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AMERICAN POLITICS: SOURCES (PART ONE)

130601

AMERICAN  POLITICS:  SOURCES  (PART ONE)

Richard Valelly 2013 American politics: A very short introduction

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DIMENSIONS OF POLITICS                     DIMENSIONS OF POSTS

Sectors: All                                                Importance: ***

Levels: All                                                 Scope: USA only

Periods: All                                                Process: All

MAIN TOPIC:  SOURCES                          Treatment: Background

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OVERVIEW

INTRODUCTION:  ELEMENTS  AND  EVALUATION  1

CONSTITUTIONAL  LAYERS   2

EXTRA-CONSTITUTIONAL  SUPPLEMENTS   3

CONTEXT:  POLARIZATION  AND  INEQUALITY  4

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SERIES   This is the first in a Series of occasional Posts identifying SOURCES that Chinese might find useful for studying American Politics. This Post describes a recent American textbook on American politics that is very short and simply written but quite fresh and thoughtful.

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AMERICAN  POLITICS:  MATERIALS  (PART ONE)

Richard Valelly 2013 American Politics: A very short introduction

OVERVIEW

This Spring this author – in order to better understand how to explain American politics to Chinese – has been teaching American Politics at a Chinese University. There are now many fine textbooks on American politics available in the USA, many of them written by leading American political scientists and incorporating recent advances in political science. However, most of them are extremely detailed, enormously long, and quite expensive. Moreover, many are current editions of textbooks originally conceived a decade or more ago. For Chinese college students – particularly those brave enough to approach American politics through English – I wanted something short and simple but fresh and thoughtful.

Accordingly I was delighted to discover a new February 2013 textbook that exactly fits that description. The author is political scientist Richard Valelly of Swarthmore College. In addition to writing this introductory textbook, Valelly has edited a thoughtful collection of advanced readings on America politics. Those readings invite students to learn directly from cutting-edge work in political science. Valelly’s introductory textbook allows students to do the same indirectly, because he unobtrusively incorporates many current concerns and findings from current American political science. Not bad for an only apparently slight text book!

(Evidently Vallely is interested in integrating qualitative analysis of American Political Development with recent advances in quantitative analysis of historical materials. Earlier, he published an important book comparing the nineteenth and twentieth century stages of the struggle for black representation in American politics. He also edited a book of articles and documents on that topic. Please see the REFERENCES at the end of the text of this Post. Please see also my references to Valelly in my series of posts on American Political Development, particularly 130427.)

I hope that Valelly’s textbook may soon be available in China, perhaps even in Chinese. In the meantime, here I provide some impressions of what he is trying to do in this tiny textbook, to encourage Chinese to obtain a copy. The book covers the standard array of topics: the main constitutional branches of president, congress, and Supreme Court and the main extra-constitutional additions of bureaucracy, parties, and public opinion polling. But Valelly’s “take” on each of these topics is somewhat original. And he begins with a chapter on how to evaluate American politics and he ends with two chapters on current context: The recent revivals of partisan polarization and economic inequality. Both of these are topics currently of great interest to cutting-edge political scientists. All of this should interest Chinese wishing either to further understand USA democracy or to further develop PRC democracy.

Let’s take a tour!

INTRODUCTION:  ELEMENTS  AND  EVALUATION   1

Valelly’s introductory chapter (one) falls into two halves: a light overview of the main elements of American democracy (pages 1-5) and a deft statement of some criteria for evaluating a democracy (5-9).

The first half states a main theme of the book: That the INSTITUTIONS of current American politics are DUALISTIC, combining old institutions and offices prescribed by the 1787 Constitution (1-2) with new institutions and players who are “extra-constitutional” (2-3). That is, “extra-constitutional” in the sense of not having been prescribed or even envisaged by the Founders who drafted the original constitution, or even of having originally been opposed by them (such as political parties, 3-4). “Extra-constitutional” does not mean “unconstitutional”: Valelly regards such institutions as legitimately  “constitutional” in the sense of now being generally accepted as necessary. I take Valelly’s theme of “dualism” to be a quiet echo of a loud theme in recent political science research on American Political Development: That current American institutions consist of cumulative layers of practices laid down at different times in the past that continue to operate in the present, often somewhat inconsistently.  (I was delighted that such dualism is a theme of the book, because I have stressed the distinction between “constitutional” and “extraconstitutional” institutions ever since I began explaining American politics to Chinese in the late 1990s.)

