I spent Thursday and Friday at the annual conference of the Danish Political Science Association where a roundtable discussion about about the public role of academics was one of the main events. Even if the roundtable had been planned before the very public conflict earlier this year between Marlene Wind, who is a professor at the University of Copenhagen specialising in EU policy, on the one hand and the Danish People’s Party and the Liberal Party on the other hand, it obviously adressed the issue that public appearances can be controversial.
I did feel, however, that the discussion suffered from a lack of focus as it tried to cover two very different phenomena: Academics as policy advisors, e.g. as members of commissions, working groups or consultants, and academics as “public intellectuals” commenting and analysing contemporary events like the recent election campaign or EU politics regarding the economic crisis. As somebody noticed, economists and – in particular – lawyers have been happy to appear as policy advisors since time immemorial and conversely politicians and bureaucrats have never had any reservations in using them in that capacity. That political scientists have found it harder to reach a similar position may be due to reservations from within the discipline but the lack of a body of policy recommendations may be equally important.
With regard to the other part of the discussion I was struck by the fact that it only adressed the relationship between academia and the traditional media. As an aside I should perhaps note that political scientists in the eyes of journalists make bad commentators because we are often reluctant to predict the future outcome of a process. There are good reasons for this: Back when I used to teach introductory courses in political science, I always made students aware of the fact that one of the simplest and best predictive theories within the discipline – the minimal winning coalition theory of government formation – could only predict about one third of all government formations.
But to return to my main question: This spring I, along along with all other academic employees at the Department of Political Science at the University of Southern Denmark, received a call for contributions to a special election edition of Politiken which was to be distributed to schools. I decided not to participate because I felt that there were people at the department who could write more topical articles about labour market policy, but I also wondered why the department and Politiken had decided to concentrate the initiative solely on print media. Sure, the edition would be made available as a printable pdf, but as far as I could tell there were no plans for interactive features or updating or supplementing or updating the articles during the election campaign. It looked as though the internet did not exist in the minds of my colleagues.
The same could be said about the debate at the conference. I didn’t take notes but I can’t recall the internet ever being mentioned, let alone blogs or (even if I truly hate the term) social media. As somebody who have lived and worked in Sweden, I find it puzzling that I have Swedish colleagues who tweet and/or blog so I can have continuous exchanges with them but Danish political scientists with a personal appearance on the internet are very much the exception. (Take a look at my Links page for some Swedish and international examples) Even polsci departments stick to the basic templates offered by the universities – and they do not include space for any kind of web-based publications. (For a Norwegian example, see the Ta Politika blog from the Department of Political Science at the University of Oslo).
I am not sure why the internet is such a non-issue. Maybe my colleagues feel that established media give them sufficient outlet for public appearances or that digital media by definition are not an arena to take seriously. Maybe it is lack of knowledge (a senior professor called my mobile phone “a social medium” when I was checking the Guardian website for news about Greece…). Some would perhaps argue that the pressure to seek grants and publish in peer-reviewed English language journals means that academics should not spend time on interactive media – but then: Why do the Swedes, the Norwegians and the US Americans make more active use of the internet? Surely they must feel the pressure as much as my colleagues. As you can see, I have no good answers.
PS: It appeared that nobody at the conference had read Inside Higher Ed’s recommendations about how to handle established media.
Later today, the proud editors and contributors will be presenting vol. 2 of Dansk Velfærdshistorie covering the period from the introduction of parliamentarism in 1901 to the Kanslergade Agreement of 1933. My share in the project is a chapter about the introduction and development of unemployment insurance and labour exchanges – a subject which then as now raised considerable political controversies. The presentation is taking place at the old Svendborg Poor House which now houses the Museum of Poor Relief.
AS we all know, electronic and print media are full of pundits and other types of political commentators. Research has indeed shown that pundits are terrible forecasters – but then again the quality of forecasts may never have played too big a role in the assessment of talking heads.
Still, the lack of accountability could be part of the problem. A TV or newspaper pundit can say anything and still be invited back.
But the 2011 election brought an interesting change to this pattern. TV2’s political editor in 2009 declared that “he would eat his old hat” (a common Danish phrase when you are stating your disbelief about something) if Liberal Alliance passed the 2% threshold while the gruesome twosome (aka Peter Mogensen and Michael Kristiansen) promised to wear large ears (I suspect this plays on another phrase: “Hearing so much that your ears fall off).
PS: As a political scientist I loved this conclusion from a paper about US pundits: “The final significant factor in a prediction’s outcome was having a law degree; lawyers predicted incorrectly more often.”
I’ve had this saved as a draft for some weeks now. The discussion ends somewhat abruptly but maybe I will get back to the issue at some point.
Just to continue a line of thought from my previous note: The question about populist parties presenting themselves as “the true Social Democrats”.
The issue may be more relevant in Denmark and Sweden where support for the Social Democrats has taken a hit while the Danish People’s Party and to a lesser extent the Sweden Democrats have gained. Commentators have pointed out that SweDem have played the “real Social Democrats” card by trying to gain ownership of the “Folkhem” concept. As it is, “Folkhem” has a complicated history (it is in many ways a word which lends itself to discourse analysis) being first a Conservative and later a Social Democratic slogan. “Folkhem” also points to the development where Social Democracy changed from being an internationalist to an essentially nationally oriented political movement with the creation of the welfare states in the Scandinavian countries from the 1930s onward as the best-know effect.
