The Trump-induced 2020 electoral crisis in the United States underscores that, in the world’s most long-standing democracy, the “rules of the game” for presidential elections, the Electoral College, is irreparably obsolete. The diagnosis of the problem is simple: in two of the three most-recent electoral cycles, prior to 2020, the “winner” in fact failed to win in the popular vote. The presidency was won by a plurality of voters. The U.S., in so many ways, has tendencies toward a “minoritarian” winner-take-all democracy. If we know one thing in comparative politics, it is that minority- and bare-majority rule governments – especially in ethnically diverse societies – are not sustainable: such systems create broader susceptibilities to political violence.
Observers including the Editorial Board of The Washington Post and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observer mission to the 2020 U.S. elections have called for the U.S. to move beyond the Electoral College. Even some from the Republican party, which has ostensibly benefited from the disproportional effects of the Electoral College, have argued it should be jettisoned. The national move toward rank-choice voting is a step in the right direction in efforts to induce moderate campaigning in a polarized society. But ranked-choice voting is at best a baby step, as the systems adopted in Maine, Alaska, and New York City for example, ultimately still function as winner-take-all, or simple-majority rule.
Setting aside the question of how to reform an ossified electoral system, reformers must contend with an equally daunting question: What is the best electoral system to replace it?
As early as middle school, we are teaching young minds to think critically and notice bias when it inevitably arises in news and media. Yet as academics, there is an illusion that we are free from bias and conflicts of interests that permeate all other parts of the world. To perpetuate this illusion only hinders policy engagement and deepens the divide between academics and practitioners. PhD training addresses part of this problem pretty effectively—by teaching us to consider alternative explanations in depth, to articulate the limits of any given study, and to avoid making sweeping statements about future developments that are intrinsically unknowable.
However, in light of a recent review of literature on NATO enlargement, I ponder whether there is a critical strategy to be added to the discourse. Antithetical to what we are taught at the advanced level—to strive for objectivity— academics should openly acknowledge political commitments where they exist, because of course they will exist. These political commitments can lead us to become “stealth issue advocates,” in the words of Roger Pielke, where social scientists claim to be arguing from expertise but are in fact arguing from a political position. And we may only be dimly aware of doing this; the first victim of the deception may be the researchers themselves, in terms of not recognizing their own biases.
Imagine it’s time for your yearly checkup at the family doctor. Sitting on the paper covered medical bench in a fluorescent room, you submit to the full array of tests. You say “ah,” you squint at letters from across the room, you feel the cold stethoscope against your back, maybe you even get some blood drawn. After answering all of your doctor’s questions, they look you in the eye, smile, and send you on your way with a clean bill of health! Feeling great, you go about your day. Perhaps you even take the stairs instead of the elevator because you’re feeling invigorated and full of life. There is an implicit trust between doctor and patient, so why should you feel otherwise?
Let’s say however, that your doctor actually lied to you – everything is not okay. Perhaps they lied for your own good; because they don’t know what will happen to you or what to do about it; or perhaps they lied for monetary gain. But does the reason really matter? The inherent doctor-patient trust has been broken and we fervently and unequivocally condemn deceit of any kind in the medical field.
Why then, are we so cavalier about untruthfulness in economics?
Whether scholars embed policy recommendations in their work is a flawed measure of whether work is policy-relevant.
Across a series of articles and book chapters, Michael Desch and Paul Avey have argued international relations scholarship is declining in policy relevance, with IR scholars falling into what Stephen Van Evera has called a “cult of the irrelevant”: a hermetically-sealed professional community that values technique and internal dialogue over broader societal and political relevance. As evidence, they cite data demonstrating a marked decline in the frequency with which articles in top IR journals provide policy prescriptions.
Universities are under increasing pressure from politicians, funders and the public to demonstrate the broader social value of their work. In response, many have taken an active role in highlighting the impact of their research, with increased investment in public engagement that showcases the significance of scholarship at universities. These efforts are aimed at policymakers, journalists and activists who can help turn scholarship into policy-relevant action, but also at the public at-large. Such public engagement serves as a powerful reminder of the value of universities to society, especially in light of rising tuition costs and declining public funding for higher education.
As people have become consumed with concern about the coronavirus, organized cyber criminal groups are actively exploiting uncertainty, doubt and fear to target individuals and businesses in a variety of ways. Reports of cyber phishing attacks using coronavirus themes started appearing in early February 2020, but these attacks have since become widespread. The explosion of coronavirus-related scams, range from fake storefronts hawking fake vaccines to sophisticated phishing scams that take advantage of the uncertainty around the pandemic. For instance, Google’s threat analysis group reported in late April 2020 that they find an average of 18 million malware and phishing messages per day related to COVID-19. This is in addition to more than 240 million COVID-related daily spam messages that are automatically deleted by Gmail spam filters.
Analysis by industry experts show that a significant portion of these attacks are carried out by state-sponsored hackers, some of whom are targeting coronavirus-related research. Responding to these state-sponsored attacks poses a significant challenge to targeted states as they seek to navigate the foreign policy and international relations implications of retributive action. While technical solutions provide the best bet for responding to these attacks, government policy could play a crucial supporting role. In this post, I review modalities of COVID-19 themed cyberattacks and outline some options available to governments as they seek to deal with them.
This all hits pretty close to home. As an IR scholar whose main area of specialization—climate change and conflict—has not received much purchase in mainstream political science and IR outlets, I can sympathize with feeling marginalized. And I’m sure I would bristle at the idea of someone saying “why don’t IR scholars study climate change”, though I’ve always read these pleadings as supportive of a broader platform for work in this area, not a failure to recognize the work that’s already being done. But I think the data are pretty clear: comparatively speaking, public health is not a widely published on topic in mainstream IR journals.