Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Is American politics boring?

Withywindle thinks so. (By "American politics," I mean the subfield of political science, not actual politics. I realize that, with this admission, everyone reading this will instantly fall asleep.)

I will not attempt to defend the subfield here by a weaselly appeal to the sub-sub-field of American political development, which is a political science version of American history, so clearly it can't be boring (to Withywindle)! Nor will I tell you how interesting it is to teach American politics to undergrads in order to discover the patterns in their ignorance (but never my own of course!) of our basic governing institutions which may hearken our near-future political doom (for instance, few of them appear to know that federalism still exists). Instead, I will stick with defending the scholarship of the dusty standby sub-sub-fields - Congress, the Presidency, the Courts. I read (or, letsbereal, skimmed) a lot of books and articles in these fields for my comps that were indeed very boring. But not all! Two very interesting books that are both very much academic American politics in that they involve theories or models (as distinct from writing about the politics of America that adheres to no such disciplinary expectations) are Skowronek's The Politics Presidents Make and Whittington's Foundations of Judicial Supremacy, though it's true that in a way they are one book about two branches. But the book I think really redeems the entire subfield of American politics because it is fascinating even while being about the discipline's most boring topic (thereby cosmically compensating for all the boring books about more interesting topics) is Wilson's Bureaucracy.

I read parts of Bureaucracy for my exams and I think I taught the section on the dilemmas of the Watertown DMV once, and then I got sick in the vacation-like period between this Christmas and New Year's, so I decided to go back and read it through. And it was surprisingly compelling. The book had the general rhetorical effect of making me very complacent about government dysfunction. Wilson offers a thousand reasons that government agencies can't get any better than they are (no spoilers), though my favorite paradox still remains that of the beleaguered Watertown DMV, which could do everything imaginable to increase efficiency - hire more clerks, update their technology, monetarily reward good service - but when it finally achieves excellence, it will simply be swamped again by the people who would otherwise have gone to the Boston DMVs but heard this one was better, and the whole process would have to begin again. The devil blocks every exit. By the end, one is surprised and grateful that government agencies have ever accomplished anything at all, especially militarily.

This is the kind of argument I appreciate when its background is the incessant clamor of all my media, journalistic and social, about the uniquely urgent crises of The Now. For Wilson, everything (except the non-SSI side of the Social Security Administration, which he frequently reminds us is perfectly competent and effective because its functions are so clear and easy to perform) always runs in crisis mode, it always has and it always will, so that in the end, the crises of The Now will probably be resolved by some combination of incompetence, error, unclarity, obstructionism, and organizational failure, and we will "muddle through by the seats of our pants," as one of my college professors used to say, oblivious to its infelicity, to explain every instance of English success at anything, including its continuing existence.


Withywindle said...

OK, so I'm putting those books on my to-read list ... you know, I've never taken a Poli-Sci class, not even a high school class in government. It's an aversion of long standing.

Miss Self-Important said...

A minor failure of liberal education.

FLG said...

I've been meaning to read Bureaucracy for a long time now, as part of my super secret plot to destroy Corporatism. You may have inspired me to pick it up.

Miss Self-Important said...

What kind of corporatism are you referring to? Fascism?

educatedwhinge said...

One of the creepier representations of the adult/child things that happen at college - a dorm hall at Penn has a 'Candy Land' theme. The walls in the common areas are painted with Candy Land stuff etc. Very childlike, almost a kindergarten aesthetic.

But this is coupled with the dorm's being coed and the free condoms and the drinking and all the rest.

Miss Self-Important said...

Heh, wrong post to respond to. But yes, there are confusions, often self-inflicted by students who never wanna grow up.