The second half of this chapter states six criteria for EVALUATION of a democracy: Public deliberation, majority rule, governmental competence, freedom of association, accountability, and equal representation. My impression is that Valelly’s favorite may be public DELIBERATION: In the course of the book, he often stands back from what looks like unconstructive conflict and points out that, however much one might dislike partisan confrontation, it can constitute one form of democratic deliberation. Unlike old standards such as majority rule, political scientists’ interest in deliberation is recent and sophisticated. Valelly’s equanimity about conflict illustrates an even more general theme of the book as a whole: Often things may not be as bad as they seem. That is, Valelly often steps back from journalistic alarm at disconcerting features of current American democracy to point out that what may seem obviously bad may turn out not to be so, when systematically investigated by political science.

Valelly also particularly values REPRESENTATION (as manifest in his work on black participation). He makes the interesting judgment that representation is the criterion on which American democracy does least well. Again, concern about equality of representation is a current hot topic in American political science: In current American politics, to what extent does money buy power? Valelly concludes this chapter by observing that making democracy work is hard work: Citizens must keep up the pressure on government to do what they want, not simply sit back and wait for the next election. This TOO is a current concern of political scientists (at least of progressive ones): Important policies favored by public majorities are currently failing to be adopted because of the absence of organized social movements demanding them.

CONSTITUTIONAL  LAYERS   2

As noted, Valelly’s chapters on executive, legislative, and judicial all contain the theme of “dualism”: that current American institutions involve successive layers of old and new.

In the chapter (two) on the PRESIDENCY, the theme of dualism is only implicit (11-21). Valelly does not bother to record how minimal the institution of the old, traditional presidency was. Instead he outlines the expanded functions of the new, modern presidency – what I will call the rhetorical, administrative, and representative presidencies. At the end of the chapter, Valelly concludes that the evolution from traditional to modern has helped connect the presidency to basic democratic standards. However, that evolution has also made the job virtually impossible, particularly the job of reconciling expert advice and public opinion (21). 

The modern RHETORICAL presidency leads and educates the nation (12-16). Valelly points out that this role was deliberately invented by the perhaps currently underappreciated Woodrow Wilson – a political scientist, as Valelly is proud to claim. The modern ADMINISTRATIVE presidency enhances policy-making by seeking advice and information  – through extra-constitutional “White House” staff institutions partly designed by political scientists (16-18). The modern REPRESENTATIVE presidency monitors public opinion through the modern extra-constitutional institution of public opinion polling – again designed and staffed partly by political scientists. Presidents monitor public opinion not to follow it but to understand how to lead it (18-20).

Valelly’s chapter (three) on CONGRESS more squarely addresses the layering of old and new (22-31). The first half of the chapter compares the extent to which the House and Senate are different or similar. The Founders intended to make the two chambers as DIFFERENT as possible (22-24). These differences include time horizon and closeness to public, size of electoral district and size of chamber. Today those differences continue to cause the generally similar methods of operation of professional politicians to work out somewhat differently in the two chambers (24-26). In particular, differences in size create contrasting degrees of specialization among Members of Congress (members in the larger House more specialized) and contrasting degrees of firmness of leadership (leadership in the larger House more firm).

The second half of Valelly’s chapter on congress focuses on the SENATE in its old and new versions (26-31). Until recently the prerogatives of individual senators to obstruct legislation only occasionally modified the basic majoritarianism that the Founders prescribed (29). Today’s unlimited use of the filibuster and other obstructionist tactics has now both made the Senate “supermajoritarian” (27-28) and also introduced a new “veto point” into American governance (30-31). Valelly notes that such steep requirements for passage of legislation limit the size of the agenda that can be addressed: Not only by the Senate, but also by the House – and, one might add, by the whole country (31). These changes do NOT comport with the original intentions of the Founders, who prescribed only one veto (by the president, of legislation) and only one supermajority (necessary for congress to over-ride a presidential veto). (30-31) This chapter is about as close as Valelly comes to outright concern about the functioning of current American democracy (aside from its inadequate representation).

