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Associate Professor of Political Science Jason Neidleman has recently started a new faculty reading group to try and create more academic dialogue among professors. I caught up with him to discuss the group’s purpose as well as his take on the health care debate and what’s playing on his iPod.
You got your B.A. from UCLA in Political Science and then you received your Ph.D. from Harvard, did you always know you would go into teaching or did life in politics ever cross your mind?
(Laughs) Definitely not politics, at least not politics in terms of running for office. Maybe activism, I mean I have always done some activism especially around land usage. And I teach a class, State and Local Government that emphasizes that stuff. I had a professor as an undergrad that encouraged me into a graduate program. It just so happened that a professor I had at UCLA was in charge of graduate admissions at UCLA, and I was in his class and he really encouraged me to go. And he mentored me too which helped. He was very into who was getting into which schools and he thought I would do well in the admissions process. You know the good thing about UCLA, I mean I could complain a lot about the big campus, but one nice thing is if you were in the honor’s program they let you take graduate level courses. Which I think we are actually starting something like that here in health sciences, where undergrads that are interested in the health science masters are going to be able to take these masters courses so you are in the same classes as grad students. I think that probably helped me a lot because he thought I was performing at that level and so he encouraged me. I mean my dad was a professor so there were probably other reasons why I was interested in it too. One of the things about being a professor is you pretty much get to do what you want most of the time, which you can’t say about most careers. Obviously there are things to complain about but I would say it’s probably the best job you can have. I also never cared about getting rich, which of course helps. Because you are definitely not going to get rich in academia.
What drew you to the University of La Verne?
I was in Chicago at DePaul University and had moved there from the East Coast. My wife’s from California, I’m from California and we really wanted to get back. In any given year in political theory there are only a few jobs in the country so if you are lucky enough to get one in a place you wouldn’t mind living, you take it, you’re happy. And I was fortunate enough to find such a welcoming department and a place I wanted to be.
I have heard you started a faculty reading group. What types of books will the faculty be reading? And what is the group’s purpose?
The purpose is to build a scholarly community. Which you would think goes without saying, right? At a University there is going to be a scholarly community. But the reality is we spend a lot of our time teaching, and the time we do spend together is often focused on things like WASC, and administering the University because we have this model of shared governance. Of course we invite speakers and we have the faculty lecture series on Mondays, but we have nothing where faculty come together and have a similar style discussion about issues of interest across the disciplines. Because when professors present their research we have a couple of minutes of discussion, but not much and so the idea here is that we have a common text that we have all read that hopefully is of common interest to everybody in arts and sciences. Then we can kind of benefit from the insights of one another, but also build that community and relate to each other on those terms. Because that is how I see us fundamentally are people who are interested in ideas. The exchange of ideas occurs primarily in the classroom and not between and among the professors. So it’s a way to relate to your colleagues in a scholarly context. And I have benefitted from that in different ways. I participated in a reading group at UCLA while I was faculty here. It’s invigorating, you make connections, and it helps you with your research, motivation to keep working. And the other thing is when we have faculty present their research we haven’t read anything prior to that meeting. This is an opportunity for us to come together for some time after we share the experience of reading and then discuss. It is a unique exchange that we don’t generally have. It creates this interesting, vibrant scholarly community.
Okay let’s get into some current political topics: How do you think President Obama and the Democrats have handled the health care debate and what advice would give them moving forward?
They are politically savvy and it is easy to sit on the outside with partial information and offer political advice. Certainly everybody that has been paying attention can see that it hasn’t gone as planned. Clearly what they have to do, and I think they are doing, is recognize the Republican strategy is to deny them a victory, and they are cohesive on that, they basically stick together. They haven’t given up votes on almost anything. One vote on a health care package by a guy who is filling a historically Democratic seat. They are going to stick together and they are going to block whatever the Democrats propose. Even to the point of opposing legislation that they had themselves sponsored previously. That is what they did on the deficit reduction bill. They opposed legislation that they had themselves sponsored because their over-arching goal is to deny Democrats anything they can claim as a victory because they think that will have positive electoral consequences for them in the midterm elections. So that is the first step, to recognize that is what the Republicans are doing.
