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Is “Motherfucker” The Concept Political Science Now Needs?

An Immodest Proposal

The short piece below is a suitably revised version of a talk presented at this year’s American Political Science Association Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. It was my provocative contribution to a roundtable on Rethinking Regime Categories in an Age of Populism .

Is “Motherfucker” the concept that political science now needs? The question is a serious one. And the answer, I suggest in all seriousness, is “yes.” Kind of.

We live in troubled times. The June 16, 2018 cover of The Economist stated the trouble clearly: “How strongmen subvert democracy.”

The September/October cover of Foreign Affairs also puts it well: “Autocracy Now.”

But most powerful, and evocative, is the October 31, 2018 cover of Courrier International: “Un Monde De Brutes (A World of Brutes/Thugs/Bullies)”.

As a political scientist who is a U.S. citizen, the brute that concerns me most is the one in the forefront wearing red, white and blue tights: Trump (only in a cartoon can such attire be even imagined).

Over the past three years I have written hundreds of pages criticizing this corpulent brute (many of these pieces were collected in a 2018 book suitably entitled #AgainstTrump). I have also found myself repeatedly uttering the term “Motherfucker!” in reference to this brute, sometimes under my breath, sometimes out loud, and most frequently in Facebook posts. These Facebook posts are typically “Liked” by a great many of my political science friends, including some of the most distinguished scholars in our field. And so I half-jokingly declared on Facebook that at this year’s APSA meetings I would use my appearance on a panel about regime concepts to reflect on the concept “Motherfucker.” And here we are.

It is considered uncivil and vulgar to use such language in serious academic contexts.

I am unmoved by such conventions.

Having grown up in Flushing, Queens, in New York City — a neighborhood near and yet a world apart from the Jamaica Estates in which Trump apparently lived — such vulgarities spring freely from my lips and from my fingertips, as my family, friends, students and Great Pyrenees can attest. At the same time, as a scientific scholar of politics, I do take very seriously the literature on concept formation in political science, and I take especially seriously the now-commonplace understanding that most of our scientific concepts are drawn from everyday language. “Citizen.” “Nation.” “Democracy.” “Authoritarianism.” “Motherfucker.”

The latter term might seem out of place. But, indeed, it was jettisoned to the forefront of public discourse earlier this year by an outspoken and very visible first-term member of the U.S. Congress, Rashida Tlaib, who declared, with reference to the Bovine Brute pictured above, that “we’re going to impeach this motherfucker!” Tlaib was roundly criticized by many genteel commentators for the “incivility” of her remarks. Others, myself included, praised her declaration and its very evocative language. But my praise was political. It remains for this language to be considered as a matter of scientific epistemology.

In my opinion all major concepts in political science originate in, respond to, and help to shape the ongoing contests that constitute the world of politics. In this sense, all such concepts can be considered “essentially contested.” This does not mean that we political scientists can simply say whatever we want. For in scientific discourse, our concepts are always used to explain what is actually going in the world. And because science is an ongoing intersubjective process of inquiry and argument, conjecture and refutation, the concepts we use must “prove themselves” discursively in comparison to the concepts and explanations furnished by others.

Much ink has been spilled on the processes of concept formation and conceptual change by philosophers of science and, more recently in political science, by participants in the new cottage industry now known as “qualitative and mixed methods.” (Actually, as the publishing world is becoming more and more digital, less and less “ink” of any kind is ever “spilled.” And there is surely a connection between the declining scarcity of “space” — digital space is infinite — and the outpouring of bullshit. But I digress.).

If any rationale at all is to be attributed to the idea of political science, then it must be that political scientists, in their academic capacity, seek not simply to use words to express approval or disapproval, but to be as sharp and clear as possible in our conceptualizations and explanations, so that they can persuasively explain what we mean them to explain. This requires careful attention to what our concepts mean and what they don’t mean, and equally careful attention to their scope conditions, the situations in the world to which they can be applied.

The concept of “motherfucker” is not without meaning.

Here is how Merriam-Webster defines the term: “obsceneone that is formidable, contemptible, or offensive  — usually used as a generalized term of abuse.”

Macmillan describes the term as “an extremely offensive word for an annoying or unpleasant person or thing.”

And here is the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary: “coarse slang (originally and chiefly North American) . . . With negative connotation: An obnoxious, despicable, or contemptible person; a very unpleasant person. . . Frequently as a term of abuse. . . . An unpleasant, difficult, formidable, or oppressive thing, situation, place, etc.”

The term “Motherfucker” has two distinct advantages: it is attention-getting; and it is very powerfully evocative, typically expressing extreme distaste for and disrespect of whatever it so describes (though, as the OED also notes, there are contexts in which “Motherfucker!” can also be an exclamation of high respect, as in “Lebron is a Motherfucker!” It is hard to imagine any such exclamation regarding Trump).

