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New Pi Sigma Alpha Inductees

April 19, 2013 Leave a comment

One of the highlights of the academic year is welcoming new students to University of the Pacific‘s chapter (Alpha Delta Zeta) of Pi Sigma Alpha. the national political science academic honorary society. To be eligible for membership in Pi Sigma Alpha, a student must have excelled in their work in a number of challenging political science courses. Recently Faith James (International Relations, 2014) and Yeni Gutierrez (Political Science, 2015) became members of Pi Sigma Alpha.

Professors Dari Sylvester and Brian E. Klunk welcome Faith James and Yeni Gutierrez to Pi Sigma Alpha.

Professors Dari Sylvester and Brian E. Klunk welcome Faith James and Yeni Gutierrez to Pi Sigma Alpha.

Senate Rejects a Treaty Recognizing the Human Rights of People with Disabilities

December 5, 2012 14 comments
A map of parties to the Convention on the Righ...

A map of parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Parties in dark green, countries which have signed but not ratified in light green, non-members in grey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On December 4, 2012, by a vote of 61-38 the United States Senate failed to consent to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It takes 66 votes to consent to a treaty, so at least for the time being the United States will not be a party to the latest global treaty extending international recognition of human rights.

The treaty, already signed by 155 nations and ratified by 126 countries, including Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, states that nations should strive to assure that the disabled enjoy the same rights and fundamental freedoms as their fellow citizens.

The vote was essentially partisan. Every Democratic Senator plus eight Republican Senators, including Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) who has arguably been the most important Senate Republican on foreign policy issues for decades, voted to consent to the treaty. For the record here are the 38 Senators who voted against the treaty:

Senator Cochran initially voted for the treaty, but changed his vote when it became clear that the treaty would fail.

Treaty supporters argued that the convention is based largely on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. Negotiations for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities were begun during President George W. Bush’s administration. It had the support of many prominent Republicans, including the first President Bush, former US Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, and one-time Republican presidential nominee Robert Dole, who watched the vote from his wheelchair parked on the Senate floor.

Those who voted against the treaty offered an interesting array of explanations for their votes. Several opponents argued that joining the treaty would make the US less sovereign in how it deal with disability rights policy. In some sense, this is true. Every time a country makes a treaty obligation it agrees to limit its sovereignty. The fact that the treaty is a UN-sponsored treaty was another objectionable point for some Senators. It is an article of faith for many conservatives that the UN is an evil institution that seeks to control the world and subvert the American way of life. This may not be a mainstream point of view, but it could be a factor in Republican primary elections when turnout is much smaller than in general elections and insurgent candidates representing the ideological extreme of the party have had considerable recent success defeating more moderate incumbents. After all, that is why Senator Lugar is leaving the Senate (and why the newly elected Senator from Indiana is a Democrat).

Opponents of the treaty also offered arguments based on what seem like narrowly tendentious interpretations of the treaty. Former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum used his PAC to spread the fear that the treaty would give Geneva-based (that’s in Europe, so you know it’s really bad) UN bureaucrats the ability to dictate to the parents of children with disabilities how they should provide for those children. This was apparently very alarming to families that home school their children.

“I am frankly upset,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., “that they have succeeded in scaring the parents who home-school their children all over this country.” He said he said his office had received dozens of calls from home-schooling parents urging him to vote against the convention.

Abortion opponents also seized on language in the treaty guaranteeing the disabled equal rights to reproductive rights could lead to terminated pregnancies.

So what can we learn from this episode?

