In this report, Cole Edick—program assistant for the Anxieties of Democracy program—outlines the ideation and theoretical principles that served as…
Early Cold War Research and the Enduring Relevance Question: Area Studies, Behavioralism, and the SSRCby Michael C. Desch
The postwar Behavioral Revolution, Michael Desch argues, aimed to infuse social science with “scientific” approaches while preserving its applicability in the policy world. Focusing on two of the Behavioral Revolution’s leading figures, Talcott Parsons and Gabriel Almond (and their ties to the SSRC), he contends that, in fact, the goal of relevance was sacrificed through the pursuit of behavioralist theories and approaches. With a focus on comparative politics, Desch claims that the marginalizing of area studies, by focusing on more universal models of politics, took attention away from the contextual knowledge that was more needed by, and thus relevant to, policymaking.
In the early 1950s, the nascent political science subfield of comparative politics wrestled with questions of method and whether to approach comparing nation-states via abstract concepts or a problem-oriented focus. To begin addressing these concerns, the SSRC convened an interuniversity research seminar in which political scientists began to create a framework for the field that ultimately led to the formation of the Committee on Comparative Politics. Roy Macridis, in this report, summarizes the seminar’s discussion, which included the relative merits of area studies approaches to more abstract theorizing. The conversation clearly tilted toward starting with conceptual schemes independent of context, and so exemplifies the impact of behavioralism that Michael Desch illustrates in his Items essay.
A consequence of increasing polarization is the decline of moderate legislators—those who occupy an ideological middle ground between the two parties. This decline has allowed those moderates to play pivotal roles, especially in the Senate, in deciding whether a bill passes or fails or a nominee is confirmed or not. Yet little is known about whether these moderate senators play an influential role in shaping public opinion around pieces of legislation. Using a survey experiment, Logan Dancey investigates whether public support for specific bills changes depending on who sponsors (and cosponsors) the legislation. His findings suggest that although names like Susan Collins and Joe Manchin are well-known among American voters, when moderates attach their name to pieces of legislation, it does not uniquely influence public support for or opposition to the bill.
It is commonly believed that congressional leaders will always obey the “first commandment” of party leadership: Thou shalt not aid bills that will split thy party. Nevertheless, in 2017 House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell allowed voting on a bid to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), putting on display their party’s ideological divisions. In this Democracy Papers essay, Ruth Bloch Rubin draws on the personal papers of midcentury House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX) to understand when and why congressional leaders choose to act as agents of discord. She investigates how Rayburn used intraparty tensions to push for his agenda. Bloch Rubin argues that Rayburn’s tactics provide a new angle for understanding contemporary congressional action like the ACA bill.
As SSRC launches MediaWell—our online platform to track and distill research on disinformation, online politics, election interference, and emerging collisions between media and democracy—Items is revisiting this 1980 report on the SSRC’s Committee on Mass Communication and Political Behavior. Focusing on the impact of news media on the 1976 presidential election, Thomas Patterson highlighted the shift in news coverage from candidates’ policy platforms to candidates’ gaffes and campaign issues and how this has affected voters’ grasp of electoral issues. Patterson concludes that stronger parties are needed to provide voters with policy information.
In her contribution to the “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, Anne Esacove highlights the Trans Literacy Project (TLP) and its work at the University of Pennsylvania. Created by a group of students, activists, and scholars to cultivate and expand conversations on trans and gender inclusivity, the TLP hosted a series of events and workshops to bring to the forefront concerns and issues facing the trans community in academia. Esacove uses this opportunity to bolster the voices of the project’s participants. Six of the TLP conveners, Ava L.J. Kim, Davy Knittle, Kel Kroehle, Aylin Malcolm, Monique Perry, and Brooke Jamieson Stanley, summarize key points learned from the TLP experience, which can be used to enrich academic learning and provide a more inclusive experience for trans students and scholars.
Danielle Thomsen, a Negotiating Agreement in Congress grantee of the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program, examines the electoral preferences of primary voters. Her project investigates whether primary voters can be persuaded to support politically centrist candidates. Using a survey-based experiment, Thomsen finds: (i) primary voters tend to prefer politically extreme over centrist candidates; (ii) despite Americans' frustration with gridlock and hyperpartisanship in Washington, primary voters are unlikely to vote for candidates who champion bipartisanship. Her findings shed light on the continued polarization in US politics.
Sociolinguistic debates around the definitions and significance of “pidgin” and “creole” languages were increasing in the 1960s and the SSRC’s Committee on Sociolinguistics played a role in cultivating these discussions. This 1968 report by Dell Hymes summarizes issues raised at a conference convened by the Council at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, to better understand the historical development, the grammatical and lexical evolutions, and the social uses of pidgin and creole languages. Though he highlights how social science can better inform research on pidginization and creolization, Hymes identifies knowledge gaps, among them the nature of the relationship between these languages and national identity, and more broadly the lack of historical and social scientific knowledge of this topic.