What Worries a Political Scientist

Edge.org recently published an edited volume, What Should We Be Worried About: Real Scenarios that Keep Scientists Up at Night. Using that volume as inspiration let me offer three things that especially worry this political scientist: money in politics, environmental degradation, and privacy.

To the surprise of no one who reads this blog regularly one thing that deeply concerns me is the obscene money that undermines our democracy – excuse me, our campaign finance farce-ocracy. Justice Louis Brandeis once stated that: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.” Last year I interviewed Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton, who uses the Brandeis quote in his book Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, and asked him how close we were to the worst of Justice Brandeis’s equation. Very close indeed, he thought. In essence, the bottom 90% of the electorate never gets their policy preferences met absent special circumstances. Note that leaves the top 10% in the power position – Professor Gilens was unable to test the top 1%. And that was before Citizens United. Moreover we are just beginning to scratch the surface on dark money, unidentified cash that flows into a campaign. This happened on both sides in the Boston mayoral race.

My second concern is related to the first – at least if you have ever heard the name “Koch brothers” – and that is the awful place the world is in due to the lack of American leadership on the climate change crisis. The International Panel on Climate Change issued yet another call for action this week and laid out the dire consequences the world may face if governments do not take action now. To put it plainly, as the New York Times did on Thursday, the problem in Washington is Republicans. Yet, the Times says “This week’s report makes clear, however, that the window is rapidly narrowing to forge new policies that will protect the globe from a future of serious food and water shortages, a drastic sea level rise, increased poverty and disease and other profound risks.” One of the great lessons of Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is the self-induced destruction of entire societies based on the abuse of environmental resources. The environmental crisis we now face is global in nature.

Finally there is privacy. Conservatives tend to fear excessive governmental power, while liberals fear excessive corporate power. The massive invasion of personal privacy we face today thus has something for everyone. The NSA is an obvious target but how about this report from the February 28, 2014 New York Times, British Spies Said to Intercept Yahoo Webcam Images. It turns out that many of those pictures well, how shall I put this politely, involve images that our moms would find disturbing. No word on whether our international BFFs shared the images with our NSA, but I just know we can trust the governments on this. As to the private sector the story relates that “British intelligence agency was studying the possibilities of using the cameras in Microsoft Kinect devices, which are used with its Xbox game consoles, to spy on users.” So next time you are sitting in front of the screen and some promo for a Spiderman movie suddenly morphs into a Viagra ad you need to think about that.

And turn off Yahoo too.


About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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2 Responses to What Worries a Political Scientist

  1. Ed Lyons says:

    Professor Cunningham –

    All worthy things to worry about.

    When someone asks me what I am worried most about, I say this:

    “Everything in America from the end of the Second World War until the end of the 1990s was affected by excellent economic growth. However, the economic circumstances of that time were unique and will not be repeated. We will not have that kind of growth in the first half of the 21st century, and that reality will affect everything we want to do, both at home and abroad. Worse, the public is unaware that their assumptions about future prosperity and top-dog status are unfounded, and our politicians are either ignorant of this reality, or they are unwilling to tell the public that all of our choices are going to be more difficult.”

    I believe lower economic growth will actually affect the things you mentioned: less prosperity and social mobility means that there will be more demand to redistribute wealth, which will crash into our campaign finance system, which is heavily influenced by those who will fight that. It will mean efforts to fight climate change and other environmental issues will be too expensive or deemed impractical. And I think it might even make the privacy situation worse. (As we will not be able to afford as many soldiers or heavy deployments, and as we not be able to manage the world as well through economic strength, we will increasingly rely on sophisticated, invasive, asymmetrical technologies to project power abroad, and at home to protect against terrorism.)

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