It is important for foreign observers to note that such limitations are NOT inherent in Western democracy or even to the American constitutional version of it. These current Senate procedures are extra-constitutional: They were NOT part of the 1787 Constitution, but instead have been adopted by the political parties to protect themselves when they are a minority. The parties could change these procedures at any time (28-29). Moreover, these procedures currently operate the way they do largely because of the acute partisan polarization of the surrounding political environment (27). This polarization too is largely NOT a product of the 1787 Constitution but instead of the current distribution of supporters of the two parties across current electoral districts. The new legislative procedures, operating under current partisan polarization, gives congressional minorities more power to obstruct majorities than the Founders intended. (Ironically, these congressional minorities represent the same southern whites that the Founders originally protected by their own departures from majoritarianism.)

In a chapter (four) on the LEGISLATIVE-EXECUTIVE PROCESS (32-41), Valelly further addresses an urgent current concern of both political scientists and alert citizens:  Does DIVIDED GOVERNMENT (different branches controlled by different parties) reduce policy productivity? It might seem obvious that it must, but Valelly reports the conclusion of one of the USA’s leading political scientists that it doesn’t (Mayhew, 33). But then Valelly reports still more research that suggests that it does, at least relative to what might otherwise have been accomplished (McCarty, 33-34). On the negative side, Valelly notes the current prevalence of gridlock (34). On the positive side, Valelly notes that, in order to get necessary business done, congress has created unorthodox new vehicles for policymaking (omnibus bills, budget reconciliation, 34-37).

Back to the negative side, Valelly notes how partisan (non)processing of NOMINATIONS is now obstructing the president’s recruitment of personnel to staff his administration (38-39). So far, partisans have mostly refrained from blocking appointments to the highest military and judicial posts, but have NOT refrained from blocking appointments to the many civil service and lower judicial posts. Finally, Valelly asks whether all this would worry the Founders (39-41). Valelly makes the remarkable point that the way the 1787 Constitution now actually functions somewhat resembles the 1777 Articles of Confederation that the Founders thought they had replaced! That might worry the Founders, as would also the potential for abuse of the power of INVESTIGATION that congress has over executive actions (40). Nevertheless, as usual, Valelly finds good among the bad: American presidents get the legislation they really want about 61% of the time, as good a percentage as the leaders of other presidential democracies (40-41).    

Valelly’s chapter (five) on the SUPREME COURT steps delicately through issues raised by the liberal activism of avowedly activist postwar liberal Courts and more recently by the conservative activism  of ostensibly anti-activist conservative Courts (42-52). Valelly begins by stressing the “dualist” point that, contrary to the Founders’ expectations, the Supreme Court has become a major player in American politics and – surprisingly – in American policy-making (42). As the Founders prescribed, the Court can play that role only on cases submitted to it (42), though the Court can choose which cases to accept (44-45). Moreover, the Court has strengthened and dignified its role through its self-invented prerogative of JUDICIAL REVIEW of the actions of other branches of government (45). A common justification of this extraordinary role is that it performs important educative functions, instructing Americans in current meanings of the original 1787 Constitution (47-48).

A common criticism of the Court regards it as just one among various forms of highly-insulated extra-constitutional policy-making in current American governance (49-51), such as the Federal Reserve and Securities and Exchange Commission. Such a strong policy-making role is unusual for a “court.” Not surprisingly, appointees to the Court tend to represent the ideological positions of the presidents who appoint them and the Senate that confirms them (49-50), though justices attempt to appear nonpartisan. Also not surprising, resistance to Court decisions by ideological opponents of its decisions is pervasive and persistent (50-51). Valelly frankly notes the political uses to which the Court has recently been putting “judicial review” (51-52). Astonishingly for the custodian of constitutionalism (and even more astonishing for espousers of “originalism”), this strong policy-making role is extra-constitutional – not envisaged by the Founders.

EXTRA-CONSTITUTIONAL  SUPPLEMENTS   3

Valelly’s chapters on extraconstitutional institutions continue the theme of “dualism”:  here meaning how constitutional branches are supplemented by extra-constitutional organizations. (We will summarize them in a different order from that in which Valelly treats them.)