  1. The Republican party has generally repudiated the generations of internationalist foreign policy leaders who held sway from the Eisenhower administration. This Republican party internationalist tradition, which can even be traced to the 1920s and Herbert Hoover, has long been in tension with both an isolationist wing and an imperialist wing of the party. The potential power of Tea Party voters brimming with UN conspiracy theories has either driven out or silenced Republican internationalists, many of whom now find Democrats more reliable stewards of US foreign policy. They are reinforced by scholars and policy makers, often referred to as “New Sovereigntists” who fundamentally reject global governance. While foreign policy issues rarely determine national elections, the repudiation of a tradition embodied by Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George Bush (both of them), Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, Richard Lugar, and I could go on and on, will make it harder for Republicans to present themselves as reasonable potential presidents.
  2. President Obama and presidents who follow him will be more and more inclined to conduct diplomacy and reach agreement with other countries in ways that avoid the Senate.
  3. On the other hand, the inability of US presidents to deliver the Senate on practically any international treaty of consequence weakens the standing of the US in global affairs. Why, after all, should US preferences be treated seriously in the negotiation of international agreements if nobody believes the US will ultimately become a party to the agreement? The foundation of US foreign policy strategy since World War II has been the creation, articulation, and defense of a liberal international order based on institutions and rules that largely reflect US values and preferences. One of the most important values promoted by the US has been human rights. Even if US relative power in the world should decline, which really seems inevitable, a robust liberal international order would mean that the world would still be congenial for US interests and values. The failure to approve the Disability Convention and other agreements makes the US look like it has lost faith in the values it once asked the rest of the world to embrace. Not necessarily a death knell for the liberal international order, but not a sign of robustness either.

SMH.

Gay Marriage and the Supreme Court – How Will it Decide the Issue?

November 12, 2012 9 comments

In my last blog, I discussed the question of whether the Supreme Court is more likely to grant certiorari to the various DOMA petitions that raise same sex marriage issues in relation to the distribution of federal benefits or to grant review to the Prop. 8 case that raises the substantive question of whether gay marriage is protected under the Constitution. The Court will meet in conference to review the gay rights petitions on November 20, and the electoral victories for gay marriage laws in Maine and Maryland will only elevate the prominence of the issue for the justices (Liptak 2012). Assuming the Supreme Court does grant cert to California’s Prop. 8 case, a more compelling question, at least from my perspective, is how the Supreme Court might rule on the substantive issue of gay marriage. In a couple of articles, Denniston suggests that the Court may end up simply deciding the case on the same narrow grounds as the Ninth Circuit Court did, namely that a state cannot take away a Constitutional right of homosexuals to marry once the Supreme Court had already recognized that right under the state Constitution (Denniston 2012a, Denniston 2012b). Although this outcome may indeed occur, judicial scholars and court watchers would be far more interested in trying to predict how the Supreme Court Justices would resolve the substantive question at hand:  Do same sex couples have a Constitutional right to marry?

The attitudinal model of judicial behavior provides a method for answering this question. Over the past fifty years, the attitudinal model has dominated judicial scholarship in the United States as the leading explanation for how justices vote in specific cases. Indeed this model of judicial decision-making has gained such prominence, that in one of my articles I suggest that it has generated a “cottage industry of work assessing the validity of the attitudinal model across a wide range of … courts” (Wetstein and Ostberg 2005). Advocates of this theory, like Jeffrey Segal and Harold Spaeth (1993, 2002), argue that justices come to the Supreme Court with certain attitudes and values about various political, social, and economic issues. These attitudes and values, in turn, necessarily influence how they vote in specific cases across a wide spectrum of issues. These attitudes and values that the justice bring to the Court play the most important role in explaining judicial decision-making. Scholars, like Segal and Spaeth argue the values of a Supreme Court justice have a more pivotal role in determining how they vote than precedents, small group interaction, or whether they adhere to a philosophy of judicial activism or self-restraint. What this boils down to is that conservative justices vote conservatively and liberal justices vote liberally across a broad range of issues.

