Brazil, America, and the Question of Comparative Perspective

The Brazilian election might seem like a strange motivation for a blog post about U.S. politics. The election of a far-right authoritarian in another presidential democracy, though, presents an apt moment to think about the benefits of studying America in comparative perspective.

American politics and the other subfields

Political science in the United States has four primary subfields: American politics, comparative politics, international relations, and normative political theory. Although these boundaries are perhaps more porous than they once were, as recently as 2010 Edward Gibson and Julieta Suarez-Cao were able to write of “the impermeability of boundaries between American and comparative politics, which relieved Americanist scholars of the burdens of generalization and comparative theory builders of the burden of paying close attention to U.S. evidence.”

Most political science research about American politics proceeds as though other countries do not exist. Perhaps influenced by its origins in historical institutionalism more generally, APD does have more of a “comparative bent.” This is hardly universal, though, and even when it does appear it tends to be of a limited sort. In Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek’s words, “when politics in the United States is situated against politics in other countries, it is likely that the comparisons will be used to highlight what, if any, problems or characteristics of change are peculiar to the historical configuration of government and politics in the United States.” This approach is distinct from the goal of generalizability beyond a single case more common to comparative scholarship.

What should the United States be compared to?

If the United States is to be studied in comparative perspective, though, what countries should it be compared to? The most common answer to this question, particularly when looking at social policy, is Europe. Or, if not Europe, at least the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia. Such work often treats America as one of the “liberal” welfare regimes, perhaps the extreme (i.e., least generous) case.

Jacob Hacker, for example, compared the United States, Britain, and Canada to understand why America didn’t pass universal healthcare. By comparing the initial recipients of public coverage, the relative timing of the expansion of access and the growth of medical-scientific capacity, and the extent to which private insurance plans had developed, Hacker was able to offer compelling comparative insights into why the United States was unable to pass universal health coverage in the twentieth century, rather than merely treating the country’s politics as “exceptional” per se.

While comparisons to these countries can be valuable, comparisons beyond this traditional set of cases have also been informative. The comparativist Anthony Marx chose to look at the United States in Making Race and Nation, but rather than looking to Europe for comparable cases, he instead analyzed it alongside Brazil and South Africa. In America and South Africa, Marx argued, efforts to build national unity managed intra-white conflict via black exclusion. In Brazil, by contrast, the relative lack of such divisions led to less explicit racial discrimination by the state.

Within APD, Robert Mickey offers a compelling argument for looking beyond European politics for theoretical insights into American democracy. Treating the southern states as enclaves of authoritarian rule (a concept more conventionally applied to cases in Latin America), Mickey traced the variable “paths out of Dixie” for three Deep South states over the middle of the twentieth century. As Mickey’s work indicates, comparative perspective need not always mean literally comparing the United States to other countries. Americanists can also utilize theoretical frameworks developed in other regional contexts that might explain the U.S. case in creative ways.

Going forward

Yet there are also areas where literal comparison will prove fruitful. Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump are not identical figures. For a variety of reasons, the likely consequences of their elections are not necessarily going to converge. But each can be seen as a case of something larger: the rise of radical right politics in democratic countries generally, or perhaps the rise of reactionary authoritarianism in presidential democracies more specifically. Highlighting the similarities – and, perhaps just as importantly, the differences – will be productive for understanding how both countries got to where they are in 2018, as well as where they are likely to go in decades to come.

More generally, questions about “casing” can inform which theoretical frameworks to draw from, as well as which comparisons to use. A case is “an instance of a class of events,” but most cases belong to several at once. In their methodological treatment of case study research, Alexander George and Andrew Bennett give the IR example of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which can be seen as a case of deterrence, a case of coercive diplomacy, or a case of crisis management, among other possibilities. As this discussion between Laurel Eckhouse and Ian Hartshorn illustrates, such casing exercises (“what is this a case of?”) can also be helpful in understanding important trends in American politics, like the consequences of Fox News for the health of U.S. democracy.

Of course, there’s plenty of room for within-case analysis in the study of American politics and comparative politics more broadly. But the time has probably come for scholars of American politics to take comparative politics more seriously than has traditionally been the case for the subfield.

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