Monday, July 13, 2009


Harry Targ

I teach Political Science. I have been doing that for over forty years. I studied the subject as an undergraduate student in the 1950s and as a graduate student in the 1960s.

As I became politically active I began to realize how the Cold War shaped virtually all of the social science and humanities disciplines. Various theories and perspectives in these disciplines became dominant and legitimate for research, study, and teaching and others were dismissed as “unscholarly,” or “ideological.” The content of fields as diverse as English, philosophy, history, sociology, and psychology reflected the needs and ideology of the United States in its struggle against “communism.”

Political Science as a field was central to the development of a United States narrative about how political institutions work or should work. Political scientists endorsed a theory of democracy that emphasized the activities of "interest groups." According to this theory, in a democracy people participated in the political process by being members of groups. Public policy was the outcome of conflict among these groups. Government, from this view, was more the arbiter of competing interests than the reflection of any of the constituent groups. Virtually every undergraduate textbook (a very few exceptions slipped through the cracks) used this “group theory of politics” to explain the political process in the United States. The group theory also served as a standard by which other governments could be evaluated.

By the 1970s, some modest additions to this dominant way of thinking in political science emerged. Still acceptable to the mainstream, an approach we might call “bureaucratic politics,” gained adherents. Bureaucratic politics, borrowing liberally from theories of how organizations of all kinds work, emphasized the characteristic ways in which organizations within political systems operate. Paraphrasing one prominent political scientist, organizations have their own “standard operating procedures.” They act in ways to maximize the interest of their particular organization to the exclusion some times of the interests of other organizations in government and the government as a whole. Concretely this means that the Department of Defense has its own agenda as does the Air Force, the Army, and the Navy. Security agencies behave in predetermined ways to exercise what they are programmed to do. From this view government is a collection of semi-autonomous, some say feudal, organizations that are barely controllable by political elites or economic ruling classes.

For theorists of groups or bureaucratic politics, their explanations were basic to understanding the political universe. Capitalism to them constituted no more than one “variable” manifest through groups or bureaucracies. While both approaches saw politics as driven by interests neither saw the centrality of understanding how capitalism works and its connection to the state, how change was connected to classes and class struggle, and the relationship between the expansion of capitalism and imperialism.

Why reminisce about old-school academic political science in 2009? Well it may be that as we strategize about building a progressive agenda and particularly map a set of tactics to achieve both short and longer term goals, we might find a bit of wisdom embedded in the old ideology. Reflecting upon interest groups and bureaucracies may make a contribution to our political practice. As we challenge increasing military spending and making wars on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; and promote legislation reducing greenhouse gas emissions and changing health care policies; and seek to uncover Bush/Cheney covert operations and torture, identifying and seeking understanding of groups and bureaucracies might make our work more effective.

Of course, gaining insights about how particular groups are operating in the political process and how bureaucracies are programmed to act does not replace an understanding of finance capital and deeper class forces internal to ruling classes and between them and masses of people but may enrich it.

So I say “two cheers” for Cold War Political Science.