APSA After-Action Report

I’m still digesting the weekend’s endurance contest better known as the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. It’s one of those chores I take on so that you don’t have to. A lot of the panels are of course silly, like “Søren Kierkegaard and Political Thought.” Description:

Altogether, in broad strokes, Kierkegaard’s thought saturated the air of the most important moments in twentieth century political thought—interwar Germany, post-WWII France, and the 1960’s Anglophone world—so that his influence pervades the 20th century canon. And yet, he is wholly absent within the discipline of political theory. While Kierkegaard has historically been a significant figure in the history of political thought, with an influence no less than Nietzsche’s, contemporary political theory has left him unstudied.

Count me unpersuaded on the importance of existential slobberings of the great Dane.

Many of the panels were devoted to the general topic that might have gone under the heading, “What the hell happened”? Lots and lots of panels about how Trump won and why, and why political scientists missed it. There were a few signs of admirable humility. Paul Pierson, one of the smarter liberals at U.C. Berkeley, admitted, “No Americanist political scientist should be in the business of prognostication at this point.”

I looked but didn’t see any panels on the equally germane question: why was Hillary’s campaign so bad? More particularly, how did she spend over $1 billion? We know her campaign had fewer field offices than Obama’s 2012 campaign, so just where did all that money go?

I did hear some supposedly well-placed rumors that Hillary’s forthcoming book, What Happened?, is going to blow up the Democratic Party because she’s going to blame Bernie, the DNC, and lots of other people for her loss. Already a few passages are leaking out (along with a number of phony ones that are sure to be metaphysically accurate). Pass the popcorn.

But there were many more panels devoted simply to the ideological partisan imperative of deploring Trump and Republicans generally. Like “Disavowing Violence: Imperial Entitlements, From Burke to Trump (Fuck That Guy)” and “White Genocide is Gonna Get Your Mama!” And if these panels belie the premise of detachment you expect from “scientists” of any discipline, there were many more panels that were openly about activism and “resistance,” such as “Activist, Teacher, Scholar: Transformative Practice in the Era of Trump.”

One of my favorites was a panel that inadvertently reveals the deep confusion the left has imposed on itself with its identity fixation: “Let’s Talk about Sex (and Gender and Sexuality): Teaching Identities.” Drink in this description slowly (though if you need to add tonic that’s okay):

Despite their best intentions, many political scientists are uncertain about how to address sex, gender and sexuality in the classroom. This presents two challenges that will be addressed in this roundtable discussion. First, it is incumbent upon faculty to make gender a legible identity in the classroom, and to create an atmosphere that is inclusive of students who are genderfluid, transgender, or gender nonconforming. As such, the roundtable discussion will review and engage proper terms and evolving concepts of gender and sexuality as well as introduce strategies for recognizing individual identities (e.g. asking one’s preferred pronouns) in the classroom. Second, while courses on gender and politics have long been staples of many political science programs and courses on LGBTQ politics have proliferated in recent years, teaching gender as distinct from sex and sexual orientation and doing so in a way that that acknowledges the complexity of gender identity – including its social and legal construction, fluidity and intersectional components – requires a meaningful and substantive commitment by faculty. To that end, the roundtable participants will discuss how to incorporate the politics of gender into existing syllabi and texts and creating new courses and syllabi as well as strategies for teaching gender and sexuality in the current political environment.

Translation: This is the latest on how to keep up with all the new and changing terms, and woe unto anyone who doesn’t get it right!

I decided to attend the panel on “Race, Gender, Sexuality, & the Politics of Legitimacy: 8 Months in Trumplandia,” in part because I wondered what had happened to class, which used to be central in the holy trinity of identity politics. Apparently class is being slowly phased out because it may refer to white working class voters who vote the wrong way. One panelist said that the most egregious outcome of the 2016 election was the “privileging of the narrative of white males in the upper midwest states.” I gather that whiteness is now so blindingly bright that leftist thinkers can’t take account of the fact that white working class voters in the Midwest are the key swing vote in national elections, and that as such any practical political party might want to think about how to appeal to them. But who needs to be analytical when you have pure justice on your side.

It was a very revealing window onto the confusions and contradictions of the left in the Age of Trump. The panel couldn’t decide whether “identity politics” was a real thing—one panelist suggested that the phrase itself was like “political correctness,” a term of the right at attack the left—or whether to double down on the idea. Another panelist said that Tim Kaine was part of Hillary’s problem, that because Democrats rely on a large vote from minority voters Hillary shouldn’t have picked Kaine. More: “The Democratic ticket in 2020 cannot be two white men!” Okay, good to know.

One of my favorite questions during the all-too-brief time left for questions was the person who noted that the idea of “democratic norms” was part of the oppressive structure of our system, but suddenly we’re appealing to “democratic norms” as a mechanism to constrain Trump. What’s a confused leftist to do in this circumstance? The panel ignored this question entirely.

One other thing: they really hate Mark Lilla, for his heresy of dissing identity politics. I mentioned here a couple weeks ago that I was looking forward to watching the left have a cow over Lilla’s book, and I was not disappointed. Lilla’s name came up several times unbidden by anyone, and he was described in terms that you’d think would be reserved only for Steve Bannon. Which makes me wonder if these folks aren’t secretly on the payroll of the Trump 2020 campaign.