Thus Valelly begins his chapter (eight) on PARTIES (75-86) by noting that “dualism” began much earlier than most Americans realize – with the emergence by 1800 among the Founders themselves of proto-parties that supplemented (and even contradicted) the Founders’ original design (75-77).  Despite the bitterness of the 1800 contest for the presidency, Valelly as usual finds something to celebrate: Despite the conflict, America’s first transfer of power from one party to another was peaceful, a requirement that parties have continued to help meet (80-81). Valelly further concludes that in the early 1800s competition between parties shaped the highly democratic definition of citizenship that Americans have inherited (78-80).

In the second half of this chapter, Valelly turns to the Electoral College, providing a balanced account of this now somewhat problematically indirect way of voting for president (81-86). He notes modern misgivings about, ranging from concerns that small states are over-represented to concerns that uncontested states are under-represented (83-84). Again, however, political scientists have not found persistent biases (84). Valelly celebrates the role of parties in adapting the Electoral College both to their own needs and to the needs of democracy (84-86).  

Valelly begins his chapter (six) on BUREAUCRACY (53-62) by noting unobtrusively that competent bureaucracies have been essential to prospering markets (53). This despite the fact that

the role of government in markets has almost always been THE main issue in American politics, with one side positing a contradiction between bureaucracy and markets. Moreover, democratic deliberation itself assumes that bureaucracies are competent to carry out the alternative policies that are being deliberated. (53-55) Valelly then deftly explains the efficiency of DELEGATION of functions to bureaucrats, increasing as it does not only what presidents and legislators can accomplish but also what therefore citizens can expect from politicians. This despite the inevitability of some mistakes and scandals (55-58). Thus the somewhat extra-constitutional device of delegating functions to large bureaucracies is another form of dualism, supplementing a limited old constitution with new modern capacities.

Accordingly, much of modern political struggle occurs on the terrain of bureaucracies (62). As the core of a new “administrative state,” bureaucracies become a focus of political conflict over policy-making. The struggle involves diverse policy issues – “political footballs” such as the National Labor Relations Board and the Environmental Protection Agency (58-60).  Diverse players, both constitutional and extra-constitutional, attempt to control and pressure bureaucracies. Some political scientists consider the dominant outside player to be congress, aided by interest groups(60). Other political scientists stress the many control strategies available to presidents, many of them centered in the large White House staff and therefore largely  extra-constitutional (61). Other political scientists analyze bureaucrats’ struggles to evade control (61-62). However, as most bureaucrats are aware, delegations of authority to bureaucracies are conditional on performance that is satisfactory to the presidential and congressional principals. Such delegations can be rescinded, sometimes abruptly.  Having delegated important functions to bureaucratic agents, presidential and congressional principals “have strong incentives to monitor bureaucrats or to welcome monitoring by groups, courts and media – and also to directly control and sometimes micromanage bureaucracies.” (62).  

Vallely’s chapter (seven) on PUBLIC OPINION (63-74) too manages to turn what could be a dull technical topic into an incisive analysis of how extra-constitutional institutions can permit old ideals of democracy to flourish under difficult modern conditions. Thus the first half of the chapter begins by noting the worries of political scientists about how democracy can function when most citizens have little interest or information about politics (63-64). Valelly then argues that modern public opinion polling – accurate and continuous – largely solves basic problems of democratic participation and democratic accountability by letting politicians know what citizens want (64-68).

Various mechanisms tend to increase consistency between public opinion and public policy. Mainly,  when representatives know clearly what the public wants, they feel obliged to deliver it – on fear of possible defeat at the next election (66-67).    

The second half of the chapter then considers doubts about public opinion. Common sense might suggest that elites can manipulate it, but political science finds that they cannot (68-69).  Manipulation would require a series of conditions – such as close public attention, or lack of diversity in media interpretations  – that seldom occur (71). Finally, Valelly notes the generally high consistency (64%) between public policy and public opinion (71). That consistency does vary, though, across time, policies, jurisdictions, level of income, and level of public attention (72).

