Thursday, 30 October 2008

"Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State", by Andrew Gelman

Why do Americans vote the way they do?

With the American election taking place next week, it seemed an apt time to take a look at the myths and misperception about why Republicans (ostensibly the party of business and the rich) keep winning the poor states, while Democrats (the party of the poor and workers’ unions) keep winning the richest states.

Andrew Gelman and his team of assistants draw on existing research in political science, building on its foundation to create an accessible and engaging book. The book is not meant as some high-academic, scientific explanation, but rather an accessible look into American politics (at the presidential-, congressional- and state-levels) for the general reader who wants a little more than they can find in newspapers or weekly magazines.

The book puts paid to Thomas Frank’s argument in What’s The Matter With America?, in which he suggests that poor Americans vote for the Republican Party, against their interests. He also shows that the richer voters do not always favour Democrats, as author and journalist David Brooks has observed (in Bobos In Paradise). Gelman, through extensive use of polling and voting data, shows these arguments to be false.

After removing these assumptions, Gelman is able to show what’s really going on in America’s polarized politics. His main argument is that simple Red State-Blue State polarisation is not sufficient to explain why Republicans now win poor states and Democrats now win rich states. One of his answer is: “Voters in richer states support the Democrats even though within any given state, richer voters tend to support the Republicans.” And apparently, because there are more working class people in urbanised, rich states, then they can usually tip the balance towards the Democrats. Although, it is also true that in New York, California, Massachusetts and Connecticut, the difference in numbers between rich voters voting for Republicans and Democrats is narrower. Gelman addresses all the possible voting indicators, including religion, race, political sorting (where people move to areas more conducive to their own political and social ideology) and economic situation – even touching on the idea of correlating the number of Starbucks or Wal-Marts with voting patterns. One fact that intrigued me the most is that it appears as though the “culture wars” are predominantly a thing of the richer states, with poor state voters still voting along economic lines. For a Republican to win, though, he only needs to get just enough of the lower-income voters to tip him over the top.

Despite the book’s accessibility, it is not without flaws. First off, the style it is written in is very methodical and dry. This has both good and bad points; good because it makes it easy to follow, bad because it can become a little repetitive and occasionally tedious as Gelman feels the need to often reiterate what has been observed so far. A small niggle, but one that definitely is there. The book has a feel of a welcoming university lecture on voting habits, rather than a journalistic appraisal of how American’s decide on their office-holders. The bombardment of statistics will probably turn some readers off, but ultimately it all goes to painting a far more complicated picture than we have often been led to believe by the media. The extensive inclusion of graphs and maps is good, but ultimately some will probably find them confusing, which means the main people who will get use out of them are likely to be political science students, pollsters and maybe journalists.

This book is a quick read (I polished it off in about a day), and full of interesting arguments and insights that will turn many deep-seated beliefs about American politics on their head, and make a lot of people reconsider their assumptions and biases.

Gelman has added much to the argument that America is not so much Red and/or Blue, but rather it is far more Purple (just look at some of his maps!). I would recommended this book to all politics-junkies and political science students and lecturers everywhere. It will also be interesting to see how/if his observations hold true for the 2008 election, too.

Also try: Mark Penn & E. Kinney Zalesne, Microtrends (2007); Rick Shenkman, Just How Stupid Are We? (2008); Earle & Merle Black, Divided America (2007); Bill Bishop, The Big Sort (2008); Karen Kaufmann, John Petrocik & Daron Shaw, Unconventional Wisdom (2008); Thomas Frank, What’s The Matter With America? (2005)

Monday, 27 October 2008

"America Between the Wars - 11/9 to 9/11", by Derek Chollet & James Goldgeier

An insightful look at American foreign policy between the demise of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the War on Terror.

The 12 years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the September 11th attacks in New York saw the United States searching for a guiding principle to shape its foreign policy in the newly unipolar world, struggling to adjust after 40 years of relatively consistent strategy (specifically, one form or other of containment).

Some see the period as a “lost decade” as Bush and Clinton floundered, attempting to find an overarching framework in which to conduct the US’s international relations. For Bush it involved realism, while Clinton sought comfort in globalisation and economics, tripping due to his obsession with how his policies would play in the media and polls.

While some in America pushed the Bush and Clinton administrations to make the most of the “peace dividend”, others tried to pull American forces back home, believing that it was not in America’s interest to get involved in the myriad conflicts and mini-wars around the globe. Neither party had a united view on foreign policy, making it only that much harder for the presidents’ teams to recreate the traditional bipartisan consensus. The authors detail all of this in an engaging manner.

