Pre-Copernican Political Science: What Analysis of "Authoritarianism" Reveals about the American Study of Politics

By Anderson, Lisa | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Pre-Copernican Political Science: What Analysis of "Authoritarianism" Reveals about the American Study of Politics


Anderson, Lisa, Journal of International Affairs


In the early 1990s, an expectant euphoria attended the fall of the Berlin Wall: the historic triumph of liberalism and democracy seemed within reach and the "end of history" was in view. A quarter century later, gloomy anxiety had replaced that confident excitement; the world seemed convulsed by anti-democratic sentiments and movements. Promising efforts at democratization had given way to autocratic restorations and intractable violence in the Arab world, while illiberal populism seemed to threaten consolidated democracies across Europe and the Americas, from Russia to Hungary to Venezuela. Even the established democracies of the erstwhile "free world," including the world's oldest democracy, the United States, had witnessed divisive elections, shaped by angry, resentful electorates rallied by anti-establishment political figures espousing antidemocratic programs and platforms. Democrats struggled to shore up liberal institutions in the face of what seemed to be widespread disappointment in, and even contempt for, democratic politics across the globe.

The rise of illiberal and anti-democratic politics presented analytical as well as political challenges. As the president of the American Political Science Association said in her 2016 presidential address, many political scientists were "relatively pessimistic about the public arena and its trajectory"; quoting from the mission statement of a project at the Social Science Research Council, she said that their worries included those "about whether the core institutions of established democracies... can capably address large problems in the public interest." (1) Scholars and analysts puzzled over what accounted for the adoption of political platforms that seemed so patently at odds with the interests, if not the attitudes, of ordinary people around the world. From the rise of the self-referential "echo chambers" of the new media to deliberate efforts by powerful authoritarian governments to shape global political discourse and local political outcomes to growing inequality fueled by globalization, numerous explanations for anti-establishment sentiment and populist movements were offered up. Conventional analytical perspectives seemed to provide little guidance for such questions.

In part, this failure by social scientists to anticipate the rise of antidemocratic politics was a reflection of post-Cold War complacency. For much of the preceding 25 years, political scientists, like political leaders, had assumed that the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe represented the end of any serious challenge to liberal democracy. American triumphalism infected its scholarly community, often imperceptibly but with tangible consequences. (2) Confident in the ultimate ascendancy of democratic institutions, American political scientists turned away from the big questions of political philosophy--how best, in the words of the American Constitution, to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity" to perfect the methods of their science--for example, statistical analysis, formal models, experimentation, data mining, and game theory--in the study of political behavior and institutions.

That these methods and models did not equip political scientists to address the political challenges of illiberal and non-democratic politics systematically has a much older pedigree, however, than mere post-Cold War self-absorption. As Erica Frantz observed, "misconceptions about dictatorships abound at least partially because political scientists have paid far less attention to them than they have to democracies." (3) And indeed, as it emerged in late nineteenth century, American political science was designed not as a science of the universal purposes and practices of politics, but a response to the pressing problems of liberal democracy in the United States at the time. …

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