You might be saying to yourself — well of course this is true, but scholars are always looking for evidence to back up the theories they advocate. The Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000), provides one of the best examples of attitudinal decision-making on the modern high Court, where the five most conservative justices ruled in favor of the Bush position on the recount of votes in Florida while the four most liberal justices sided with Gore’s position. Although they believe that attitudes play a role at all judicial levels, as Segal (2006) points out “it should be at its highest at the U.S. Supreme Court level.” Attitudinal arguments hold considerable weight in the realm of political science because these scholars have managed to show across hundreds of empirical studies the veracity of this claim.

If we apply this approach to the Prop. 8 issue, we find that the current Court is equally split 4 to 4 down liberal and conservative lines, with Justices Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas found at the conservative end of the liberal-conservative spectrum, and Justice Breyer, Ginsberg, Sotomayor, and Kagan anchoring the liberal end. Ironically, the justice who is found in the middle on many Constitutional issues that wind their way to the Roberts Court is Justice Kennedy, who taught at Pacific McGeorge for over thirty years. For example, in the first term of the Roberts Court, Justice Kennedy joined the majority in 24 cases decided by a 5-4 margin, the most of any justice (SCOTUSblog). As in many other Constitutional cases, judicial scholars and lawyers alike believe he holds the pivotal vote in the gay marriage debate. Indeed, his vote is considered so important, that Theodore Olson and David Boies, who started the Prop. 8 lawsuit, carefully constructed their arguments in the case with Justice Kennedy in mind in the event this case actually reached the Supreme Court (Socarides 2012).

To understand how Justice Kennedy might decide the Prop. 8 issue one might turn to the stances he has taken in his prior rulings in the gay rights area for some evidence, especially those at the Supreme Court level. In 1980, when Justice Kennedy was on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, he joined the majority in upholding a policy that allowed the military to discharge homosexuals because of the additional security demands that must be maintained and enforced in the military context, but he acknowledged that in other situations such a policy might not be warranted (Beller v. Middendorf, 632 F.2d. 1388 (1980, 9th Cir.)). His stance on gay rights became more evident once he joined the Supreme Court, and is most readily found in his precedent setting ruling in Lawrence v. Texas (156 L. Ed. 2d. 508 (2003)). In that case, the Court struck down a Texas law criminalizing homosexual sodomy between consenting adults as a violation of their liberty interest under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority claimed, “Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct. The instant case involves liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions” (Lawrence v. Texas, 156 L. Ed. 2d 508, at 562). This ruling overturned Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), an earlier Rehnquist Court ruling which upheld a similar Georgia statute, and also underscored Justice Kennedy’s personal liberty and human dignity jurisprudence.

Justice Kennedy also demonstrated the ideals of personal and political liberty in his earlier majority opinion in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), where the Court struck down a voter adopted amendment to the Colorado Constitution that prevented state and local government from creating ordinances and statutes that barred homosexual discrimination. According to Justice Kennedy, this amendment must be struck down because it identified, isolated, and treated one group of citizens differently from all other citizens, and thus violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. At one point he stated, “Homosexuals, by state decree, are put in a solitary class with respect to transactions and relations in both the private and governmental spheres. The amendment withdraws from homosexuals, but not others, specific legal protections from the injuries caused by discrimination, and it forbid reinstatement of these laws and policies” (Ducat 2009, 1316). Taken together, Justice Kennedy’s prior rulings indicate that if the Court were to agree to hear the Prop. 8 case during the 2012 term, and decide the issue on its merits, the Supreme Court would probably hand down a 5-4 ruling in favor of same sex marriage. Such a decision would place the Court and Justice Kennedy on the “right” side of history as public opinion shifts increasingly toward support for gay marriage. This shift in public opinion is evident in the voter sentiment last week supporting gay rights in Maine and Maryland.

Despite this prediction, one must keep in mind that it is not easy to predict how the middle justice on the Supreme Court, in this case Justice Kennedy, will vote in a given dispute or issue area. This points to one of the limitations of the attitudinal model. Although scholarship has found that it is easy to predict the judicial voting behavior of judicial ideologues, or those that are found at the extreme end of the liberal-conservative spectrum, it is much harder for attitudinalists to predict how more pragmatic, centrist justices will rule on a controversial constitutional issue. Despite this underlying flaw in the attitudinal approach, the model provides one of the most powerful explanations for judicial decision-making on the U.S. Supreme Court to date.

