Political Science

The other day a reader sent me a question, essentially asking for a recommended reading list for books that offered insight into the political process, adding the observation that she’d learned more about politics from my books than from all the college political science courses she’d taken.  As a practical matter, I can’t comply with her request, for the simple reason that there isn’t a single book, or even a short list of books, that would do that subject justice.  Over the past fifty years, I’ve read hundreds, if not thousands, of books dealing with politics and history and thousands of articles, and each one has added to my understanding, either of politics or of the shortcomings of some writers in the field. The principal reason why no short list of books will suffice for a good understanding of politics is that, at least in my opinion, the vast majority of books on politics approach the subject in a typical “American” fashion. They’re almost invariably “how” books – how this politician got elected, how this campaign was run, how the Federal Reserve botched the real estate bubble – or some form of biography or, occasionally, the history of political developments.

Usually, buried in lesser paragraphs but not always even mentioned, there are some explanations of why things happened, but very seldom do those “why” explanations deal with the basic structure of politics and government, which is something that my fiction often does.  Those explanations are sometimes referred to as didactic or boring, but they do offer reasons why my characters do what they do or why they can’t do what they’d really like to do.

I grew up in a family that was active in low-level politics.  My father was a town councilman and acting mayor.  My mother was a state officer in the League of Women Voters.  Politics was always a dinner-time subject, and several congressmen and senators were personal friends of my parents, as was a noted U.S. Supreme Court Justice.  For whatever reason, I also read histories, any kind of histories, voraciously.  But when I got to college, a small but prestigious Ivy League school noted for its political science department, I was absolutely stunned to learn how little my professors actually knew about electoral politics, legislative branch politics, or politics on the local level.  They were all experts on the Presidency and the administrative branch, but not on the other branches.  Later in life, after a tour and half in the U.S. Navy and some industrial and real estate jobs [as a lowly and not terribly effective day-to-day realtor], I ended up as a Congressional staffer, first as a legislative director, then a staff director, before I became director of Legislation and Congressional Affairs at the U.S. EPA. After that, I spent another six years as a consultant to a firm that attempted to influence federal government policy in various areas through the presentation of factual and political matter, call it selective fact-based lobbying as opposed to contribution-based lobbying.  Those experiences confirmed, in general, that very few academic political scientists truly understood the entire political structure.

Frankly, I don’t know of anyone writing books on politics that has my kind of background, not that there isn’t, but such authors must be rare.  There are certainly many distinguished authors who know far, far, more than I do about given subjects, but the problem is that very few of them have a breadth of experience and the inclination to ask why things are as they are and how they came to be that way.  The same is also true of most politicians and their staffers.  They’re preoccupied with obtaining, holding, and exercising power, but most are limited in that because they often don’t understand the nature of power in a larger sense, of the forces that shaped and are still shaping and reshaping the political structure.  They are, however, masters of manipulating the structures close to them and to maximizing their own political power.  This, by the way, is why very few senators or representatives make good presidents, because their careers and their focus are based on getting elected from a very specific constituency that can never represent the wide range of interests and problems that face the American President.  Even a senator from California or Texas is limited, because very few of them truly understand the executive branch, while, on the other hand, very few political appointees understand either industry or the congress, and those do do understand one seldom understand the other.

Add to those factors the fact that most readers of non-fiction want to know the juicy items and “hows” of politics more than the “whys.”  And the “whys” are often disconcerting and unpleasant.  After running an office in the Reagan Administration, I have a much better understanding of exactly why the Civil Service is both cumbersome and slow to react – and it makes perfect sense, given the pressures and structures [and it would take a long article to explain, which most people would dismiss, as I know after trying to explain on a number of occasions in the past… yet that is why it works the way it does, like it or not].

The other problem is that, in my books, I can show what lies behind intrigues, but in the real world it’s even more complex and even a slight reference to a name or an event can trigger a lawsuit, and without concrete references, people tend not to believe what they regard as “theories,” particularly if those theories conflict with their beliefs and biases.  Even when a wealth of information is provided, as it has been in some cases, people tend not to believe what contradicts their preconceptions, whereas, as I’ve pointed out before, presentation of real or realistic factors and structures in a fictional setting allows readers to consider what I’m showing in a more objective nature, whether they agree with my presentation or not.

