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Remarks to Graduating Class, Department of Political Science - University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

May 16, 2018
May 13, 2018

I’m delighted to return to my alma mater today, to welcome our many guests to Chapel Hill’s fabled springtime, and to help send off the Political Science Department’s contingent of the Class of 2018.

It’s especially good to have your families here. Your parents and grandparents are proud of what you’ve achieved, relieved that you’ve made it, and/or anticipating the day when you join the workforce and draw a paycheck! And of course, as graduates, you are thinking inter-generationally as well: realizing that you did not reach this point alone; recalling the parental nudging and cajoling, love and discipline, encouragement and support, that have brought you to this day; and stopping to say thank you.

You’re graduating from a fine department, and one I almost joined 50 years ago before deciding to teach at Yale for a few years after receiving my Ph. D and eventually to come to Duke – imagine that! – to teach political science and help launch what is now the Terry Sanford School of Public Policy.

I wasn’t a political science major at Carolina, but I should tell you that four of my present staff members were, including my chief of staff. Your class also includes four of our recent interns.

I came to Carolina as a junior, transferring from Mars Hill, then a junior college, and migrated from preparing to become a civil engineer into a major in history. But I knew a lot of political science majors – student government and the Di-Phi debating society were full of them – and it seemed like a fair number of them expected to be governor of North Carolina someday.

I won’t deny that I occasionally had such thoughts myself, but I could calculate the odds. So, after various twists and turns, I prepared for a career in teaching and research. I caught a lucky break in landing a summer job in the office of U.S. Senator Bob Bartlett of Alaska, a job to which I returned every summer throughout graduate school and from which I interviewed a third of the United States Senate and wrote a dissertation about how the Senate was opening up as an arena for policy initiatives during those years.

As political science dissertations go, mine was relatively close to the realities of politics and policy-making. Still, when I ended up running for office some fifteen years later, I wasn’t sure my political science background would be an asset. Quite the contrary. Politicians of the time like George Wallace and Jesse Helms had made good use of “pointy-headed intellectuals” as their rhetorical foil. So, before my first campaign for Congress got too far along, we took a poll. To our surprise, we found that voters actually thought studying and teaching about Congress was good preparation for serving there, and that Duke University scored remarkably well on the “feeling thermometer.” So, we went from downplaying my academic credentials to actually cutting a television ad showing me at the blackboard!

So, whatever the level of political aspiration might be in this class, you can at least be assured that you haven’t disqualified yourselves! Actually, in all seriousness, I want to argue the opposite. I want to take these few minutes to reflect on your political science education, which I hope has prepared you not just for a career in politics, if you pursue that course, but for a lifetime of intelligent observation, interpretation, and participation in civic life. At least it has that potential, all the more so because political science remains one of the most expansive of the social sciences, ranging from historical understanding, to the analysis of how key institutions and processes work, to the exploration of moral and philosophical traditions as they apply to politics.

How relevant is political science? Professor Jane Mansbridge of Harvard gave an ambitious answer in 2013 in her presidential address to the American Political Science Association (Perspectives on Politics, March 2014). Political science’s mission, she suggests, is to help us govern ourselves – something about which, “compared to our needs we know very little.” We don’t know, Mansbridge continues:

how to coerce ourselves into giving up what we need to give up in order to stop global warming. We don’t know how to stop nuclear proliferation. We don’t know how to transition from autocracy to democracy without descending into violence. Closer to home, we don’t know how to tax ourselves sufficiently to keep our infrastructure from crumbling or how to pay for the rising medical costs of an aging population. We don’t know how to produce laws in a polarized Congress or how to reduce that polarization. We don’t know how to keep ourselves from drifting into a greater and greater inequality. At this moment of great need and relative ignorance, political science is the one academic discipline explicitly organized to study how we make our collective decisions on these matters, and how we can make them legitimately (pp. 8-9).

Even closer to home, we might amend Mansbridge’s list to include the equalizing and expanding of economic opportunity and social mobility across all of North Carolina, rural and urban, inner-city and suburban. How do we achieve that? How do we broaden enjoyment of the benefits of our common life, and overcome past exclusions, without provoking the politics of reaction and resentment? Locally, how do we address the dilemma of growth and gentrification, so that our cities develop in a way that provides and protects affordable, accessible housing for people of diverse means?

A series of tall orders, for certain. You might observe that in some instances our problem is less not knowing what needs to be done and more about not mustering the political will to get it done. But good political science encompasses that as well: problems may be daunting in terms of scope and scale, costs, policy-tradeoffs, conflicting values and interests. Politics and government are essential to taking on the challenges, but they can also stand in the way, and we need to understand that clearly. In fact, political ideology, the interplay of economic interests, and the quality of representation and leadership are as often negative as they are positive forces. But we need a discriminating understanding of how and if our politics is working; if we simply write off politics and government, we lose the tools that are most indispensable for a democracy that needs to take on these challenges.

Mansbridge’s address appropriately emphasizes the critical question of coercion: what is its place, and how is it to be legitimized, in a democratic society? This is a question political science

puts before us, although it is not something the American political tradition, decisively skewed toward liberal individualism, has dealt with easily or adequately. America’s founding ideas and documents are rooted in resistance to tyranny and securing the rights of the individual. Today, however, Mansbridge regards “the challenge of creating legitimate coercion…at least as great as the challenge of resisting illegitimate coercion (p. 9).”