Works Cited
Beller v. Middendorf, 632 F.2d. 1388 (1980, 9th Cir.).

Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986).

Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000).

Denniston, L. (2012a, August 22). Gay marriage cases: Now up to seven. Retrieved August 27, 2012, from SCOTUSblog: http://www.scotusblog.com/2012/08/gay-marriage-cases-now-up-to-seven.

Denniston, L. (2012b, August 10). Judge: No right to same-sex marriage. Retrieved August 27, 2012, from SCOTUSblog: http://www.scotusblog.com/2012/08/judge-blocks-same-sex-marriages.

Ducat, Craig R. 2012. Constitutional Interpretation, Ninth Edition. Boston: Wadsworth-Cengage.

Lawrence v. Texas, 156 L. Ed. 2d 508 (2003).

Liptak, Adam. 2012. States’ votes for gay marriage are timely, with justices ready to weigh cases. New York Times, November 8, 2012, P7.

Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996).

SCOTUSblog. 2012. Statistics. Retrieved October 1, 2012 from SCOTUSblog: http://www.scotusblog.com/statistics.

Segal, Jeffrey A. 2006. The Attitudinal Model. Retrieved August 31, 2012, from Empirical Legal Studies Blog: http://www.elsblog.org/the_empirical_legal_studi/2006/07/the_attitudinal.html.

Segal, Jeffrey A., and Harold J. Spaeth. 1993. The Supreme Court and the Attitudinal Model. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

______. 2002. The Supreme Court and the Attitudinal Model Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Socarides, Richard. 2012. Gay Marriage Battle Heads for the Supreme Court. Retrieved September 3, 2012 from Newyorker.com: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2012/06/gay-marriage-battle-surpeme-court.

Wetstein, Matthew E., and C.L. Ostberg. 2005. “Strategic Leadership and Political change on the Canadian Supreme Court: Analyzing the Transition to Chief Justice.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 38 (3): 653-73.

Prop. 14 and California’s Minor Parties

October 24, 2012 2 comments

This op-ed appears in today’s LA Times. I’ve expanded it a little to document some of the claims from political science research.

When sample ballots started arriving this month, many California voters must have wondered where all the candidates went. Previously it was possible to vote for someone other than a Republican or Democrat; most voters will not have that option this year. Some won’t even get to choose between a Republican and Democrat. They’ll have to pick between two Democrats or two Republicans.

What happened to all the other candidates? Proposition 14 and the California Legislature happened. Neither was good for democracy.

One characteristic of democratic systems is that voters have freedom of choice; they get to cast their ballot for whomever they consider the best option. In American politics, that means if the Republican and Democratic candidates aren’t good enough, they can vote independent, Libertarian, Green or write in someone else. Even if the candidate doesn’t win, voters still get to make their preferences known.

Proposition 14 and the Legislature removed that possibility.

Proposition 14, passed in 2010, changed California elections from a system with partisan primaries followed by a general election to a two-stage run-off election. Before, political parties and their voters nominated candidates in separate primaries. Every qualified party was guaranteed a line on the November ballot, and voters were able to choose from among those candidates. Now, all the candidates for congressional, state legislative and statewide offices–regardless of party–appear together on the first ballot, and only the top two candidates–again, regardless of party–compete in the general election.

To be sure, there were good motives for changing the electoral system. The hope was that doing so would reduce the level of partisan dysfunction in Sacramento. Unfortunately, political science research finds that open primaries do not necessarily lead to less-partisan legislatures (see here, ungated; here, gated; and here, ungated version). In fact, they can lead to just the opposite.

