I often kid my colleagues that, though I chair the American politics field at Florida, I am actually a closet comparativist whose area specialty is the United States. There is considerable truth in this statement.
During my graduate training the University of Minnesota, we had no “American politics” field. Rather, we had a large field called “Political Behavior and Institutions,” with courses on such topics as public opinion, parties and interest groups, judicial politics, or political socialization that covered both the American and comparative literatures. In addition, majors also were required to take area courses in two non-American regions (with my concentrations being Western Europe, South Asia and Japan, coursework that supplement my study of Latin American politics and culture in college). Because the mainstream literature on behavior and institutions was so U.S.-centric, there was no separate course or field concerned with the United States itself.
The assumption at Minnesota was that we would naturally learn to understand American politics as we read the literature in our comparative behavior and institutions courses. Rather than take an “American core” course, we had a survey course, Comparative Politics: Theory and Methods, that induced a broadly theoretical mindset, focusing us on historical patterns of development and on contrasts in cross-national patterns of behavior. We behavior and institutions students also generally took a year-long course in Contemporary Political Theory and a course in Empirical Democratic Theory. As a result, Minnesota graduates of that period tend to have broad-gauged perspectives on politics and to think about the study of behavior and institutions in a more systemic, dynamic, theoretical and comparative manner than is the case for those trained in classic American politics programs. Minnesota students have also felt free, as with me, to move across ‘American’ and ‘comparative’ domains of study.
I tell this story both to help you understand why my “American” work has the special “Minnesota-flavor” and to clarify why I have moved across the study of comparative and American politics. This story particularly helps explain why, alienated in the late 1960s from American politics and nudged by the Minnesota program to look at politics comparatively, I became fascinated with parliamentary democracy. It was this fascination that led to my “comparative politics” dissertation.
Guided by William H. Flanigan and Edwin Fogelman, who were engaged in pioneering cross-national work on patterns of democratization, I focused my dissertation on one of the classic issues of parliamentary regimes – the conditions that facilitate government durability in an institutional structure that allows for constant turnover. To address this puzzle, I combined Riker’s game-theoretic perspective on political coalitions with arguments by Eckstein, Lipset and Rokkan and others about the importance of social cleavages in European politics. The result was a theory of cabinet durability seeking to explain conditions under which ‘minimum winning’ cabinet coalitions would form, in contrast to ‘oversized’ or ‘undersized’ coalitions, with minimum winning cabinets seen as the most likely government to endure. The dissertation then tested this argument against the experience of twenty European and British Commonwealth countries across the first seventy years or so of the twentieth century.
I designed the study of parliamentary coalitions and cabinet durability at the age of twenty-three, did most of the research the next year, and finished the dissertation and defended in the fall of 1972 at the age of 25. Four years later, in 1976, Coalitions in Parliamentary Government was published by Princeton University Press, with the American Political Science Review having published an article from the dissertation in 1974. Little did I realize at the time that the study of parliamentary coalitions and cabinet government, and the application of game theory to coalition formation and maintenance, would become a ‘growth industry’ over the next several decades. I was simply and truthfully just following my passion, pursuing a hunch that had occurred to me as I worked played with the data on cabinet durability, letting excitement, personal curiosity and intuition guide me. I had taken no courses in game theory, reading Riker’s book, The Theory of Political Coalitions, in the Contemporary Political Theory course that surveyed multiple perspectives on politics.
I feel privileged to have been a contributor to the emerging field of ‘coalition studies,’ and to have been supported by Flanigan and Fogelman in pursuing my youthful passion. This experience has led me to stress to students the importance of following one’s passions and intuitions, rather than looking to current fads. Not only is this the route to an authentic and creative contribution, but today’s solitary hunch may yet become one of tomorrow’s dominant perspectives on politics. The professional benefits that accrued from this study became a sustaining force in my career, and in particular helped provide me the ‘space’ to pursue “the slow boring of hard boards” discussed in the link to my work on the U. S. Congress.
I also feel privileged today, after many years away from comparative politics, to have reconnected in the early 1990s with the field, a reconnection seen in the current study of democratization in Nicaragua, with Leslie Anderson.
My concern with the study of contemporary Nicaragua lies in the way in which it focuses not just on issues of reform or partisan change, as in my studies of the Congress or cabinet durability, but on the analysis of regime transformation. As discussed in the link to the U. S. Congress, political change has been my great, sustaining puzzle during my career. In addition, by the late 1980s and early 1990s I had moved in my congressional work beyond an emphasis on legislators’ goals or the nation’s shifting social structure and was also considering the role of ideas and learning in generating political change, particularly learning in the midst of crisis. The study of Nicaragua, a nation in the midst of extraordinary crisis and change, provided an opportunity to look at the extent to which the electoral upheavals and regime change occurring there in the early 1990s reflected not only international pressures, domestic elite goals, and an impoverished social structure, but also elements of political learning and reasoning on the part of the nation’s citizens.
The golden opportunity afforded me to study political learning and regime change arose from the fact that Leslie is a specialist on Nicaragua (having completed her dissertation fieldwork there in the midst of the Contra war) and because she had some extraordinary access to public opinion data on the 1990 election, later supplemented by data she gathered as a result of an NSF grant awarded to her to study the 1996 election. Guided by Leslie’s understanding of Nicaraguan history and culture, and (finally) utilizing my early training at Minnesota in public opinion and survey research, this data has allowed us to look closely at citizen engagement and regime choice in the 1990 and 1996 presidential elections.
Our concern is to understand why the Nicaraguan electorate elected the candidates of democratic conservatism in both the 1990 and 1996 elections, leading to a new constitutional order, in the process rejecting the presidential candidate of the socialist Sandinistas who had led the nation’s successful social revolution in the late 1970s and governed it in the 1980s. Our argument is that the election of Violeta Chamorro in 1990 and Arnoldo Aleman in 1996 owed at least in part to the capacity of the citizens of Nicaragua, despite severe impoverishment and poor education, to engage amidst dire national crisis in retrospective and prospective voting analogous to the most sophisticated patterns of voting one sees in United States elections.
The systematic use of retrospective and prospective analysis allowed the citizens to make an engaged and reasoned political choice of momentous importance, with these two elections being at least as consequential for Nicaragua as any elections in the history of the United States or other established democracies. Ironically, we argue, this capacity resulted not just from the impetus that severe crisis can give to rapid political learning, but to the success of the Sandinista revolution in engendering within the citizens a belief in their own participatory power, a belief that they drew upon to change regimes yet again when confronted with seemingly irresolvable national crisis. The question for Nicaragua today is whether citizens can learn to sustain their political engagement and consolidate democracy as systemic crisis recedes and a politics of normalcy emerges.
The lesson to be drawn from Nicaragua, we suggest, is the capacity of poor and uneducated citizens to embrace sophisticated political choice when domestic and international developments empower them to do so and when their involvement can clearly affect their life circumstances. Even the poor and uneducated can learn to participate consequentially in electoral choice when confronted with a meaningful opportunity. It is not just elites who can generate political change and regime transformation, but the citizens themselves. Obviously this is an important lesson to be learned by a scholar who has spent most of his adult life concentrating on the role of political elites in generating legislative change and reform. The manuscript for this book, entitled Learning Democracy: Citizen Engagement and Regime Choice in Nicaragua, 1990-1996, is currently under review.