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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.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    I think back in high school, I read a short comparison of how Americans view Russian history, and how Russians view American history. It was not pretty for either country.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    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.”

    I am always astounded by people who have no desire to ever leave the US. To me, nothing is more fun than being immersed in a foreign culture. It cuts away so many of one’s base assumptions about society. Of course, nothing is more relaxing than returning to my own.

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  3. Andre Kenji says:

    Exactly. Part of the problem is that very few Americans can read in any language other than English(Even among Academics) so people have very little knowledge about foreign societies.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  4. Ron Beasley says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: You are correct, the years I spent in Germany and Japan have certainly impacted my world view.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  5. C. Clavin says:

    “…Those who know only one country know no country…”

    That short sentence says so much about the American Exceptionalism crowd…you know…the kind of folks who think our Health Care System is the best in the world.
    Reminds me of what Obama said about US exceptionalism…which Republicans, for the most part, could not begin to grasp.
    Of course things can operate on different scales as well. Someone who has lived their entire life in the same state, maybe even within a 100 mile radius, doesn’t have a very good view of even this “one country”.

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  6. @C. Clavin:

    Of course things can operate on different scales as well. Someone who has lived their entire life in the same state, maybe even within a 100 mile radius, doesn’t have a very good view of even this “one country”.

    Indeed.

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  7. Rafer Janders says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    Part of the problem is that very few Americans can read in any language other than English(Even among Academics) so people have very little knowledge about foreign societies.

    Oh, I don’t know. I know two other languages besides English and am studying a third, but I can’t read Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, Arabic, Urdu, etc., and yet I still know a bit about those countries and regions. There’s simply too many languages, and too many people who speak English as a second language, for it to be profitable to have to learn a foreign language.

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  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    There’s simply too many languages, and too many people who speak English as a second language, for it to be profitable to have to learn a foreign language.

    I must disagree. I can speak a reasonable facsimile of Spanish, and in mountain villages all over central and south america, I am able to interact with indigenous people who know nothing of english.

    (Plus, if I bring my wife….)

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  9. KariQ says:

    I’ve always thought the educational ideal would be for every child to learn in a language other than the one they speak at home. If you speak English at home, your education should be in French or Japanese or Russian or Spanish. Of course, this is prohibitively expensive and would never happen even if it wasn’t, but I still think it would be a great idea.

    Just learning how another language works, even one closely related to English, challenges some of your basic assumptions and forces you to reevaluate things you thought were obvious. Going to another country and learning the culture while speaking in their language is not at all the same thing as learning about it as they translate their thoughts into your language.

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  10. Andre Kenji says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Oh, I don’t know. I know two other languages besides English and am studying a third, but I can’t read Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, Arabic, Urdu, etc., and yet I still know a bit about those countries and regions.

    1-) No, you don´t understand a country or a culture if you don´t know their language. There are several nuances that you´ll only note if you read what people writes in their language. There is no neocon that knows any language other than English, that´s why they thought that Iraqis would be welcoming American Troops as liberators. That´s why most Movement Conservatives divides the world between Enemies and Allies, and that´s idiotic.

    2-) Some years ago, I was taking the last bus to go home. This bus departs 11:15 PM then it goes around a rural area to reach another city. One day, we´ve found an American, completely drunk and that did not know to speak any word of Portuguese(He was really drunk). Since I was the only person in the whole bus that knew English I tried, unsuccessfully, to understand what the hell he was trying to do(Or where he was trying to go), while two female friends of mine were mocking him, calling him “the gringo”.

    He got off the bus in the middle of nowhere and I never knew how he got home. Going to other countries believing that you´ll find people that speaks English is even dangerous.

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