The change did discourage minor party candidates from running. More important, as a minor party representative told me, it discouraged the recruitment of candidates. Why try to persuade people to put their time, energy and money into what is almost certainly a brief, losing effort? When most people identify and vote either Republican or Democratic, the odds of a Libertarian or Green Party candidate getting one of the top-two spots is incredibly small. In the old system, the candidates were guaranteed to appear on the November ballot. Now, they are almost guaranteed not to appear on the ballot.

A minor party candidate’s best chance to make the general election ballot is to run against an unopposed incumbent, but the Legislature made a change that discouraged them from even considering that. It made running for office much more expensive for minor party candidates. In order to appear on the ballot, all candidates have to either pay a fee ranging from about $1,000 to $2,000, depending on the office being sought, or gather signatures from registered voters in lieu of the fee. In February, the Legislature increased the number of signatures needed for minor party candidates from a maximum of 150 to between 1,500 and 10,000, depending on the office.

Unlike the major parties, minor parties and their candidates do not have the resources to gather the requisite signatures. There are also far fewer people who identify with the minor parties in each district. The change, then, was a de facto increase in the filing fee for minor party candidates.

Political science research shows that even minor increases in filing fee costs and signature requirements can decrease the number of candidates seeking office (see here and here). Moreover, the effect is larger for minor parties than for the major parties. Representatives from California’s minor parties told me that the new signature requirement had a chilling effect on their ability to recruit people to run for office. People who would have run in 2010 (and, in some cases, did) chose not to in 2012.

Is it any wonder, then, that 2012 saw the fewest minor party candidates in California in almost 50 years?

Elections in a democracy are supposed to be about choice. Proposition 14 and the Legislature reduced voters’ choice and made California elections less democratic.

Are Men Losing Ground to Women? Is This the Right Question to Ask?

October 17, 2012 13 comments

During last night’s presidential debate, Katherine Fenton asked the candidates the following question: “In what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?”  While the media focused on Romney’s answer where he used the now infamous (and soon to be passé) phrase “binders full of women”, Fenton’s question speaks to a long running debate about the difference in equality of opportunity between men and women in the labor force, specifically the gap in pay equity. Just based on Fenton’s question, we might conclude that the inequality in pay equity is the most important concern for women in the workforce. But, Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men and the Rise of Women, released in early September 2012, tells a slightly different, and more nuanced story about what is happening to women in the American workforce.

Rosin’s book chronicles a relative ascendency of women and corresponding decline of men in the shifting labor market in the United States. For Rosin, “We live in a world that privileges nimbleness and flexibility, the willingness to adapt and bend to a fast-changing economic landscape, to be responsive to social cues” (Rosin 270). And, Rosin argues, women have been able to adjust more rapidly than men to this world.

Rosin book has touched off—or reignited—a heated debate over the relative status of women and men in American society. Stephanie Coontz, prefiguring Fenton’s question, challenged Rosin’s claims in a New York Times op-ed by asking, “How is it, then, that men still control the most important industries, especially technology, occupy most of the positions on the lists of the richest Americans, and continue to make more money than women who have similar skills and education? And why do women make up only 17 percent of Congress?”

But are the disparities Coontz and Fenton describe the ones that should demand our attention? By focusing on pay equity between men and women at the upper half of the income scale, do we avoid the broader trends Rosin sees taking place? By focusing on pay equity, do we ignore concerns about the distribution of political power in the United States? What I find missing in this debate is any substantive discussion about what it means to be equal as citizens—to share an equal stake in the public life of the republic. At base, arguments to equalize pay are arguments made for more equality between women and men—but only in economic terms. Equality can mean many things, and not all of them glamorous: equally weak, equally poor, or equally overburdened.