The book discusses foreign policy in the context of America’s domestic politics, too. During the national elections, as well as the general domestic environment of the time (which was rife with international apathy), and what it meant for possible policies a president could pursue.

The authors appear to have no specific political agenda, detailing successes and failures of each of the three administrations, as equally at ease in criticising Bush and Clinton for inaction in humanitarian crises around the world (Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Rwanda, etc.). Internal conflicts are honestly explained and described (e.g. between President George H.W. Bush and then-Secretary of Defence Dick Cheney). They offer analysis of how certain decisions have affected American foreign policy ever since, and frequently place events and policies in their historical context, providing insight into trends and traditions in the foreign policy establishment.

The book, written in a narrative-history style, is as much about the government appointees and characters who were involved in foreign policy as it is about the presidents, as well as the various forces (domestic and foreign) that exerted pressure on each administration. In this respect, it is a welcome change, as often American foreign policy is approached as a facet of presidential biography. Of course, ultimately the buck stops with the president (as Truman famously believed), but Chollet and Goldgeier’s attention to the presidential advisers, Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Council, and so on, adds so much more to the discussion and overall picture.

Drawing on extensive interviews – from the time, and also recent – adds even more depth, as well as honest appraisals of various members’ conduct and actions.

Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier have achieved something truly special with American Between The Wars. A cross between narrative history and an analysis of America’s confused search for a grand strategy following the end of the Cold War, America Between The Wars is an indispensible book for anyone wanting to make sense of this strangely difficult period. The authors have definitely achieved their goal of explaining how America got to where it is now. It’s rare for a book such as this to grab one’s attention so firmly, but America Between The Wars is the most readable account of American foreign policy since Stephen E. Ambrose’s Rise To Globalism (1997).

I could write at great length about all the strengths of this book, but I will limit myself. Highly informative, illuminating and in an accessible style that is a joy to read, America Between The Wars is an indispensible history and analysis of the decade between the Cold War and the War on Terror. I urge everyone to read this book.

An exceptional read.

Also try: Stephen E. Ambrose & Douglas Brinkley, Rise To Globalism (1997); Matthew Yglesias, Heads In The Sand (2007); Colin Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders (2006); Fraser Cameron, US Foreign Policy After The Cold War (2002); David Halberstam, War In A Time Of Peace (2002)

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

"In Defence of America", by Bronwen Maddox (Duckworth & Co.)

An intelligent, considered defence of the country it is oh-so-cool to hate

In an environment of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, it is a relief to know books such as this are being written by intelligent, literate commentators; informing us of what the situation really is, devoid of bloviating or exaggeration and hyperbole. Maddox, an British-domiciled American, writes in a moderated, considered tone, offering balancing arguments for and against her own views, giving the reader a more even picture of America’s strengths and weaknesses.

Inspired by the “abrasion of ill-founded comment about the United States”, which Maddox considers “normally amusing, but occasionally sharply irritating”, In Defence of America is meant as a riposte to the pervasive and ill-informed criticism of those who equate being anti-Bush with being anti-American, who tow the tabloid line of America being the root of all that is evil and wrong in today’s world. People, in other words, who think it’s cool to simply state “I hate America.”

Areas that are discussed include America’s “culture” (of which there isn’t really only one), America’s approach and adherence to international law, American business and trade culture, and of course American foreign policy toward Iraq, Iran, Russia and China. Maddox doesn’t even pretend to defend Bush and Co.’s many blunders. Instead, she tries to explain it. While she is definitely on America’s side, she is not blind to America’s shortcomings or mistakes. Like Robert Kagan (though considerably less stridently), Maddox believes that Russia and China are the biggest, potentially looming threats to America’s position in the world. Rather than echoing Kagan and McCain’s calls for expelling Russia from the G8 or creating Democracies-only clubs, Maddox actually thinks America should stop demonising China (her position on Russia is a little more measured).

The one criticism I would have of the book is that it’s too short. While it’s clear that Maddox was working to a tight deadline (the examples and sources used are extremely timely), I can’t help but wonder about the ways in which the book would have benefitted from more depth. The book’s structure doesn’t lack for cohesion or pace, but I do think the book would be a lot more powerful if Maddox had been awarded more time to dig deeper into her subject.