Why is this so? Because society at all levels is increasingly faced with challenges requiring collective action, as opposed to the uncoordinated agency of autonomous individuals or groups. This can be stated as a paradox, as Garrett Hardin and Mancur Olson did in their pioneering works in the 1960’s – works that produced a shock of recognition in me as a student, after which I never saw the world in quite the same way. Hardin’s paradox is this: the freedom of individual farmers around common pasture land, grazing their animals on the common land to their heart’s content, will result in the disappearance of the common land and hence the loss of freedom for all. Coercion, regulation – limiting access to and use of the common land – will be necessary to prevent depletion of the resource and to preserve its availability for any and all. This is a parable of modern life and represents a profound challenge to anti-government ideology.

Speaking of ideology, your political science education will also give you a sense of where competing ideologies have come from and an ability to spot fraudulent ideologies and to reject overly simple solutions. The discipline of political science has wisely kept a place for the study of history and of the great philosophical traditions on which political thought and practice have drawn. An exploration of American Political thought, for example, can help us understand what one might call the “Antifederalist moment” we are now experiencing in American politics.

You sometimes have to go beyond the usual sources: I used to tell my students that if they wanted to understand our constitutional history they should of course read The Federalist, but if they really wanted to understand American politics, they should read the Antifederalists. American political thought, as Bernard Bailyn and others have pointed out, was distinctive in its juxtaposing of power and liberty – with little sense that power might serve or expand liberty, or that governmental power might counter power in other realms. The inclination rather was to see the power of government and the liberty of citizens as fundamentally opposed – the “resistance tradition” of which Professor Mansbridge spoke.
This proved to be problematic as a governing principle and, after six perilous years under the Articles of Confederation, the drafters of the Constitution sought to strike a new balance between what they described as “energy in government” and the checks and balances that would keep government within its proper bounds.

The Antifederalists were having none of it; one of them wrote that they “should look upon those who are to put the [federal government] in motion as enemies…” Their legacy has its positive aspects, including the addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. But their anti-governmental animus has periodically resurfaced, often leading to a misdiagnosis of whose power we should be concerned about and throwing up ideological obstacles to the practical and judicious use of governmental power. Tea Party libertarianism is only the latest manifestation, ironically and ahistorically posing as the defender of the Federalism and the Constitution.

Recognizing the historic power of the Antifederalist themes in American thought can help us understand the appeal such ideas have to many of our fellow citizens and the sway they have gained, at least for now, over American politics. And for those of us who believe such ideas are inadequate to our present reality, understanding how deeply rooted they are will underscore the importance of challenging them with a compelling counter-narrative.

A second recurring debate in American politics posits “communitarian” values as a counterpoint or corrective to the dominant themes of liberal individualism. The American antecedents are Puritan and Transcendentalist, but the roots go back as far as Aristotle. Communitarian though emphasizes our dependence on and responsibility to the communities that shape and sustain us – interdependence as well as autonomy, responsibilities as well as rights, identity, solitarily and obligation as well as freedom and volunteerism. I hope your political science education has sensitized you to such debates, for they will influence how you think about public policy and the obligations of citizenship.

Finally, your political science education will be in constant interaction and dialogue with the experiences you have as a citizen in the world outside. I experienced that very powerfully as a student here. As I arrived in Chapel Hill, sit-ins were occurring across the South and the civil rights movement was forcing long overdue questions of what our moral and religious values and our political creed required of us. I have always been grateful that these were my formative years politically. They left me forever aware of the centrality of politics and government to any realistic prospect of change. The die was cast – not necessarily that I would run for office, but that I would always be attentive and engaged.

This was also a wonderful time to be reading American history and studying the social sciences, as well as philosophy and ethics. Your generation has also had some powerful political stimuli here in North Carolina and nationally – challenges to voting rights, intense battles over health care, challenges to our country’s historic posture toward immigrants and refugees, polarizing debates over gun violence and LGBTQ rights. These issues may not be as singularly focused as the civil rights struggle, but they are just as significant and compelling. I expect your political science studies have influenced how you perceived and related to the political world, and that the connection has often gone both ways, giving you a sense of what it was important for you to study and explore.

I hope you will continue to discover that kind of relevance. It will help determine how you relate to the major issues of the day, but also the understanding you have of the communities where you live and work. For a number of you, that will likely be the Research Triangle area. And if it is, you will have more insight than most as to how the public and private sector can and must positively interact. You will understand the public policy underpinnings of what we have built here in the Triangle – quality public education and training for the modern workplace, support for research, innovation, and entrepreneurship, development of a diverse infrastructure, the preservation of air and water quality, maintenance of a non-discriminating and welcoming community – and help enhance those policies for the future. You will also be keenly aware that too many of our fellow citizens are still scraping by, or worse, with inferior housing, dangerous neighborhoods, and sporadic access to health care. Public policy may not hold the complete answer to these challenges, but it is surely a major part of the answer, more than we have mustered the will to try so far.

Your education will help you understand how much work we have to do as a community and as a country, and will also help you develop creative and consequential approaches to whatever pieces of the challenge you are able to take on. I assure you that your historical understanding, your analytical tools and temperament, your moral commitment, your political knowledge and skill – all are needed as never before. So, I’m happy to welcome you to the fray, and to wish you Godspeed as you undertake productive work, continue to question and learn, and assume the joys and responsibilities of active citizenship.