Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, January 16, 2012

Why comparative?

American beginners in comparative politics often start by trying to study non-American political systems in the same way they studied the USA. It doesn't always work.

Henry Farrell, professor at George Washington University points to an example of why both the "Americanist" and "Comparativist" perspectives are important.

Why Is Inequality Higher in America?
[A] Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan article… suggests that we need to look to comparative politics rather than Americanist political science in order to understand the sources of American inequality.

"… the preoccupation of many Americanists with America’s distinctive governmental institutions—Congress, the presidency, the Supreme Court—obscures this inequality and what it means for the US political system. It thus seems to us that Americanists’ ability to analyze American politics would be enhanced by locating these problems in a larger, comparative context."

To bolster this broad argument, they argue that the unusually large number of veto players in the US political system is a major cause of inequality.

"A question thus arises, one both simple and surprisingly understudied by scholars of American politics: From a comparative perspective, does the United States have more “majority constraining” and “inequality inducing” political structures and veto players than other democracies? When we examine our set of 23 long-standing democracies in advanced economies, we find that slightly more than half of these countries (12.5) actually have only one electorally generated veto player… There are 7.5 countries with two veto players, two countries (Switzerland and Australia) with three veto players, and only one country, the United States of America, with four electorally generated veto players… In addition to having the highest number of veto players, there are four more constitutionally embedded features of the US political system that, taken together, make that system even more majority constraining and, we believe, inequality inducing, than any other democracy in our set… "

As a comparativist by training, I find the idea that Americanists should think about the US more in a comparative perspective highly attractive. I also think that the veto player perspective is a very helpful lens onto the ways in which the US resembles or differs from other advanced industrialized democracies… Equally, comparativists need to pay more attention to the Americanists whose way of thinking about the world is less immediately congenial than that of those with comparativist training or sympathies if we are to move to the next stage of the debate that Linz and Stepan would (rightly) like to see taking place.

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