Category: Guest Post

Cabinet Reshuffling and the Patrimonial Presidency: Lessons from Tunisia

This post marks the return of the Bridging the Gap channel at the Duck after a short hiatus. It comes from Gregory White, Professor of Government at Smith College, who will be attending our International Policy Summer Institute this June.  

How can we understand the Trump administration’s ongoing reshuffles of top tier staff and cabinet officials? Recent changes at the State Department, the National Security Council, the White House Communications Office, Veterans Affairs, and the National Economic Council – and that’s just the last several weeks – are unprecedented in US politics. Some people have been brought down by scandal or near scandal, with others dismissed for no clear reason.

Scholars have sought to understand this turnover as the result of a preference of loyalty over experience, the insurgent nature of the campaign (with inexperienced or no staff), or the chaos of Trump’s policy whims. I propose a different lens for thinking creatively and comparatively about Trump’s behavior as a way of understanding its potential implications.

Throughout all of the cabinet and staff reshuffling I have often thought of Tunisia – in particular its post-independence presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. One might think that comparing the United States to Tunisia is like comparing an apple to a steak – or even an apple to a stop sign. It is hard to think of two countries with more dissimilar political histories and systems. But constant cabinet and staff turnover and (re-)cycling characterized Bourguiba and his successor Ben Ali’s governments, and it had and continues to have profound implications for the North African country.  Continue reading

BPM (Beats Per Minute), AIDS Politics in France, and the Lessons for Resistance Today

This is a guest post by Michael Bosia, Associate Professor of Political Science at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. You can find him on Twitter at @VTPoliticsProf.

In December 2001 – less than two months after the al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center and not even a month from the day US and UK forces invaded Afghanistan – I was with Act Up Paris as activists carried a banner emblazoned “AIDS: The Other War” to lead their annual World AIDS Day march.  Behind the banner, marchers raised signs reminding that more people were dying from complications of HIV every day than were killed on 9/11 in lower Manhattan: “SIDA: 10,000 morts par jour” (AIDS: 10,000 Dead Each Day”).  It was not the first time war as metaphor had colored the activist group’s rhetoric; in fact, their response to 9/11 is emblematic of how they combine as truth-telling both careful analysis and bodily provocation, often so unsettling, when confronting powerful elites and emboldened populists.  While the portrait of Act Up in the United States has been presented in the 2012 documentary and 2016 book How to Survive a Plague, the stories of Act Up Paris and the challenges French activists faced are largely unknown to the English-speaking public, but that is corrected now that “120 Battements par Minute” (“BPM (Beats Per Minute)” in English) is available to stream in the U.S.  This month named the César Best Picture and awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes last year, the fictionalized account depicts the early years of Act Up Paris.

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Do Populists Kill Democracy? A Sympathetic Extension of Levitsky and Ziblatt

This is a guest post by Lucas Dolan, a PhD Student at American University’s School of International Service. His research deals with the transnational coalition-building of right-wing populist movements. For further information, see his website, or find him on Twitter (@mrldolan).

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (L&Z) have accomplished something impressive. Their new book How Democracies Die (HDD) is a relatively condensed volume that—while clearly written for a popular audience—is also likely to become required reading for scholars interested in authoritarianism and democratic backsliding.  Indeed, my institution’s chapter of the 24 university “Democratic Erosion” consortium assigned the book even before it was released. It is a rare scholarly work that has generated substantial discussion in both the scholarly and policymaking communities immediately upon publication. The book draws from the authors’ extensive research on de-democratization in Latin America and Eastern Europe (as well as some instructive episodes of American history) to identify processes of democratic erosion and derive lessons for resisting such processes. These historical and comparative chapters are then used as benchmarks for evaluating the threat to democracy posed by President Donald Trump. Puzzlingly, the book omits a meaningful discussion of the role of populism in democratic erosion—despite one of the author’s influential work on that topic. In this review, I attempt to reconstruct how deeper engagement with populism might have fit with the book’s core contentions. I conclude that Levitsky’s own mobilization approach to populism lacks cohesion with HDD and that Jan-Werner Müller’s ideational understanding of populism interfaces more naturally with the mechanisms of democratic decline proposed by L&Z.

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Emotions, Unconscious Bias, and Publishing

This is a guest post by Jana von Stein, Senior Lecturer, Political Science and International Relations Programme, Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand)

The recent scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual abuse and harassment of dozens of women has gotten me thinking about an experience I had not too long ago. To be sure, there are differences: what happened to me was not sexual, my suffering was short-lived, and I sought justice. But there were at least two important similarities: my experience was deeply gendered and offensive, and I didn’t tell many people. Why? Because I worried about the career implications. I didn’t want the many good and decent men in my field to perceive me as a male-basher. Continue reading

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