Offering plenty of policy proposals for the next president, Maddox discusses how America can redeem itself, with suggestions including: increased diplomacy, close Guantanamo Bay, “act on global warming, the economy and trade”, soften tone on issues such as Iranian nuclear proclivities, wean itself of paranoid exaggerators in government, “give a nod to cooperation”, and remain engaged in the Middle East (including avoiding a precipitated withdrawal from Iraq). Maddox believes there’s still plenty to inspire confidence and optimism in America and its continued strength – both in terms of soft and hard power.

In Defence of America is a great little book. In a style far more eloquent than I could ever achieve on this subject, Maddox has written a book which should be essential reading for all in Europe and the rest of the world, who need to be reminded of all the good America has done for and around the world. It would be interesting to see what she could do with a little more time.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 17 October 2008

"Reluctant Crusaders", by Colin Dueck (Princeton University Press)

An excellent examination of American Foreign Policy Tradition

Following the widely-considered disastrous Bush Doctrine, there’s been broad discussion about what America’s “grand strategy” should be in the years following Bush’s departure from the White House. Almost every journal or major magazine has, in some way, posited solutions to America’s declining status and influence in the world. Colin Dueck’s Reluctant Crusaders joins a long and illustrious lineage of work exploring the trends and traditions in US foreign policy.

Reluctant Crusaders examines historical patterns of change and continuity in America’s foreign policy strategy. Dueck looks at four major turning points: the periods (“puzzles”) following World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and 9/11. He shows how American cultural assumptions regarding liberal foreign policy goals, together with international pressures, have acted to push and pull U.S. policy in competing directions over time. The result is a book that combines an appreciation for the role of both power and culture in international affairs.

While liberal internationalists argue that the United States should promote an international system characterized by democratic governments and open markets, Dueck argues that these same internationalists tend to define American interests in broad, expansive, and idealistic terms, without always admitting the necessary costs and risks such a grand vision would entail. The outcome is often sweeping goals (something apparent throughout the 20th Century, from Wilson and Roosevelt, to Clinton and Bush), pursued by disproportionately limited means (see, for example, the current War in Iraq), as a result of entrenched “limited liability” preferences. Dueck has attempted, with considerable degree of success, to explain how this situation is arrived at, and why it continues to endure.

With Reluctant Crusaders, Dueck has attempted to bridge the gap between realism (which emphasises international pressures in foreign policy) and constructivism (emphasises norms, ideas and culture) in the study of US grand strategy. He offers alternative possibilities for policies that could have been pursued, and shows how they might have fit in with American foreign policy tradition – something he does for the eventual policies that were implemented, too.

Despite Dueck's thorough analysis, some will disagree with his conclusions. For example, Dueck significantly reduces the importance of realism in American foreign policy making, identifying it as one of four approaches that make up just one half of foreign policy, where many (myself included) would argue that realism actually underpins a majority of US foreign policy throughout its history - Dueck attributes America’s liberal tradition to the remaining half. Another problem is Dueck's insistance on providing all sides of an argument (as though he was hoping to be all things to all readers), the sides of which he doesn't always flesh out completely - such as the importance of liberal rhetoric and how it reflects actual motivations. Dueck was on to something very good in this section, but he didn't develop the idea as much as he perhaps could.

Nevertheless, and theoretical differences aside, Dueck offers cogent, well-thought-out arguments, which should provide material to either make people rethink their opinions (even I did a little), or help others come to grips with the various issues at stake in American foreign policy.

The book is well structured and clearly laid out in sections which deal with Dueck’s various arguments and theories, offering a user-friendly guide to American foreign policy strategy. The book’s main strength is the argument that no one theory explains American foreign policy culture, but rather that it is a combination of realism, liberalism and cultural constructivism that can help to explain US grand strategy – Dueck refers to this as “neoclassical realism”. Another strength is Dueck’s lack of stridence, as he freely admits that this theory is not faultless; he uses a good range of examples to “prove” that it suffices for a broader understanding of foreign policy. While some might be put off by his theoretical chapters (1 & 2), the following chapters that focus on the aforementioned turning points are extremely good, full of historical detail that should interest most, even if you are not overly familiar with the theory.

Insightful, detailed, persuasive and engaging, Reluctant Crusaders is a fresh (and sometimes unique) look at how America historically has approached the world, and the various forces exerting pressure on the tug-of-war policy-making process of today.

Also try: My PhD thesis (pending, 2010); Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State (1997); Stephen E. Ambrose & Douglas Brinkley, Rise To Globalism (1997)