd ideas and insights that don’t fit neatly into everyday politics.  Commenting on current events and moral dimensions thereof is not his academic suit.  As it were, he is doing nothing more than any other opinionated partisan wordsmith, who have been assailing Trump candidacy pretty on the exactly points he had been bringing up.  There is no good reason that anyone should trust him, and, truth be told, they shouldn’t–it’s his opinion, and that is all.  But the problem goes deeper:  the public does not know what political science really does.  For example, Chwe’s insights on coordination, symbols, and rituals are absolutely brilliant and it has been on full display throughout this campaign, even if being deployed in a manner inimical to his political views–but very few people really understands them and their significance.  Instead, to many, he will go down as another crazy partisan academic who had said standard partisan things like any other political hack.  He will have influenced no one’s opinion and in so doing, furthered the right wingers’ hostility to academia.  I think that’s a losing proposition.

The problem is further compounded by the accusatory tone that the post takes.  The truth is that Trump draws his strongest support from those whom economic and social progress of recent years have passed by, people who are from areas not doing so well economically, people who feel that their opportunities are being taken away, their communities are being destroyed, and, quite frankly, literally dying.  These are angry and frustrated people latching on to something, however ludicrous, that gives them the means to fight back against their perceived enemies.  While Trump’s personal conduct, both during and, in fact, for years before, the campaign have been absolutely deplorable, it should bother us that many people are not only willing to support him, but to do so enthusiastically.  One frequent problem that social scientists have been tending to do is to put their theories first and declare observations contrary to their theories as being “wrong.”  So the theory is that today’s society is great and those who are not doing great are wrong?  So the literally dying  people in Middle America that Case and Deaton have found, who happen to be particularly strong Trump supporters getting their just deserts?  I’ve met people who hold views like that, who are convinced that we are in such a great age that those who are doing badly are morally wrong for not doing well.  I think these people are nuts, personally.  The truth is that the presence of such an angry mob who are threatening to disrepsect election results is a dangerous sign that something has seriously gone wrong with the political institutions in this country.  Maybe they do need to be confronted in the short term, if only to ensure that there is something tomorrow, proverbially speaking, but fighting them, if one were to go down that route, would be a fool’s errand.  It will ensure that the American society will be ripped asunder, with no means of patching it back together.  That support for Trump has taken on a racialist tone should worry people–not just because the racialist tone is itself wrong, but that it furthers the fractures that trouble the American body politic.

Never mind moral grandstanding!  How can we keep the rot from spreading?  In order to do so, we have to understand the disease, not declare the disease immoral and start lecturing at it.  Sadly, very few people seem interested in calling for understanding the disease rather than moral declarations.  I find this disturbing because this happened before, at that time with a real disease–in 1980s, with the AIDS epidemic.  The disease, at least in the Western world, was largely limited to the gay community at the beginning.  Rather than trying to fight the epidemic as a menace to public’s well being and, indeed, lives, the political universe took it as an opportunity for moral grandstanding.  Lives, by the thousands, were lost while the politicians and self-claimed public intellectuals lectured on pointlessly.  The forces underlying the Trump phenomenon (and to an extent, Sanders’ also, although different in that his supporters did not take on ugly tones the way Trump’s did) represent a threat to public’s well being–indeed, literally, as witness the Case and Deaton article–possibly orders of magnitude greater than AIDS was in 1980s.  Dealing with it means treating the disease, not hold moralistic exorcisms for those who are not afflicted.  If the gays were not being struck by Divine wrath in the form of HIV for their alleged moral failings, the angry and frustrated people who form core of Trump’s support are not suffering the wrath of the atheist rationalist god for their alleged moral failings either.  We have to understand the disease and come up with a treatment, with the awareness that the support for candidates like Trump is but a symptom.  The real disease is the prevailing frustration and alienation that so many voters had fallen into, and how the American political system has failed them.. This is something that academics can and should do.


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