And that is an abbreviated, but all too long, explanation of why I can’t offer a short answer to the poor reader’s question – and why I’m not about to re-enter American politics again, either as a non-fiction writer, a staffer, or a candidate.


10 thoughts on “Political Science”

  1. Daze says:

    “The West Wing” has to be the first port of call for understanding the constraints on ‘the most powerful person in the world’ – albeit again looking at Presidential level. Have to watch all 154 episodes to get the full flavour, though, which I guess is another aspect of what you said re no one book or list of books is going to get the job done.

    We have an interesting situation here in Sydney, in that since the 1970s the University of Sydney has two Economics Departments: Economics, which looks at modelling and all that BS, and Political Economy, which teaches that economic decisions are made in (historically) smoke-filled rooms by people who know nothing about the other economics, and only use the models to post-justify what they were going to do anyway. I did a thoroughly enjoyable Masters there after retiring, and have another long list of books about these particular aspects, too boring (and long) to share, but a good start is the work of Joe Halevi (http://sydney.edu.au/arts/political_economy/staff/academic_staff/joseph_halevi.shtml).

    The real world is also full of unintended consequences. We were very close to having a carbon pricing scheme in Australia a few years back, but the Greens voted it down because they thought it wasn’t strong enough. The unintended fallout from that was the (conservative) Liberal Party’s climate-change-believer leader being replaced by an unreconstructed denier, and their preferred scheme being pushed back by many years. If they’d decided to go with what they could get, and push for changes later, we’d be in a different place now – and there were only a very few people in a very minority party making that decision.

    Probably the motto of the late twentieth and early twenty-first in all fields of endeavour (but certainly all of science) is: “it’s more complicated than that”.

  2. Derek says:

    Any suggestions for history books then?

    Also, Daze, that’s a wonderful motto. If only I heard it more often…

    1. There’s the same problem with history books. All I can say is that you read enough from enough different authors… but I will say one that I did enjoy comparatively recently with a slightly different perspective was Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence.

      1. Daze says:

        If you want something that tries to put the whole thing (law, war, history, governance, WDSM) together in one coherent whole, then Philip Bobbitt’s “The Shield of Achilles” is a good start. Huge book, but worth the hard yards.

  3. Max says:

    Mr Modesitt’s experiences stint in the halls of power makes for the better books. I always chuckle when his protagonists, when faced with bureaucracy and short sightedness in government/academia, usually end up with physically shaking up or killing their opponent in the end.

    1. Nate says:

      I think that that is maybe why The Green Progression gets consistently low reviews (in contrast – I love the book). Because it has people destroyed politically, behind the curtain of power, instead of the more obvious conclusion of someone getting killed blatantly.

  4. Joe says:

    I would like to read your long article on why the Civil Service is both cumbersome and slow to react.

  5. Wayne Kernochan says:

    If Mr. Modesitt is going naked on his experience in politics, I think it might be useful to him and the reader to go a little naked myself. I also majored in Government at Harvard (only Harvard would be arrogant enough to call it that) back when,was an intern in Sen. Pell’s office for a summer and helped ghost-write a book for him, was in intern in Interior under Train for a summer with a side stint in Man Under the Sea, and did my senior thesis on dredge-fill pollution in navigable waterways (yes, that’s a political issue). I heard from my Dad about his Legislative Drafting Fund, Mom about her LWV and UN experience, and did some digging about my Grand-dad’s experience in Commerce under FDR and Truman. Since then, mostly a lurker.

    So I don’t know nearly as much about politics at the retail level as Mr. Modesitt, but I do think that there are books/other media out there that give a flavor of the national level, as I have seen/investigated it.

    For the executive branch, I would recommend Bruce Catton’s 3-volume opus about the Civil War. That sounds strange, but it makes clear how US politics operates in an extreme situation, and what makes a good politician (and Lincoln grew to be very, very good) as opposed to a less good one (like Chase or Davis). Plus, it’s superbly written.