Then the hard, next step is how you respond. And that is what they are trying to do now, is figure out how they can publically out the Republicans for their obstructionism. And so far the Republicans have been able to have their cake and eat it too. They have obstructed and yet somehow convinced many people that it’s the Democrats who have refused to listen, that they refused their amendments, that they didn’t let them participate, that they went behind closed doors, that they completely shut them out and that it’s not in any way their fault it’s the Democrats. And now they (Democrats) are trying to change that by holding these public hearings so that the public at least sees that this is indeed the Republican’s agenda. But that’s not enough in it of itself to get them to where they need to go and I think one of the mistakes many observers make is they see the Democratic Party as monolithic and you can somewhat say that about the Republicans, because they have purged a lot of their moderates, and they are fairly monolithic, not completely, but more so than the Democrats, and they can therefore hold their caucus together. The Democrats are so diverse. The way they swept into this huge majority is by running against conservatives in districts that are traditionally Republican, and winning, not because the districts have moved to the left but because they were so disenchanted with the Republican brand, if you want to call it that, and that the previous administration had harmed the Republican name so severely that people wanted to vote for the Democrats. Not because they had moved to the left or they now were liberal. And that means that the Democratic caucus is very diverse and includes people who are liberal and it includes people who are conservative. So it’s very difficult for them to come together and agree on a piece of legislation. People say well you have a huge majority in the House and 60 votes in the Senate, they could have done anything they wanted, well there were a lot of these moderate Democrats that prevented them from getting a perfect unanimity.
I still haven’t answered your question, because it really depends on how you look at it. Do you look at it from the perspective of the politico who just wants to find consensus? Or do you look at it from the perspective of the ideologue, which is more how I would look at it, which is to say okay you spent a lot of time trying to find consensus, now is the time to do whatever you need to do to pass legislation that you see is in the interest of the country and follow the LBJ model as opposed to the Bill Clinton model. Use reconciliation, force them to actually carry out the filibusters, work on anybody at either end whether it’s the left or the right by promising to support challengers in primaries. Whatever you need to do to get people to vote with you, that’s the hardball strategy I suppose. He (President Obama) is in a position to understand the political calculation better and maybe he is going to decide if he plays hardball, he is going to lose either moderates or liberals within his own caucus and end up with nothing. That’s a big roundabout way of not answering your question. But the people who think they have the easy answer that you see on cable news or on radio that say, “he should get tougher on moderate Democrats,” or “he should just ram it through over Republican objection,” you have to understand the political landscape to know if it is going to work. Nobody has complete information there and the White House probably has more than anybody else and so I assume they are doing what they think is going to be politically most effective.
So with that political landscape in Washington, with the Democrats having a supermajority and were still unable to do anything, and yet this minority party is seemingly upholding all legislation, do you think it is doable to bring a third party to American politics or do you think we are so chained to the two party system that you don’t see any kind of wiggle room?
There have been third party challenges, historically many of them. And for the most part they have had positive challenges in the sense they are bringing ideas to the table that wouldn’t otherwise be there and keep the main parties honest. But we will not have a third party that challenges a two party system, if that’s what you are asking, until we reform our electoral system. What we need to move to, in my opinion, is what’s called instant recount voting where you don’t just vote for a candidate, but you rank the candidates. Because right now it is kind of a suicide mission to vote for a third party because when you vote for a third party what you do is help the candidate you hate the most. Some people do it and often regret it but many more who would prefer to vote for the third party don’t because they are afraid they will end up with their least desirable option. Instant recount voting allows you to rank the candidates and the way it works is you add up all the 1’s if nobody has a majority among the 1’s, throw in the 2’s and if nobody has a majority at that point, although almost certainly somebody would have the majority. That way you aren’t punished for voting for your favorite candidate. And then maybe you could get a third party. Unless we change this electoral system we have you will never see a third party that challenges that two party system.
I was reading Newsweek the other day and this article was saying that the Tea Party movement now looks a lot like what Ross Perot did in the ‘90s.
Yeah. I mean if you look at Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader they draw on the same constituency. The way I would explain it is, you have one major party that is conservative on economic issues and conservative on social issues, the Republicans. Where the other political party is liberal on economic issues and liberal on social issues, the Democrats. But as far as Americans, maybe not a majority, but a large number, not sure what it is, but a large number of Americans are liberal on economic issues and conservative on social issues. And these third party candidates tend to tie into that group. Traditionally, they are working class voters who may support progressive legislation when it comes to economics but maybe they are Catholic or more socially conservative. And so that person isn’t really sure where to go in choosing between two parties. And often times in elections they will talk about who’s going to win the white working class, and that is going to decide the election. And the reason they tend to focus on those types of voters is because they tend to be conservative on social issues and progressive on economic issues. And so often times the third party candidate taps into that demographic. You would think that if there ever were a third party, they would probably come out of that demographic. But the party has become one big tent. Where somebody like Dennis Kucinich would be a third party candidate but runs in the Democratic Party. Ron Paul would be a third party candidate in the parliamentary system, but he runs Republican. The other possibility is that you get a third party based on moderate Republicans who have nowhere to go because the Republican Party has become a Southern party of social conservatives and you could combine them with moderate Democrats. Somebody like Evan Bayh or Lincoln Chase. That constituency might make up a third party. But again only if we change our electoral system.
So with the health care debate and the administration trying to pull us out of this recession, what are the prospects of President Obama enacting environmental legislation and where should that be on his priority list?
