A Second First Impression: Greetings!
In which I use a lot of words to say hello.
And so I stumble out of the gate.
Exactly one post in, and I’ve already overlooked an “Outside the Beltway” courtesy. My inaugural post was a longish piece of about a million words and I didn’t even have the civility first to extend a virtual handshake and howdy-do. A job hazard for the professor, in which one thinks: “Look, here’s an audience! Must. Start. Lecturing!”
So…indulge me a redo.
I’m delighted to be accepted as a contributor to “Outside the Beltway.” I’ve been following Steven Taylor’s posts here for a good long time, and I look forward to getting to know many of you through the magic of the interwebs. I ask for your patience, especially up front. I am technologically challenged (Steven will corroborate emphatically) and I fear I’m going to upload some funky looking posts from time to time, especially early on. You know—posts missing a headline. Or photo. Or text. But I’ll get the hang of it in time. (Or so I lie…)
Personal stuff. I’m a near-fifty year-old white guy whose knees deliver revenge every time I play half-court basketball. Payback for too many chocolate chip cookies. I’m married and have three kids. I grew up in Kansas City, Mo, and I’ve since lived in Texas, Michigan, and, now, Georgia. I didn’t know whether it’d ever happen but I’ve grown to love my little town and the South more generally. Life here has lots to offer. Natural beauty. Great cuisine. History overfloweth. The dialects that once befuddled me now sound like music.
Professional stuff. I teach American politics at Berry College, which is a pretty cool little private liberal arts-ish college in northwest Georgia. It’s a gorgeous campus, and the students are terrific—polite, well-raised kids who lean conservative a titch but mostly disregard politics as unworthy of disrupting their social lives and screen time. They also force me to grade way too many papers and exams, drat it all. (Yes, I blame them.)
My department (Government & International Studies) is small, so I’m one of two profs who teaches American politics. All of it. Which means, finally, I’m a generalist by necessity and, truth be told, at heart as well. A lifetime ago I decided to major in political science because I couldn’t decide on a major, and there were so many subjects that fascinated me. Politics more than any other field integrated the other topics that caught my fancy—history, economics, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and literature. Even now I love to play the dilettante and set forth theories about stuff about which I have no business discussing. I should take a page from Aaron Burr’s advice to Alexander Hamilton: “Talk less. Smile more.” (Yep, that’s a Hamilton the musical reference.)
My first field in graduate school a million years ago was political philosophy, so I tend to be more of a big picture guy than a nitty-gritty data crunching guy. I try to avoid political science jargon, but I speak the way I speak and I don’t always hear my accent.
My scholarly writings have all ended up in really boring academic journals that virtually no one reads. I’ve written about the American Founding, the presidency, democratic theory, church & state, public deliberation and other areas. I’ve also written some pop culture pieces in magazines (that were almost fun by the impossibly low standards of academic political science). A few years back I was also flattered when Steven invited me to make contributions to a book he edited about politics aimed at a broad audience. But with one exception I’ve never tried this blogging thing. I’m looking forward to it, and I’m grateful to James for his trust in me.
One reason I’m looking forward to this gig is because it will keep me focused on politics.
Isn’t focusing on politics my job? Well, yes. Sure. But my real academic interests are the Founding period, democratic theory (especially as it relates to church & state) and the presidency as it’s changed over time. Most of that stuff doesn’t have a short shelf life. It doesn’t go away after a single 24-hour news cycle. It’s pretty easy to teach what I teach and still miss this morning’s newspaper (those black and white papery things that were once delivered to our homes). I’m neither a political crusader nor political junkie by inclination, and contributing to a blog from time to time will prompt me to attend more carefully to what’s shaking right now.
So how do I lean politically? I’m a man without a party. I’m kind of a boring old-fashioned “good government” guy. I’m iconoclastic but not revolutionary, and when it comes to doing political battle I prefer good arguments (or snark for that matter) to tossing Molotov cocktails no matter who’s doing the tossing. Without liberals, conservatives are complacent about injustice. And without conservatives, liberals fool themselves that thinking something makes it so. From a scholarly perspective I’m interested in the power of institutions in shaping incentives as well as the power of culture to shape our politics. About three days of the week I suspect that institutions are the decisive factor in the life of a regime, and therefore I love me some Federalist Papers. Another three days of the week I’m fully persuaded that political culture, not institutions, is finally what shapes the success of a people, and I quote Monsieur Tocqueville ad nauseam. And at least one day of the week I focus on proselytizing the good things of life such as The Beatles; Breaking Bad; Hamilton: An American Musical; Regina Spektor; Marlon Brando; and Martin Scorsese movies.
This post has gone off the rails. I’m sorry. It got self-indulgent pretty quickly, didn’t it?
Let me bring my droning to an end.
We can level with one another. The best part of reading political blogs is reading the predictions, isn’t it? Immediately you have some ego at stake and a make-or-break scenario to follow. But boy I’m gonna let you down pretty severely here. I pretty much stopped making public political predictions roughly around the time that my profession failed to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. I figured that if we couldn’t see those tectonic changes coming, maybe we’re just no good at predicting. Oh, and here’s another example of our lameness: Election 2016. You know in your heart when Anne Coulter predicts the future more accurately than your profession, it’s time just to zip it.
I make one exception to my “no prediction” rule. I have no hesitation making sweeping unfalsifiable predictions. You’ll get plenty of these from me. Like: technology will kill the American dream, and thereby prompt a return to the consolation of religion. I mean, I believe that, but … you know, who’s gonna remember me making it? Plus, I can always say “I didn’t mean it would happen this year.”
You’ll figure out my ideological leanings in due time. No reason to spoil that fun for you. A little to the left here, a little to the right there. A lot centrist much of the time.
Anyway, hello! Nice to meet you.