CONTEXT:  POLARIZATION  AND  INEQUALITY   4

Valelly’s chapter (nine) on the revival of PARTISANSHIP in the late 1900s and early 2000s (87-100) deftly addresses still more hot issues in political science, again calming anxiety with equanimity. The first third of the chapter (87-91) notes the recent rise in POLARIZATION between the two main parties, much deplored by most observers.  Polarization has been caused in part by a SORTING of both politicians and voters into increasingly discrete camps, so that ideology and partisanship increasingly coincide (88-89). Polarization has been accompanied by some increase in citizen involvement: in voter loyalty to parties (88), in voter turnout (90), and in voter participation in campaigning (90-91).  Polarization might not be so bad for democracy, after all! The last third of the chapter (97-100) is even more optimistic, another case of Valelly pulling unusually optimistic rabbits out of usually pessimistic hats. To Valelly, renewed partisan polarization is not the death of democracy but the REVIVAL of democracy, promoting inclusion over exclusion and even rebuilding America as a nation!     

The middle third of the chapter (91-97) compares the late 1800s with the early 2000s. The two eras are similar in their high levels of political polarization, but differ in the institutions involved. It used to be easy for third parties to emerge, but now it is difficult (91). Candidates used to be selected by party professionals at party conventions, but are now – for better or worse – selected through “primary” elections in which party members select party candidates (92). Local party machines used to staff campaigns with public employees, now campaigns are run by professionals and staffed by volunteers (92-93). Communications used to be through limited but entertaining in-person outdoor rallies and speeches (91), but now involve saturation mass media advertising and rapid attack and counter-attack (93-94).  Finance remains important, but is now better regulated and more competitive, with rich donors on both sides. It is lively political contests that draw in money, not money that creates political contests (94-95). Direct-democracy initiatives and referenda now involve active coordination between political parties and advocacy groups (95-96). Election day used to involve public commitment and collective experience; now voting is private and occurs over a period of time through diverse methods. Using scientific methods, political scientists announce the likely results even before the ballots can be counted (96-97).

Valelly’s chapter (ten) on the renewed politics of renewed ECONOMIC INEQUALITY (101-112) probes the relationship between economic resources and political influence. This is, yet again, not only a burning issue in American politics but also a cutting-edge issue in American political science. Valelly begins by noting similarities between the “Gilded Age” of the late 1800s and the “New Gilded Age” of the early 2000s: steep economic inequality and political elite indifference (101-102).  Accompanied, one should recall, by extreme political polarization. Vallely then documents current public concern about economic inequality (102- 105). He then questions some of the common-sense assumptions underlying concerns about the relationship between wealth and democracy, assumptions shared by both ordinary people and some famous economists (105-106).

One common assumption concerns CAMPAIGN FINANCE: it seems “obvious” that rich people must succeed in “buying” political influence by contributing large amounts of money to politicians’ campaigns and by purchasing large amounts of expensive media time. Nevertheless, political scientists find such effects hard to prove and offer reasons why in fact such effects may not occur (106-109). Another assumption is that vigorous LOBBYING of Members of Congress by well-paid lobbyists must allow the lobbyists to dictate policy. Again, however, political scientists find this hard to prove and offer reasons why lobbying may not be as effective as commonly supposed (109-110). Finally, Valelly broaches another basic issue, of UNEQUAL REPRESENTATION. Many studies indicate that richer people exert more influence over policy than poorer people. Valelly concedes that, but argues that the party system tends to equalize influence over time, with one party appealing to and representing the richer and the other the poorer. (111-112).       

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REFERENCES

Richard M. Valelly 2013.American politics: A very short introduction. New York NY: Oxford University Press, 136 pages. 

Richard M. Valelly ed. 2009. Princeton readings in American politics. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 637 pages. 

Everson-Valelly-Wiseman [no date]  “NOMINATE and American political development: A primer” on Valelly’s Swarthmore home page and on Voteview.com.

Richard M. Valelly ed. 2006  The Voting Rights Act: Securing the ballot. Washington D.C.: CQ Press, 370 pages.

Richard M. Valelly 2004The two reconstructions : the struggle for Black enfranchisement. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 330 pages.

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