Tag Archives: Political Science

Argo: Uninspired and Unsatisfying

29 May

I finally watched best picture winner Argo yesterday (I’m not the only political scientist to watch it so late after its release!). It was a competent genre film that cast a light on the heroic, but largely unsung actions of American intelligence and foreign service officers during a turbulent time in U.S foreign policy. After seeing the film, however, I did not agree with the academy’s decision to award this film the “Best Picture” at this year’s Oscars.

My major issue with this film was not its depiction of politics or international relations (despite my professional expertise), but the license taken with the real story to produce suspense. Argo is a prisoner of its genre, especially in its last 45 minutes when the audience is bombarded with a succession of (false) moments designed to add suspense to the film. By being entirely consistent with the expected tropes of this kind of film, the writers created a false climax that was “safe” for Hollywood executives and mainstream audiences, but also totally uninspired and unsatisfying.


Consider all the options to end America’s political dysfunction

10 Apr

Democracies have two fundamental constitutional choices they can make about the structure of their political system: whether to use a presidential or parliamentary system of government, and whether to use a plurality or proportional electoral system. When faced with a political crisis or chronic political dysfunction, critics of the existing system often propose pursuing one of the roads not taken. Unfortunately, they often forget that there are two choices to reconsider, not one.

For example, election law expert Rick Hasen explores in a new paper whether constitutional change from a presidential system to a parliamentary form of government is necessary to address political polarization in the United States (Seth Masket and Jonathan Bernstein both have nice writeups).

Hasen starts with the proposition that :

The partisanship of our political branches and mismatch with our structure of government raise this fundamental question: Is the United States political system so broken that we should change the United States Constitution to adopt a parliamentary system either a Westminster system as in the United Kingdom or a different form of parliamentary democracy? Such a move toward unified government would allow the Democratic or Republican parties to act in a unified way to pursue a rational plan on budget reform on other issues. Voters could then hold the party in power accountable if the programs its pursued were against voter preferences. It seems a more logical way to organize politics and insure that each party will have a chance to present its platform to the voters, to have that platform enacted, and to allow voters at the next election to pass on how well the party has managed the country.

Hasen examines four arguments against making this level of constitutional change to deal with our current political dysfunction. He rejects three of them as insufficient, but finds it too soon to reject the fourth. He thus advocates a wait-in-see attitude. Unfortunately, Hasen’s analysis is only half-complete because he only considers the choice between presidentialism and parliamentarism, but he fails to consider the equally choice of electoral system beyond the vague idea of “a different form of parliamentary democracy.”

I do not have any great insights to make about Hasen’s analysis, but I would like to see more consideration of the role of electoral systems in producing and reducing party polarization. If we are going to entertain the unlikely possibility of constitutional change, let us entertain all the options.

What this elections really means

1 Nov

As a political scientist, I have been asked (or perhaps imagined that I was asked) repeatedly this last week to offer my opinion about tomorrow’s election. I have avoided commenting on it — I even turned down a TV interview today — because what I would say (1) flies in the face conventional wisdom about the election and (2) is not what most people really want to hear when they ask me my opinion. Still, I felt I should say something out of professional obligation and because I just reread a short article called about “Ten Things Political Scientists Know that You Don’t” that inspired me. Here is my generic, political science interpretation of the election:

This election is about the fundamental condition of the American economy. Voters will reward or penalize the incumbent party based on their impression of these conditions as conditioned by their preexisting and stable partisan identification. This is all we can accurately discern from the results because, despite what you will hear from political commentators, we have no reliable way of knowing what the American people really want. This includes opinion polls and elections, which are as much about the institutions we use to decide who wins as it is about voters’ preferences. This means no candidate or party can claim a true mandate from the people, especially when most voters only have two choices on the ballot (Republican or Democrat) and the meaning of both choices is unclear. The election shows the only way to improve governance is to hold parties more accountable for their actions in office. It also shows that a lot of the things you and the media (mainstream or otherwise) think you know about the election are entirely wrong.

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