At the same time, from a scientific point of view it has one very profound disadvantage: it is extremely imprecise, and thus difficult to specify its range of application. Indeed, the term can be applied to virtually any person or thing that one reviles, and can indeed be used in an almost purely self-referential way, to express a state of being (in this sense, “motherfucker” is a veritable synonym for “shit!”).

In all seriousness, the concept has limited explanatory value.

But before we political scientists simply write it off, I suggest we need to think again about the three magazine covers to which I earlier alluded. One speaks of “strongmen.” Another of “brutes.” And the third of “autocracy.” Only the latter is properly a political science term. But all three journals, and a great many others, draw upon political science ideas to demarcate the Very Bad Thing that now seems to be befalling a great many countries, and none more visibly than the U.S. In this sense, “autocracy” is virtually synonymous with “strongmen” and “brute,” and it is equally imprecise. For the leaders it references — Duterte, Orban, Xi, Erdogan, and Putin — arguably have acquired power, and maintained their power, through very different means that implicate different kinds of institutions. And indeed, lurking in the background of these figures is the figure of Trump himself, who was elected president in a country that most political scientists have long considered to be the paragon of representative democracy. And yet he is classified as a “brute,” likened to an “autocrat” and a “strongman,” and described by Rashida Tlaib and I as a “Motherfucker.”

Do these terms, and these references, satisfy the standards of scientific rigor that one expects from serious scholarship and that are understandably encouraged and enforced by peer-reviewed scholarly journals? No. Does a lot more need to be said about the different kinds of social scientific concepts — “authoritarianism,” “populism,” “democracy” — whose use can help us to understand what is going on today in the different places where these horrible leaders govern, and how these leaders are similar, and how they are different? Yes.

At the same time, in a public-political sense these distinctions, as intellectually important as they are, and indeed as politically important as they are, may well be secondary right now.

In a 2017 article in Eurozine, “Is There Illiberal Democracy,” I argued that most of the scholarly commentaries about this question confused at least three different questions that ought to be distinguished: (1) are there political actors who appeal to illiberal conceptions of democracy, including “illiberal democracy,” and do we need to understand their discourse whether we like it or not? (YES) (2) have the actors in question actually established regimes that warrant the label “illiberal democracy,” and is this concept, whatever its analytic importance, useful as a “regime type” concept (PROBABLY NOT)? And (3) what is the relevance of the analytic distinctions we draw for explanatory and perhaps even normative theoretical purposes, to actual public discourse and our role in public discourse in the face of the rise of the far right (NOT VERY MUCH AT ALL)?

What concerns us here, and now, is the rise of dangerous, xenophobic, authoritarian forms of right-wing populism, and the role of exceptionally narcissistic, corrupt, vile, telegenic, and demagogic leaders in riding this wave of populism, and turning it in xenophobic and dangerous directions.

I am interested in understanding and causally explaining this rise.

But right now, I am primarily interested in opposing it. Because I regard it as a threat to freedom, including academic freedom, and to the possibilities for decent life on planet earth for us and for the generations that hopefully will follow us. And because this is now my overriding concern, I am moved to regard the precising of concepts as a secondary matter, and am increasingly inclined to validate, employ, and even embrace terminology that I might otherwise regard as insufficiently sharp.

And as I have thought about this, I have come increasingly to identify with the thinking of a writer that I adamantly criticized in my younger days: Richard Rorty, the iconoclastic provocateur whose reinterpretation of “pragmatism” in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature revolutionized the discipline of philosophy by challenging long-standing myths about the representational status of the language we use.

In particular, I’ve been thinking about an essay Rorty published in the journal Political Theory in 1987 called “Thugs and Theorists,” in which he argued that most of the deep theoretical issues dividing political theorists were of secondary importance if they were important at all, and that they had little to do with clarifying what was at stake in politics. He wrote, in the late ‘80’s:

“There is no way to consolidate our enemies in any interesting “theoretical” way. The shadowy millionaires manipulating Reagan (people who are happy to see democratic politics turned into sham battles between telegenic puppets), the nomenklatura in Moscow, the Broederbond in South Africa, and the ayatollahs in Iran are so many gangs of thugs concerned to hold on to the power and wealth they have managed to grab.”

I hated this when I read it. It cavalierly dismisses theoretical arguments that are genuinely important, arguments that are indeed the basis of real scholarly sophistication and that drive the academic-scholarly careers we all understandably pursue.

