Observations on Comparative Politics. Exceptionalism, and Party Systems
The following, from an interview in Haaretz with Mark Mellman, a US political consultant who worke din the recent Israeli elections with Yair Lapid, is an excellent definition of comparative politics (although that is not the intent):
Q. But people in Israel think that we are unique
A. What would be truly unique is if someone said “no were not unique, we’re like everybody else.” Saying you are unique is not unique. I worked in Chicago, where people on the South Side say: don’t think we’re like the North Side, and don’t think that anything you know from the North is relevant to the South side. But whether you’re working in Hawaii or in California or in New York or in Venezuela or in Albania or in Israel – there are differences, of course, but there are also similarities, and to be able to understand the similarities and the differences is an important part of the job.
This struck me on a couple of levels. First, this is fundamentally what comparative political inquiry is: the systematic understanding of similarities and differences across cases to help produce a broader understanding of the political. Second, it is a good example of how groups of people like to think that they are somehow exceptional or unique when, in fact, they only think that because they don’t know all that much about other places. This is a mistake that Americans writ large make all time. Of course, everybody thinks that they, or their group, is exceptional (and maybe sometimes they are), but often our view of how special we are is derived from the fact that we only know one thing and we just assume that it has to be special. This reminds of Seymour Martin Lipset’s observation that “…it is impossible to understand a country without seeing how it varies from others. Those who know only one country know no country.”
Mellman also makes an interesting observation about party systems (the answer is in the context of comparing elections in Israel, a multiparty system, and the US, a two-party system):
“there is a big strategic difference between a two party system and a multiparty system. In a two party system, when you go negative on your opponent only two things can happen and both of them are good: either people vote for you or decide not to vote at all. In a multiparty system, however, you can drive them to vote for someone else altogether.”
It is interesting to consider the way in which the institutional parameters of politics in a given country can significantly effect he incentives for differing types of political behavior.
h/t: Matthew Shugart via FB.