Well the reason he did health care in his first year is because anytime major legislation gets passed is during the honeymoon period of the president’s first term. Ideally he would have done that. He wouldn’t have had to worry about two wars, but he was given those circumstances. And he knew if he didn’t try heath care early on it wasn’t going to happen later. And he tried to get it early and for the most part it hasn’t worked out.
I remember Paul Krugman said within the first month of his presidency, to go big now because he would only get one shot.
Exactly. And that is what history tells us. But it doesn’t matter what you ask me about. If you ask me about environmental legislation, economic legislation, the answer is going to be the same. It becomes less and less likely as time goes by. If he wins a massive victory in 2012 then he will have another chance. But my answer is no, it will be very unlikely to get environmental legislation especially in a recession because people won’t perceive it right or wrong to have a harmful impact on the environment. They are going to get a hard time from not only Republicans but also Democrats representing the working class.
At this point in the recession wouldn’t it be beneficial for us to create this new sector of jobs that would essentially kill two birds with one stone?
Absolutely. You didn’t ask me if it was a good idea. You asked me the chances of it happening. I think economic reform should happen first and financial reform should happen first. That might have a little better shot because you can unify these Democrats and try to pass something that regulates the financial markets and financial institutions, but for a variety of reasons, some in which we mentioned, and some that we haven’t, that isn’t very likely either. You asked is it likely to get legislation passed, it doesn’t matter what the legislation is, the answer is no. And we didn’t even talk about how the big financial interests and wealthy interest groups influence over Congress. It’s difficult to pass anything that they oppose. The thing about health care, this thing was actually structured to benefit the big interests, the health care interests in terms of insurance companies and pharmaceutical interest. They didn’t even try to go the single payer approach because they knew they couldn’t get the health care lobbies on board. Even the one that was written by the health care lobby couldn’t pass.
Do you think it was a mistake for Democrats to come to the table with a compromise, instead of coming to it with the notion of we are going to get single payer health care, now let’s talk? And then maybe at this point we would be at the compromise.
They couldn’t get it. They couldn’t even get a lot of people in their own caucus to support it. You can say well strategically, yes, it would make sense to start from one position of negotiation and move to the center, but they couldn’t get anybody, and very few people in their own caucus to support it. I mean I wish we lived in a different political environment where that would have been a possibility but it isn’t. And so the only chance they have is to try the bi-partisan approach and even that didn’t work out. I hope it will. I think there is a decent chance that it will, but so far it hasn’t. I mean what was the original deadline they wanted it by, October?
What is your daily process of attaining the news?
I give this advice to my students: turn off the television, don’t rely on television. Especially cable channels. There are a few exceptions; the Sunday shows are okay, like “Meet the Press,” “This Week,” “Face the Nation.” You can watch C-SPAN as much as you want and the “NewsHour” on PBS is good, but that’s about it for TV. Obviously you don’t listen to talk radio. I would say read a daily newspaper even though they have become worse and worse and cover less and less of the news. I normally instruct my students to visit a variety of other sources. I personally like talkingpointsmemo, “The Nation,” “The New Republic,” “Harpers,” “Atlantic Monthly,” and I’ll read the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor. Try to read a diversity of sources and always be aware of the agenda of whomever you are reading.
If you don’t know for sure, can you give me an educated guess as to which five artists are the most played on your iPod?
Oh I have got it right here (pulls iPod Nano out of his pocket). This is a tough one. I have very eclectic taste. I’m not going to give you the ones I play for my kids. I would have to go with Itzhak Perlman because I just saw him live, The Killers, I listen to a lot of classic poetry aloud, The Strokes, mostly for my son but I listen to Frank Sinatra a lot, and probably Coldplay. But a lot of classical piano too. Lot of Mozart.
If students or anybody else comes up to you and says, “Professor Neidleman I need a crash course in political theory,” what five, give or take a few, books are an absolute must read?
Plato’s “Republic,” Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” John Rawls’ “Theory of Justice,” John Locke’s “Second Treatise,” and Marx’s “Das Kapital.”
If I remember correctly you are a big soccer fan.
Well I’m basically a sports fan, not so much a soccer fan. Although I was just watching a little of the Real Madrid against Lyon game. But I’m mostly an American sports fan.
What did you think of the U.S. World Cup draw and what if any chances do the Americans have?
I would say no chance. Especially without Davies. You never know because what was it the Confederations Cup when we ended up beating Spain, probably the best team in the world at the time. Something like could happen and I guess it’s possible that we could get out of the first round but I just think this isn’t going to be our year. Because we got guys who are either too old or too young and we just don’t have enough people to score goals. Yeah, I’m not optimistic.
What American sports do you enjoy?
Pretty much everything. I’m from San Francisco so I’m a ‘Niners fan, Golden State Warriors fan, and an Oakland A’s fan. But living in L.A. all this time I have started to get behind the Lakers a little bit when they aren’t playing the Warriors. Because I mean rooting for the Warriors is not fun.
Kevin Garrity can be reached at email@example.com.