Rosin describes the attempt by women to secure, and retain, a kind of equal dignity amidst a changing economy—something ever so slightly different from equal pay. Rosin’s book effectively points out the way American women adapt by “taking over professions that allow them to be decent parents and that are likely to last in the new economy. They are acting with an eye to their own ambition and to the well-being of their children and mates, and their own sanity.” Rosin shows her readers that democratic political society may need forms of equality (other than pay equity at the top end of the income scale) so that citizens see their differences of income as subordinate to common purposes and conditions (such as capacity of all citizens of varying income levels to be decent parents). If we ask what policies and practices help citizens adjust to a rapidly changing economy equal pay may not be at the top of the list if that equal pay cannot pay for a life of civic dignity, a life where one’s contribution to public life matters.

Should we care about Syria’s chemical weapons?

October 9, 2012 17 comments
WMD world map

WMD world map (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Syrian civil war is a situation rich in possibilities for systematic political analysis. A traditional international politics view suggests that the implications for international security of escalation of conflict with Turkey is the obvious priority here. The question of the role of the international community is fascinating: after all, this is a fantastic case for dissecting the relationship between the United Nations, as the symbol of international law, on the one hand, and major powers with their own interests, on the other. The question of why Assad does not just get on a plane to some lovely island somewhere is also a good one, and one that theorists of authoritarian and regime transition might well have something to say about (see Barbara Geddes work on this). What role does the UN arms ban play in the conflict–given that it is mostly recognized in its breach—and what happens if Syria‘s chemical weapons fall into the rebels’ hands? And finally, there’s the question of all of those people who have been killed, or had to flee the conflict. Politics is about power, and power shapes the extent to which people live secure lives in a range of ways.

With all the possibilities, the one I’m thinking most about is the issue of chemical weapons, which in some ways, seems like a quiet little corner of this conflict, but in other ways, not so much. The evidence around the existence of chemical weapons, and their use and abuse, suggests that their “symbolic” value has at least as much impact on real politics as their material effects.

While the Syria government has gone back and forth over the last several months between threatening to use chemical weapons against “external aggression” and playing coy about having such weapons at all, there is little doubt that they do. The question is: what does this mean for security?

The history of chemical weapons and their use is intriguing and illustrative, and here’s the short version: they were deployed in the trenches in World War I, to great effect and increasing horror. They were not used as part of the international war in World War II, a war in which states fought for their very survival to an extent seldom seen in modern history—a war one would think would give a country incentive to use anything in its arsenal to survive.

The Syrian government in July announced that it had control of its chemical weapons and that it would not deploy them against its own citizens, but might use them if the victim of external aggression (international or US invasion). Evidence from the political science literature, however, would suggest that the probability of chemical weapons being used in international conflict is incredibly small. First, there’s the deterrence argument—using chemical weapons against international troops would likely get Damascus eliminated as a liveable city (weapons of mass destruction are not actually required for this if you are willing to use enough other bombs, and the US likely would be), and Syria understands this. Deterrence theorists assume that states (and their leaders typically) act in a rational fashion, and given that the cost of using chemical weapons would be so inordinately high, it would be irrational to do so—there is no reason to think that the Syrian leadership is anything but rational in this regard.

Constructivists in political science, on the other hand, argue that rational calculations about deterrence are not the key to understanding the role of chemical weapons here, but rather the norm against their use in international conflict is. After World War I, Europeans widely believed that if chemical weapons were used again, it could lead to the downfall of civilization itself (think “nuclear winter” but warmer and without the nukes—total destruction of all civilization still). Everyone had them in World War II, but no one used them on the battlefield no matter how bad it got. Constructivists argue that a norm against using these heinous weapons exists that is sufficiently strong to keep them from use in international conflict, essentially no matter what the stakes (explaining in part George HW Bush‘s elimination of nearly the entire American stockpile of chemical weapons in 1990 because, he said, they would not be used under any circumstances, so there was no point in keeping them).

