Will November Prove to be the Cruelest Month for Science?


months_calendar_optT.S. Eliot said “April is the cruelest month.”  This November has been pretty harsh, too.

For those of us who agree with the late Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt that the presidency is no place for amateurs, the election of Donald Trump is quite disturbing.  Aside from this astonishing result, the deaths of PBS anchor, Gwen Ifill, a magnificent journalist and a sweet lady whom I got to meet last year at a taping of Washington Week, and singer-songwriter-poet-novelist Leonard Cohen, added to my gloom. Furthermore, a personal disaster — my wife broke her ankle, underwent surgery, and now faces a long recovery and rehabilitation — made November very difficult.

My original thoughts about this column were to avoid adding to the cacophony of voices analyzing the election results and discussing the upcoming Trump Administration.  We will get to that later.

I wanted first to mention two theater pieces I saw in late October in New York City that have some social science relevance.  In The Encounter, Simon McBurney presents the trials and tribulations of American photojournalist/ethnologist Loren McIntyre in his quest to find the Mayoruna tribe of Brazil. Using amazing stage technology, including headsets for the audience, McBurney allows us to experience the Amazon jungle and the strangeness that McIntyre encounters.  It was a remarkable performance and theatrical event.

Anna Deavere Smith has been dazzling audiences with her one-woman stage presentations since the early 1990s’ Fires in the Mirror and Twilight:  Los Angeles 1992. Now she is back with Notes from the Field portraying an amazing group of people and connecting America’s dysfunctional education system to its dysfunctional criminal justice system.  She focuses on the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore as well as the use of police in the schools as discussed in Amanda Ripley’s (one of the people Smith portrays) article “How America Outlawed Adolescence” in the November 2016 Atlantic magazine. Despite all the problems, she concludes on a hopeful note, depicting congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis recounting a moment of reconciliation with a law enforcement officer who had beaten him during the civil rights movement.

So we move on to the election results. A disturbing report by Amanda Taub in the November 29 New York Times, “How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red’” reports on research by political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa. In analyzing survey responses on support for democracy, they note that it is eroding in many countries around the world including the United States and particularly among young people.

One of these institutions, the United States Congress has, as Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein pointed out in their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, been attacked from within since the rise of Newt Gingrich in the 1980s. Since that time three Speakers of the House, including Gingrich, have resigned and public support for the Congress has reached nadir levels.  Yet, in an election that was allegedly about change and “blowing up Washington,” almost all incumbent members of Congress were re-elected. The Republican hegemony in the House of Representatives, aided by gerrymandering, will continue. Despite high hopes among Democrats of regaining control there was surprisingly little change in the Senate with only two seats switching from red (Republican) to blue (Democratic): Tammy Duckworth winning in Illinois and Maggie Hansen squeaking by in New Hampshire.

Once again, the Electoral College, as it did in 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000, denied the winner of the popular vote the presidency.  The so-called lock that the Democrats had because of demographic changes missed Trump’s ability to win the once-industrialized rust belt with the help of both angry male and female white voters.  Although winning California and New York by wide margins, as Clinton did, gives you a great start, confining your Electoral College successes to the two coasts will not get you to the 270 votes necessary for a majority.  Whether the Electoral College should continue to exist is a debate that has already begun.  However, the small states it was set up to protect will not allow any change anytime soon.

There is a proposal that states would agree among themselves to cast all their electoral votes to the country’s popular vote winner. The plan will be implemented once enough states join to reach 270 electoral votes – the total needed for Electoral College victory. This had made some small headway with 11 states with 165 electoral votes signing on so far.

Which brings us to the president-elect and the future.  Although losing the popular vote has not hindered other presidents from moving ahead with their agendas.  It is clear from the White House staff appointments and the Cabinet selections announced so far, President Trump will attempt to carry out many of the promises made during the campaign also detailed in his Contract with the American Voter, a little referenced document on his campaign website.

He will also, it seems, attempt the long-held conservative dream, unfulfilled in the 1950s and 1980s, to dismantle the New Deal and the Great Society.  Throw in the repeal of most of President Obama’s successes and the country will definitely head in a different direction.  Just another reminder that elections have consequences!

Trump’s triumph also raises many questions for the next four years:

Will Trump build his wall on the U.S-Mexican border?  How many people can he actually deport?

What will replace the Affordable Care Act, which appears set for repeal?  Will Medicare get transformed as House Speaker Paul Ryan wants?  Will Roe v. Wade survive a Trump Supreme Court appointment or will Justice Anthony Kennedy hold back the tide at least for a while?

Will members of Congress really enact term limits and bans on post-service lobbying on themselves?

Will tax relief provide new jobs and the predicted economic growth?  How will coal miners get their jobs back and for how long?  How much deregulation of the financial system will occur?

Will the public school system survive Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education-designate’s desire to privatize American education?

What does Steve Bannon in the White House mean for the legitimization of hate groups and activities?  Will we ever get a presidential tweet strongly condemning swastikas on synagogues and anti-Muslim violence?

Will the Iran Deal get ripped up?  Will Russia flex its muscles and try to retake the Baltics without U.S.  and European opposition?  Will the U.S. confront China economically and militarily? Will NAFTA be abandoned?

How will the scientific enterprise fare?  Will he void climate change treaties and decimate the EPA?  Will the new administration join House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith’s attempts to limit NSF funding for the social and behavioral sciences?

Let me end with two thoughts.  H.W. Brands wrote a book suggesting Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a traitor to his class – a rich man who used his presidency to provide programs to lift Americans out of the depression.   Can Trump betray his class and keep his promises to the white working class Americans who believe in his message of economic hope?

Finally, to go back to the theater, perhaps Linda Loman’s plea, in a very different context, in Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, that:  “Attention Must Be Paid,” should be the watch words of the next four years.

Howard J. Silver

Howard J. Silver served as the executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) in Washington, DC, from 1988 to 2013. He has testified before Congress, spoken on federal funding of science at many professional meetings, and written extensively on executive-legislative relations, the federal budget process, and science policy as it affects the social and behavioral sciences.

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