    But, personally, I would round that out with Vidal’s Lincoln. Vidal had been there (father a Senator), and he has a quirky view of the US as an empire, but he has a superb eye for the sleazy sides of the whole affair which somehow makes you appreciate some politicians more. Plus, he takes much more the point of view of the failures, like Chase.

    Unfortunately, Vidal doesn’t do modern (although I never read his Gilded Age, his mature work about FDR). For that I would recommend the delightful British Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, first in video, and then in book form. The book is useful because it makes clear some important things sloughed over in the TV series, such as the fact that the Foreign Office is really there to prevent short-term politicians from doing irreparable harm to the long-term security of Britain — and so they do it by obtuse bureaucracy and passive resistance. And, of course, every episode is applicable to the US, and very funny.

    I have never found much material about the legislative side very useful, because all fail to capture a fundamental fact: each senator and representative is like a stuffed dummy, utterly dependent on his or her staff, because there is far too much for them to learn, know, and do in order to keep the wheels of government moving, much less improve them, and so they depend on the staff to fill the gaps. When you see them voting, they have just been summoned from their offices on a little tram car five minutes ago, having been given a rough idea in their caucuses a few days ago and with the aide filling them in as they travel on what’s happened between then and now — often, that plus whatever else the staff tells them is the only information they have on a bill. In committee meetings, a staff member is hovering with a printout of questions to ask and speeches to make, and is conferring when the meeting takes an unexpected turn. The staff defines the useful news of the day, and filters the pantload of telegrams, letters, and emails. The staff is there to prevent the representative from choking on his or her own inevitable ignorance.

    The closest thing I’ve seen to this — and it’s not directly on point — is Robert Redford’s The Candidate. It may seem as if the point of the movie is how political expediency inevitably trumps principles. Not at all. The point is how a first-time candidate comes to realize that he must be dependent on his staff from now on. Hence the final question in the movie (sorry, no spoilers).

    That leaves voting behavior. Actually, there has been a fair bit discovered about how people really decide between candidates and vote. I can think of no finer place to discover it than Nate Silver’s http://www.fivethirtyeight.com. He may seem politically biased, but, in my experience, when it comes to predictions and analysis of voting behavior, he’s not. Just reading his asides as he handicaps various races will, over time, give you a pretty good picture of what’s going on.

    That’s my background, that’s my list. Just sayin’.

  6. Wayne Kernochan says:

    PS My personal favorite in Yes Prime/Minister series is the one about the trip to Saudi Arabia. After it, you will never be able to think of politicians’ drinking habits (and in my day, quite a few had serious drinking problems, unbeknownst to the public) in quite the same way again 🙂

    1. Mayhem says:

      Oh yes, it is always important to respond quickly to the needs of a delegation of Teachers lest someone take offense…

      My favourite was always Sir Humphrey taking Bernard through a survey on Conscription, says everything you need to know about populist surveys and question effects.

      HA: “You know what happens: nice young lady comes up to you. Obviously you want to create a good impression, you don’t want to look a fool, do you? So she starts asking you some questions: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?”
      BW : “Yes”
      HA: “Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?”
      BW: “Yes”
      HA: “Do you think there is a lack of discipline in our Comprehensive schools?”
      BW: “Yes”
      HA: “Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?”
      BW: “Yes”
      HA: “Do you think they respond to a challenge?”
      BW: “Yes”
      HA: “Would you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?”
      BW: “Oh…well, I suppose I might be.”
      HA: “Yes or no?”
      BW: “Yes”
      HA: “Of course you would, Bernard. After all you told you can’t say no to that. So they don’t mention the first five questions and they publish the last one.”
      BW: “Is that really what they do?”
      HA: “Well, not the reputable ones no, but there aren’t many of those. So alternatively the young lady can get the opposite result.”
      BW: “How?”
      HA: “Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?”
      BW: “Yes”
      HA: “Are you worried about the growth of armaments?”
      BW: “Yes”
      HA: “Do you think there is a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?”
      BW: “Yes”
      HA: “Do you think it is wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?”
      BW: “Yes”
      HA: “Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?”
      BW: “Yes”
      HA: “There you are, Bernard. The perfect balanced sample.”

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