I flew back to Stockholm the following day. Lufthansa online check-in suffered an interesting technical glitch and produced a boarding pass for seat 1A business class. Yeah to software bugs. As I was sitting in the business class with leg space I don’t actually need (I’m not socialist, just short), I couldn’t help but wonder what, if I had 15 minutes, would I tell the President. Hell, what would you tell the man?
From the German perspective, the American political system looks strange, which is ironic given the history of Germany’s representative democracy. The strong role of the US President in particular and the focus on individuals rather than programs in general is the most obvious difference. Stranger even is that the political landscape in America is in practice a two party system. This has created a situation where, instead of different parties offering a spectrum of alternatives, the two parties morph to fit their potential clientele, or make it fit. And, needless to say, the wealthy part of the clientele lobbies for their interests, an influence that’s amplified by the almost complete lack of labor unions.
Yes, from a German perspective it seems strange that a country which values democracy so dearly practices it so badly. But then I’m not a political scientist, I just hope I know enough to put my two X in the right places on Sunday.
During the years I spent overseas, Academic America seemed to be overwhelmingly on the side of Obama’s Democratic Party. I recall many seminars in which an US American speaker would make jokes or political statements that clearly showed they were confident the majority of the audience would sympathize with their political views. And they were right of course. (Provided the audience was mostly American. These jokes don’t fly in Europe.) But during the last year I sense this support base faltering as the conditions for scientific research gradually worsen under Obama’s watch.
There are many things the man must shoulder and I’m sure they weigh heavily. Among all these weighty boulders, there’s a tiny little pebble that made me lose my faith the USA will overcome its anti-scientific congestion. It came with this headline:
“Last month [March 2013], President Obama signed 600 pages of legislation to keep the government from shutting down, while shutting down much of the nation’s [political science] studies. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) secured Democrats’ approval for an amendment to the bill that eliminates the National Science Foundation’s political science studies, except those the NSF director deems relevant to national security or U.S. economic interests.”
Dear Mr. President, how could you have let that happen?
Every major problem that this planet presently faces is primarily about organizing human life and negotiating complex problems with uncertain solutions. The existing political, social, and economic systems are insufficient to deal with these problems, and scientific knowledge is insufficiently integrated into decision making procedures. As societies and economies have become more interconnected, political institutions have not kept pace. The technology is there, the knowledge how to use it isn’t. This realization lies behind initiatives like the FuturITC and attempts to predict political unrest. Yes, that’s political science for you.
Today riots are organized on twitter, wars are led on YouTube, and election results predicted on online futures markets. Nobody knows what this means for the future of democracy. Do Facebook and Twitter help spread Democracy and Human Rights? Are the White House Petitions are good idea or do they just create noise? Yes, that’s political science for you. We all have too much information and not the faintest idea how to intelligently aggregate it and use it within our political systems. We need a scientific approach to institutional design. Trial and error is an archaic procedure that takes time that we don’t have, and errors have become too costly.
Just the situation to scrape funding for the political sciences, I see.
I am trying to imagine Angela Merkel suspends all governmental funding for political science. Germany is the land of the poets and thinker, the land of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Engels and Weber. Besides inventing compound nouns, Germans are also good with solidarity, strikes, and nudity. The Americans made very sure each German receives a solid education about the merits of democracy. I can see the outrage. I see the ‘68 students, now at retirement age, clogging the streets, “academic freedom” scrawled over their flopping breasts. “Censorship!” they shout. “Thoughts are free” they sing. Then the President of the United States calls. “Angie,” he says “Wtf?”
The great advantage of the American political system over the German one is however that the US President can only serve two terms, while the German chancellor can run till he or she drops dead.
Dear Mr President: I hope you tried a handful of the salty licorice that the Swedes chew down by the pound. Because that’d make you as sick as I feel when I read what American scientists must endure these days.