If you start getting irritated with political science professor friends during this campaign, it's because of the discipline and what it was meant to do -- understand and defend democracy and avoid the failures of civic culture.
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If you start getting irritated with political science professor friends during this campaign, it's because of the discipline and what it was meant to do -- understand and defend democracy and avoid the failures of civic culture.

American political science was born in the progressive era as an offshoot of the American History Association. The discipline was dedicated to understanding how to make government work and work better for its people.

How prominent were the efforts of political science? Over the span of four years before World War I, a political scientist who was president of Princeton would become president of the American Political Science Association, governor of New Jersey, and then president of the United States (it was Woodrow Wilson). During the Depression, political scientists from the left and the right worked to find solutions to the problems of government and markets. A major radio network offered a weekly show in prime time for political scientists to explore the problems and solutions to an ongoing economic crash. Political scientists worked with government and corporations and the defense establishment, creating tools for logistics, propaganda, and intelligence during World War II.

Then, in 1946, a victorious America invested in understanding how to defend and preserve democracy. After World War II, substantial money was invested in the behavioral sciences by government and private foundations to understand why democracy failed in Germany, Spain, Italy, and others countries across Eastern Europe. We did this to avoid another costly and destructive war involving authoritarian and violent regimes.

At home, the Rockefeller Foundation gave Johns Hopkins professor V. O. Key a major grant to understand the low political participation in the South. The result was Southern Politics in State and Nation, a classic book that detailed the failure of regional politics based on a fragmented and incoherent Democratic Party. That old, dead Democratic Party was dedicated to segregation and bossism, and the demagogues of the Dixie provided scapegoats for the woes of the working whites - aliens and people of color. It was Gothic politics at its most entertaining and dangerous, and it took extraordinary efforts of the national government to dismantle America's Apartheid regimes.

So, if you hear and see political scientists talking about issues like democracy, authoritarianism, and the loss of civil discourse, they've probably given a lot of thought and put a lot of data to the problem. Political science wrestled with Jim Crow and the Sixties as well as the social movements of race, gender, sex, and religion. Political science cautioned decades ago the danger of corporations capturing Congress and agencies. They argued and fought to restore social capital and recognized the power of churches and good schools in (re)building and restoring communities. Political science also gave the world Leo Strauss and neoconservative political thought, for good or for ill.

American political scientists are of varied ideologies but most of us are dedicated to the notion that there is an empirical democratic theory that can be practiced well and better in the United States. V. O. Key said as much in assessing the ills of the South in 1949. We also are dedicated to the notion that it's better to avoid authoritarianism through civil debate and institutions than through the use weapons and violence. Professor Key observed that "If a democratic regime is to work successfully it must be generally agreed that contestants for power will not shoot each other and that ballots will be counted as cast."

This is why modern political scientists were created -- to help build better citizen governance and avoid costly wars driven by demagoguery, whether at home or abroad. If that sounds elitist, well, it is. But it is what we do, what we trained to do, to understand the engineering of democracy. We've been warning the nation for over two decades of a looming crisis in democratic confidence and here it is.

Restoring a confident American democracy is possible. The larger lessons of studying and understanding political behavior, institutions, and systems should be put to work in defense of the core principles of the American Nation. They are in Jefferson's Declaration and Madison's Preamble, and in Reagan's farewell address. But they are best stated by Abraham Lincoln, who declared in his second inaugural, "with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

This is why we write.

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