Academic “Neutrality” and the Future of Our Democracy: One Political Scientist’s Two Cents

Published by Gerald Benjamin on

I really did not want to open the semi-annual survey invitation from Bright Line Watch when I found it in my inbox this past August. This was the eleventh time since 2017 that this team of political scientists surveyed colleagues about the state of the U.S. government, to “monitor democratic practices… their resilience, and potential threats.” Questions focus on the systemic consequences of specific presidential and congressional actions, court decisions, public protest and developments related to the conduct and administration of the forthcoming national elections.

The reason for my reluctance? Pure avoidance. I knew that simply through the process of answering the survey’s questions, and making the comparisons sought between democratic norms and democratic practice, I would have to again confront the overwhelming evidence of  how diminished our representative democracy has become in the Trump era.

In truth, I started out very skeptical about our sitting president. Reacting to the unfolding presidential campaign during the summer of 2016 I wrote that Donald Trump had provided abundant evidence that he was not qualified to be president. Events during the ensuing (almost) four years of his incumbency have convinced me that I was not worried enough.

I was educated in political science during the 1960’s, a political moment very similar to this one. There was urban-centered racial unrest and massive uprisings against the Vietnam War. Protesters marched in our streets, campuses were occupied and closed, cities were aflame. Yet in the ’60’s more than 60 percent of Americans still felt that their government could be “counted upon to do what was right.” Now, a half century later, less than one in five (18 percent) give a positive response to that very same question. The underlying implicit support and trust that legitimizes our constitutional system has precipitously eroded and at this point is near vanishing.  

What to do? What to say? In graduate seminars at Columbia a half century ago we were trained to be value neutral and evidence based in our teaching and research. We were aspiring social scientists, not advocates — whether for candidates, policies or systems, even American-style representative democracy.

In reaction to this view, a caucus for a new political science arose in the profession in the 1960’s to demand that political scientists engage collectively with the great issues of the day. At national meetings colleagues argued that we speak out on issues, that we intentionally specify and confront the potential effect of “pro-system” biases in our teaching and research, what we now call “implicit bias.”  

I was among those who resisted the “politicization” of political science. I was diligent in avoiding policy advocacy unsupported by evidence in teaching and research. Yet in truth I was biased. I entered the profession because I believed in the American system. That decision speaks volumes about my own values, then and now. I marveled at the intricate institutional balance captured in the design of that great American invention – our written national constitution, words on parchment that could contain conflict, produce compromise and reach outcomes on intractable issues and constrain leaders who commanded armies. I was and am mindful of the traumatic and contradictory elements of our history – slavery, civil war, racism — of the system’s massive flaws and deeply embedded inequities; that’s what caused me to focus my career on institutional reform. 

I taught about national constitutional change, fought for state constitutional change (with little success) and helped rewrite city and county charters (with more success). All these efforts were evidence based. All were also “system maintaining.”

I sometimes suggested to my students that our constitutional system was not immortal. We may have the longest operating national constitution in the world, I told them, but its centuries-long life is just a blink of the eye in geologic time. We may have one of the globe’s most stable political systems, but as we become more diverse, and people of shared beliefs and backgrounds concentrate in different regions, our persistence as a single nation is not inevitable. 

These points are no longer simply provocations to generate thought and classroom discussion. The SUNY New Paltz Political Science Department’s framing questions for Constitution Day this year were: “Is the Constitution able to protect American democracy in today’s political climate?” and “Can democracy be maintained in a system where the parties have become polarized and many are questioning the value of core republican principles?” An informal poll taken at the outset of the meeting found that those present were split more or less down the middle on their answers to these questions.

Meanwhile, the results of the most recent Bright Line Watch poll arrived. Political scientists reported:

  • “Overall performance of U.S. democracy continued an ongoing decline” reaching the lowest point since the surveys began
  • Declines were greatest for ”protections of free speech,” “toleration of peaceful protest,” “protection from political violence,” and “limits on government power and accountability for its misuse” 
  • Colleagues worried too “that elections were not free from foreign influence” and that “citizens did not have an equal opportunity to vote or that all votes have equal impact” 

So I am not alone.

The United States has been deeply divided before. What is different now is that we have a president who: does not accept the basic democratic premises of our politics; seeks to build up and exploit our differences, not lead in healing them; and suggests that he may not accept the election’s outcome …when he loses, of course.  

Donald Trump has made this coming election a referendum on American democracy. It is now clear that his continuation in office threatens its survival. I still retain both my bias that, for the most part, our version of representative democracy is preferable, along with my commitment to reforming it for improvement. Winston Churchill once said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” 

Don’t forget to vote. 


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