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Going Beyond the Classroom: Politics in Action as a Vehicle for Meaningful Change

May 18, 2014

The ‘culture wars’ and the era of either/or choices, of talk-show ‘debates’ where pundits talk over or past each other, may be drawing to a close.  Once or so in a long lifetime, American politics goes through a realignment, usually brought about when the last ‘deal’ We the People’ struck to govern how we live together stops working well and the politics we have known offers no answers.  Politicians, like generals, prefer to prepare to fight the last war.  This backward-looking dynamic, seen today in Democrats reflexively looking for New Deal/Great Society-style solutions while Republicans try to imagine what Reagan would do, produces gridlock without solving the problems that fester all around us.  Eventually, a new dynamic emerges, and the old alliances are replaced by whatever coalition offers a frustrated electorate what look to them to be better answers.

This may be happening again, as Pat Buchanan’s review of Ralph Nader’s new book argues.  That Buchanan, an architect of the Nixonian ‘Southern Strategy,’ lauds Nader, an arch-liberal who was opposite him for many years, is perhaps less odd than that they have worked together before, beginning with the battle over NAFTA, a signature plank from Ronald Reagan’s platform that the Gipper included in his kick-off speech for the 1980 campaign, and extending on to opposition to the post 9/11 wars, torture, the surveillance state and the corporate bailouts of ca. 2008-9.  What makes an alliance like this significant is that they can put aside hot-button issues like abortion, gun control and ‘gay marriage’ to work on problems that they see as more significant, even critical to the survival of the American polity.  (They are not alone, either among the opinion-makers or in the political rank and file, as the frequent alliances of libertarians and the populist Left to stop PIPA and SOPA, in support of ‘Net Neutrality,’ and on other issues pertaining to the defense of an open internet testify.  Theirs are just two of the more-prominent voices raised in protest over the course our politics has taken since the 1980s.)

Politics makes strange bedfellows; what remains to be seen is if this is just another attempt to turn a series of one-night stands into a marriage of the anti-Establishment elements of what used to be called they ‘left’ and ‘right’ into something that may become a true alternative to politics as usual.  Political science is a creature of the classroom; what takes place when we apply our understanding of ‘what right looks like’ to the real world – the putting of theory into practice – is what efforts like Buchanan and Nader entail.  ‘Government’ should never be a matter of theory, of taking a ‘required’ class, of rote memorization and then the post-exam ‘brain dump,’ but rather should be a seamless experience where reality informs the academy, and vice-versa.  This is how our politics is supposed to work; that ‘We the People,’ may alter or abolish the existing political order when it ceases to serve our ends is a concept at least as old as the Declaration of Independence and one that does not require any form of revolution other than the peaceful one that uses the ballot box to to accomplish its objectives.  It is for us to use what we learn, in the classroom as well as on the street, to make our politics better serve our interests; if we do not, then other elements in society will.

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