I don’t hate it now. I don’t think it is fully right, either philosophically or politically. But I don’t really care very much. Now. At this moment. Because while I think that theoretical arguments about conceptual precision and regime type matter theoretically, and even matter in a broader public sense, they are not very important, now, as we think about public life in the face of very serious threats.

Our world, right now, demands of us a new level of attention and at the same time a new level of outraged and indignant action, in deeds and in words. And while this world is governed by profoundly cynical and anti-intellectual forces, it is also possible, sometimes, for our efforts, our terms, our concerns, to be registered in the public domain, and to make some difference. And to the extent that we can be even marginally effective in sounding the alarm in the public domain, the imprecision of our concepts and arguments matters less than their rhetorical power.

It doesn’t matter that much, politically, in terms of the possibility of freedom, or basic human decency, whether we refer to Trump as “strongman” or “autocrat” or “authoritarian” or, as William Connolly has evocatively put it, “aspirational fascist.” These terms are not the same. But they all carry the same basic valence right now, all of them have their uses, depending on circumstance, and we will be wasting precious time and energy if we spend too much of our time parsing them and refining them and too little developing them, publicizing them, and using them to activate broadly democratic responses to the authoritarianism that is growing in our midst. In the same way, it doesn’t much matter whether we describe countries like the U.S. and France as “liberal democracy,” or “constitutional democracy,” or “polyarchy,” or “flawed democracy.” These conceptual differences matter, theoretically and even practically. But they don’t matter that much now. And if we don’t come to terms with this, now, we might not have political science, or political freedom, in twenty years.

The terminology of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die is a case in point. As I’ve argued in a critical review, serious questions need to be raised about the book’s treatment of how democracies die, but also what they are, how they come into existence, and how they live. Levitsky and Ziblatt’s concepts of “guardrails” and “norm erosion” can be challenged, along with their conception of “democracy” itself.

At the same time, it would appear quite obvious that Levitsky and Ziblatt know this. For the extensive scholarly writing of each of them has long centered on more nuanced conceptualization, in which they have insisted on the development of more careful regime categories than the simple dichotomy of “democracy” and “authoritarianism.” Is Orbanism or Trumpism, etc., a hybrid regime, or a form of competitive authoritarianism, or a fragile liberal democracy, or a polyarchy of poor quality, or a liberal democracy in decline? As political scientists we can and should argue about these terms. By arguing about them, we are genuinely clarifying what is at stake in current developments, and what are the best ways forward. But in How Democracies Die Levitsky and Ziblatt are not primarily concerned with how precisely to demarcate the changes going on before us. For their book has a different purpose: to deploy their scholarly-theoretical knowledge in a way that is publicly powerful and that highlights fundamental ethical-political choices we now face, and one fundamental ethical-political choice in particular: the choice to defend civil freedom and independent media and political pluralism and voting rights and fair elections and the broad politics of equality and human rights at a time when they are being attacked. And for this purpose, the term “democracy” suffices, whatever its simplifications, and the term “dies” suffices, precisely because of its dramatic and even alarmist character. It is for this reason that William Connolly — a very different kind of political scientist, whose own recent book, Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy Under Trumpism, uses rather different terminology than that of Levitsky and Ziblatt — can conclude a recent commentary in Perspectives on Politics thus: “So I disagree with Levitsky and Ziblatt in some ways. I also appreciate their attention to the norms or ethos of democracy. I trust that across these differences, we will be aligned to resist efforts to assassinate democracy.”

“Efforts to assassinate democracy.” While Connolly has written an entire book about the need to “struggle for multifaceted democracy,” in this context he is quite willing to conclude his remarks by employing the less precise term “democracy,” and to sum up a rather sophisticated analysis of the psychological, cultural, economic, and political sources of Trumpism by invoking the notion of a malignant intention — to assassinate democracy.

To write in this way is a choice.

To speak about the thuggery and brutality and despotism of the Trumps and Bolsonaros and Putins and Orbans of the world is a choice.

And to emphasize the need to defend, and to expand, democracy is a choice.

Such a choice is does not obviate the importance of simultaneously pursuing more careful and sophisticated explanations of what is going on, of refining and precising our concepts as we do so, and of deploying them in the measured tone that is appropriate for much academic-scholarly discourse.

All the same, I think at this very dark moment, it would be a good thing if more political scientists worried a bit less about conceptual precision and a little more about making a difference to arrest and reverse the looming authoritarianism before us.

We need to defeat the Motherfuckers. If we don’t, we are all fucked.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. From 2009-2017 he served as Editor in Chief of Perspectives on Politics, which he branded “A Political Science Public Sphere.” In 2017 he was awarded the American Political Science Association’s Frank J. Goodnow Award for “public service” in the profession for the work he did on the journal along with his excellent staff and editorial board.

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