The American Studies Association (Philadelphia, October 11-14) organized a session called Democratic Vistas: How Can American Studies Scholars Engage with Public Policy. Here is a summary of the talks.
1. Nicolas Bromell, University of Massachusetts, Amherst and The History Democracy Project.
The right has its think tanks, which serve as direct channels for conveying scholarly ideas to policy makers. You all know these think tanks; they are constantly in the news. The think tanks on the left are less effective and hardly known.
Nick wrote to John Podesta, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for American Progress and former Chief of Staff to President Clinton, who said that no academics were doing much of policy relevance on the left; the right is able to draw on its scholars but the left is not.
Why does this gap exist? Nick suggested several reasons, including these:
(a) While left-oriented scholarship has been successful in transforming the intellectual view of the USA, it has been presented only to other scholars and students. No attempt has been made to give it a policy handle that policy people could grab hold of. One thing that progressive scholars could do is ask the question "what are the policy implications of this work?"
(b) The left has been thrown off base by the onslaught from the right during the last decade.
Nick then described the History Democracy Project. This project grew out of a conference at the Organizagtion of American Historians in 2006. The project has started with "baby steps": a conference scheduled for January on history and policy, bringing together historians and policy people focused on foreign policy, and another one planned for the future on immigration policy.
2. Mae Ngai, Columbia University
The right flourishes because of money, funding from the government, from private foundations. The democratic party has been in the hands of neo-liberals; few democratic policy makers have any interest in the left's point of view. Progressive knowledge production has also been inefficient; many topics are studied, few are politically hot at the moment. The question is how to parley scholarship into a current policy conversation.
Mae used her own work to illustrate this problem. She is an historian of immigration to America through 1960. Even to start being able to make her scholarship public, she had to teach herself about current immigration policy. Her point was that even those in the most relevant scholarly fields still have a lot of extra homework to do just to be able to talk about current matters.
Mae has done three things to make her scholarship public:
(a) Workshops for school teachers wishing to teach units about immigration and its connection to multiculturalism;
(b) Talks to policy groups. She spoke at a symposium on guest-workers sponsored by the Farm Workers; many congressional staffers were invited but none came. However, more than 50 people from inside-the-beltway NGOs showed up. Her takeaway from this was that it was naive on her part to imagine herself speaking directly to policy makers, but it was possible to speak to lobbyists for NGOs that do speak to policy makers.
(c) Op-ed articles for the press. Being a historian gives you a good angle for writing op-ed pieces. Editors want a usable past. But editors also want ideas that are not too radical. History can help generate the right sorts of ideas. For example, with all the hysteria about amnesty for illegal immigrants, a historian can say "we used to do things like that, it didn't work out so badly, its not off of the national bandwidth." Still, it is not easy to get op-ed pieces placed. Her university press office has been helpful. Her agent helped her place an op-ed in the LA Times. She's also had articles in The Nation.
3. Patrick Bresette, Demos (A progressive 'Action-Tank')
Demos was founded in 2000 in response to Bush v. Gore. Its first issue was naturally election reform. Then it took up the issue of expanding economic opportunity: how people can get into and stay in the middle class.
Demos then took up the issue of the loss of faith in "public knowledge" -- the distrust in government, in regulation, in taxation. So the question was "how can we change the anti-government image that neo-liberal groups have instilled in the public? In addressing this Demos has partnered with other advocacy groups.
Patrick has become impressed with the power of what he calls "deep cultural narratives" in shaping public thought. He has pulled back from the idea of "the informed public", the idea that a better informed public will make wiser decisions. Citizens need a better story, a better deep cultural narrative, not better information. As examples of current narratives in the media, Patrick
mentioned the story lines about "bickering politians" and about "wasting government money". Such narratives give publics pegs upon which to hang current news events.
The current consumer orientation of citizens, the question "what's in it for me?" places civic argument on the wrong track. Even public advocates fall into this trap, employing arguments of the form "this is good for you because . . ." But whenever progressives buy into this story line they lose, because the story further entrenches the idea of individualism as opposed to solidarity in the public interest.
Progressive scholars have to study and come to understand how this kind of consumer citizenship thinking arose. And they need to look at alternative cultural story lines that have actually brought people into the public as citizens not consumers. In thinking about this Patrick has been assisted by the work of former labor secretary Robert Reich.
Comparing two generic story lines, "the benevolent community" and "triumph of the individual" we need to find and build narratives based on the former. This will take conscious activity, identifying current topics where scholars know the history and can convincingly create such narratives.
The John Dewey Society, through the Commission for Social Issues and in other ways, can make common cause with organizations like the History and Democracy Project and Demos. And it can also partner with other scholarly societies like the American Studies Association in keeping questions about scholarly contributions to the public alive in the academy.