So, there would seem to be a small chance of chemical weapons being used in international war. Unfortunately, that only simplifies matters slightly. There are limits to all of those arguments. One is that while there is a widespread norm against their use that norm is at least partially Eurocentric—the principal combatants in World War I certainly exhibit it, but it’s not clear it is universal given the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war. So that makes me wonder just how strong the norm against use actually is, and the extent to which it is context dependent. Between deterrence and the norm, I think use in international war is unlikely. However, a potential cause for concern is that chemical weapons have certainly been used against civilian non-combatants even when they weren’t used in international war. The Holocaust is a case in point. As is Saddam Hussein‘s use against his own Kurdish population (a theme here is that most post-World War II uses of chemical weapons have involved Saddam Hussein, so we may have to seriously consider the importance of the individual level of analysis, not just the structures in which they work).

For all that, I think chemical weapons may yet affect this conflict. For one thing, the rebels are trying to seize control of the chemical weapons stores. The rebels, until they hold Damascus, are just trying to win that conflict: deterrence doesn’t really apply, nor does the norm against their use. Those theories really assume state actors, who are engaged in a game of international politics that does, as odd as it may seem, have a lot of rules. Whoever loses the civil war in these circumstances is likely to lose everything if they have to fight it out (if the two parties don’t suddenly decide to compromise, which is unlikely given Geddes’ analysis of authoritarian transitions), so the stakes are as high as they can be, and non-state actors are typically less compliant with norms than states are. The Syrian government certainly wants to keep control of their chemical weapons—and wants everyone to know they have control over them—for a range of reasons. And they have suggested that they will give them to Hezbollah (which has helped them suppress rebel areas) to keep them safe.

And while states are unlikely to actually deploy chemical weapons in war, they do have a way of changing international politics. In this case, Israel has threatened involvement if Hezbollah gets control of Syrian chemical weapons, and Netanyahu is not in a conciliatory mood; the United States has threatened response if they are used on Syrian civilians. The Syrian government has pointed out that in fact the US has used chemical weapons as an excuse for war relatively recently (Iraq) and is embroiled in another diplomatic battle over another WMD with Iran. Given all that, it is not impossible to imagine a scenario where the possession and control of chemical weapons in Syria cause escalation—because evidence suggests that the symbolic meaning and politics around weapons of mass destruction does not have to be closely related to the material consequences of their existence.

For more on what Syria has see here and here.

Once more, with feeling

October 2, 2012 14 comments

I hate to bring attention to it, because the article is so bad, but Robert Draper in the Atlantic Monthly this month chose to pick a losing fight. In the article, Draper writes about the “dark art” of gerrymandering–the drawing of legislative districts for political purposes–which he claims is used to nefarious purposes to create a Republican majority in the House and source of mass political polarization. Given that political science has written so much about the non-relationship between redistricting and polarization–see here (gated) and here (gated), for example, and those are from my undergraduate syllabus–Draper simply reinforces the image of political reporters as lazy hacks who can’t be bothered because clearly they know better. (Heck, even a simple Google search turns up a number of studies pointing out the problems with the argument.)

Let’s revisit the argument in brief: Map-makers, using high-tech geographic information systems, can draw districts that will be safe for their parties’ members. By creating safe districts, the map-makers free candidates from having to moderate their public pronouncements and voting behavior, thus furthering the high levels of polarization we see today. In doing so, the map-makers also make U.S. elections less democratic by pre-picking the winners. The argument is intuitive and make sense on a primal level, but just about everything in it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

To begin with, it is not empirically true that safer districts give rise to more ideologically extreme candidates. More importantly, the gerrymandering argument misattributes the sources of polarization. The argument assumes that if we drew different, more competitive maps, voters, political parties, political elites, and interest groups–all of which play significant roles in the polarization of American politics–would all suddenly and magically moderate their ideological positions. Interestingly, it is not necessarily the case that making districts more competitive makes elections more democratic. It might make them less democratic (gated).

One thing that I will say for Draper’s article: The illustrations are good. But that’s about it.

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