Welfare state researchers will note that the national welfare state model probably reached its peak around 1980 (the period used by Gösta Esping-Andersen in his seminal book “Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism”) but that internationalisation and Europeanisation since then has put the national models of welfare under pressure. “Multiculturalism” and “Structural change” do not carry the same emotional weight as “Folkhem”: They are, at best, technocratic terms.
However, we should be careful in focussing too much on the word “Folkhem” as it is a uniquely Swedish term. Danish has no equivalent – “welfare state” is the closest – and this points to the risk of generalising Swedish experiences. As it is, the “welfare state” only really emerged as a political term during the 1960s in Denmark and it was fiercely debated in the 1960s and 1970s. To use discourse analysis-speak, the hegemony of the “welfare state” was less obvious than the hegemony of the “folkhem”.
I spent last week in Vaasa (or Vasa, in Swedish; the town is officially bilingual) participating in a workshop on populist parties. The work was quite intensive with five official sessions and no less than two dinners and here are some of my thoughts after the discussions:
1. Dealing with “the populist parties” in the Nordic countries as a group is problematic for a number of reasons, most notably because of the lack of formal links between the Danish People’s Party (DF), the Sweden Democrats (SD), Fremskrittspartiet (FrP) and Perussuomalaiset (PS) – DF and SD have shown an interest in creating some kind of ties, though – but also because FrP in particular occupy a different position in the political space compared to DF, SD and PS. FrP in many ways look more like a conservative party with more liberal positions on economy while DF, SD and PS all combine an economically centrist position with an authoritarian position on social issues (immigration and crime as the most notable issues).
2. Several of us implicitly or explicitly addressed questions related to the institutionalisation of populist parties in the Nordic party systems. Even if SD and – to some degree PS – are newcomers, all parties were established in the 1970s (FrP) or 1990s (DF, SD, PS) and while it is still difficult to predict the future strength of PS and SD, we should expect them to stay in the national party systems for some time. We should also note that the parties have led deliberate strategies to stabilise the party organisations on the membership and parliamentary level (A colleague noted that DF’s organisational practices in many ways resembled those of communist parties with a very strong and centralised leadership).
3. Two concepts often associated with populism were spectacular absent from the discussions: Charisma and distrust. There are many good reasons why charisma has fallen out of favour in academic discussions – the concept is hard to operationalise and the institutionalisation processes I described above make references to the party leaders’ charisma less relevant.
I am less certain about distrust. If we look at electoral research, populist party voters usually stand out with low levels of political and social trust compared with other voters. The phenomenon of distrust is not uncomplicated – a Danish research project from the 1990s argued that conflicts between elite and majority positions on the one hand and minority positions on specific issues on the other may generate distrust. Immigration and European policy were cited as the most likely sources of political distrust back then. That distrust disappeared from view has to do with the perspective changing from (voter) demand to (party) supply but this is probably where you write: “More research is needed”.
4. Marie Demker has argued that populist parties are better understood as nationalist parties. The argument is interesting as it sees nationalism as the ideological basis which sets these parties apart from other parties in the Nordic party systems. The argument would also fit with the parties’ position on the libertarian-authoritarian scale. Here populism could be seen as a means used by nationalist parties (and other parties – think of Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s famous New Year’s Speech from 2002) to mobilise voters.
If I should argue against Demker’s thesis I would first of all acknowledge that the present-day DF and SD (and in all likelihood PS) unquestionably qualify as nationalist. If we look at the Danish political history, nationalist agrarianism has manifested itself at certain points during the 20th century (The Free People’s Party, later the Peasants’ Party 1934-1945 and the Independents 1960-1966) but so has an outspoken anti-state populism (The Justice Party 1926-1960, 1973-1975, 1977-1981) and I would question if the Progress Party of the 1970s could reasonably be seen as a nationalist party. Again, more research would be necessary here. We should also consider if the peasant populism that we know from the 1930s and 1970s can be meaningfully compared with the working-class populism of the 1990s (in the case of Denmark: 1970s) onward.
One way of reconciling the “liberal” populism of the 1970s and the “nationalist” populism of the 1990s could be to focus on the European dimension. We know that the EC and later EU has been a continued source of problems for the Social Democratic parties in the Nordic countries with the parties being split between internationalism and welfare-state nationalism.
5. One final round of discussions, linked with #4, had to do with populist parties presenting themselves as “the true Social Democrats”. Both SD and DF have used this line of argument with the 1950s as some kind of imagined Social Democratic ideal (something which most people who were adults or adolescents during that decade would probably question) with the post 1968-Social Democracy presented as traitors to the national Social Democratic idea. This calls for some further arguments which I will leave for later.
I just wanted to point you to a perceptive comment and question about academic publishing and the academic journal system in particular. (I have no idea who the commenter is)
“There’s an age when boys read one of two books. Either they read Ayn Rand or they read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. One of these books leaves you with no grasp on reality and a deeply warped sense of fantasy in place of real life. The other one is about hobbits and orcs.”
Paul Krugman has more.
And yes, I read the one about the hobbits and the orcs.
The thing is: If you have had a blog for some years, the chances are that you have already covered the current issue you were considering writing a blog-post about.
So, here are two previous posts about experts and the use of experts in media:
2008-12-29 According to Experts,
2009-01-24 Expert Texpert
I’m working on a chapter about the organisational history of ATP, the Danish supplementary labour market pension, and visited the ATP Building in the outskirts of Hillerød on Wednesday.