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By Emily Holland and Hadas Aron
This seemingly unending election cycle has unleashed a demon upon us all. Of course, Trump is partly to blame for dragging politics into the gutter, but the malaise associated with the 2016 election is not unique. In fact, it is a global phenomenon. Throughout the developed world, people are experiencing democratic anxieties manifesting in racist, exclusionary and nativist rhetoric. Ordinary citizens are consuming the fear spread by leaders and the outcome is a troubled, restless time.
This is of course not the first time in history that the United States or other regions have experienced deep public divisions and unrest. The demon is always present, but only gets unleashed every once in a while. The reasons underlying high political tensions are numerous, and we will briefly review them here. Eventually, however, the demon always retreats back into the box and life goes back to relative normal. But the way unrest eases is almost never pleasant, and in the process no one gets exactly what they set out for.
Much has been written about the losers of globalization, the ones who are left behind while the rest of the world has moved on. These are unskilled workers who lost both their job security and their identity as the heart of American society. This pertains mostly to the white working class in formerly industrial areas, but increasingly includes the poor more generally. For these groups, traditional politicians have failed to respond to their crisis and thus populist leaders found a fertile ground on which to mobilize. The result of this failure is anti-elitism, nativism, exclusionary views, the rejection of mainstream politics and of course, Trump.
But our troubled, divided times are not unique in American history. The most obvious example is of course the Civil War, but other examples include the interwar period, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War. All of these periods were characterized by civil unrest, heightened political activism, and even violence. But another thing they have in common is that eventually they all ended. Although they did not necessarily create a better American society, they did usher in a more subdued one. What lessons can we draw from past periods of unrest and how they ended?
1. The Civil War: The most divided period in American history ended in a bloody war. Not a good sign for things to come. Of course, at the time America was a young, fragile nation with more profound divisions. That said, the war did not actually mend the divisions between north and south. To achieve their goals, the north occupied the south and implemented reconstruction, which rather than a great transformation, was instead a great compromise. Reconstruction ended and ushered in the Jim Crowe era, which calmed the anxieties of the white south, at least for a while. For African Americans, this was a disastrous outcome and it demonstrates that period of unrest often end with a little progress and a lot of regression. Similarly, in Europe in 1848, Kings were overthrown and monarchies felled, but a year later the ancien régime was at least partly reinstated.
2. The Interwar Era is characterized by a period of deep democratic anxiety. In the United States, one of the consequences of this anxiety was the tremendous success of the Ku Klux Klan, which at its height had a membership of 5 million people across the country. Much of the unrest centered on issues of immigration and ethnic cleavages between Catholics and Protestants. When the government passed the 1924 Immigration Act, which instated quotas for immigration according to country of origin, much of the unrest died down. In this case the unrest was reactionary and the partial success of nativist groups led to a normalization of exclusionary politics. For many, this is not a desirable outcome but it is one that has the effect of calming anxieties for some populations. We can view Brexit as one example of this type of outcome, although it is too soon to judge whether it will have the same effect on British politics in the years to come.
3. The Civil Rights Movement had more complicated outcomes. The protests of the early 1960s ended in partial success with the adoption of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. This achievement led to a split within the movement. The more radical element continued to struggle, sometimes violently. Part of the unrest of the period was also channeled into the anti-Vietnam protests and so the contention did not really end but rather spread to a broader audience. Eventually this troubled period produced an enormous conservative backlash, ushering “law and order” Richard Nixon into office and with him a quieter and more conservative period.
Although all of these periods led to an in immediate conservative reaction, they ultimately led to slow processes of progress for minorities. As the once the Rolling Stone’s and now Donald Trump’s campaign song says, “You can’t always get what you want,” but even a reactionary period is never fixed or complete. Once ideas are released into the public discourse they leave a mark on citizens and shape their demands and expectations. In sum, we should not expect anything good to come out of these incredibly divided times in the near term. But participation in politics in and of itself is not a bad thing, and bringing people into the political process has slow and diffuse benefits.
By Emily Holland and Hadas Aron
“You can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb on the ninth month on the final day.” Donald Trump’s visceral characterization of abortion during the most recent presidential debate elicited strong emotions from both pro-life and pro-choice supporters. Since the 1970s the American religious right has strategically mobilized political support around abortion. Evangelical leaders discovered the potential political power of abortion as salient issue after Roe v. Wade in 1973 and turned it into their central message. The issue quickly became extremely divisive, eliciting strong reactions from Christians who believe that life begins at conception and those, mostly women, who believe in a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions.
The latest phase of abortion mobilization has again been getting strong reactions across the globe. In Poland, tens of thousands of women took to the streets of Warsaw to protest against a proposed law that would entirely criminalize and penalize abortion at any stage, for any reason. The right wing populist government was forced to pull back the legislation. Poland is a highly Catholic country and already has the strictest laws on abortion in Europe. Mobilization on religious issues has a long record of success in Poland, but this last attempt was a step too far for women. A popular rallying cry at the protests called, “Save women, not a step further.”
Poland is a country that is torn between the liberal project and long-standing religious traditions promoted by populist politicians. Sound familiar? There is no comparison between Poland’s short democratic experience and America’s 240 years of peaceful transition of power, so far. But the strong reactions against the politicization of abortion are not that different. After Trump’s horrific remarks, women, young and old, felt personally attacked and offended. For younger women, many who have taken for granted the right to choose, Trump’s words diminished personal experiences and those of friends and family who had to go through difficult and often traumatic experiences. Late term abortion is a choice made for medical reasons, when the life of the fetus or the mother is in danger. It is the most difficult and personal decision leading to prolonged grief. Presenting it as frivolous or even murderous was shocking and enraging to many women familiar with the situation. For older women who remember the time before Roe v. Wade, Trump’s words were a threat to turn back the clock on all the achievements they have seen for women throughout their lives. Hillary Clinton’s response was spot on: “Well, that is not what happens in these cases and using that kind of scare rhetoric is just terribly unfortunate.”
This issue has been a salient one in politics since 1973 for both sides. But it seems that in today’s current political climate, populists are advocating a “nasty” rollback of women’s rights. This has not gone unnoticed by women voters. The hatred toward women coming from populist leaders is not only political. It shows that when feeling threatened, hegemonic men would do and say anything to preserve the dominant role of masculinity in western societies. It is difficult in modern western society to find overt discrimination against women, which is why the tangible wage gap has become such a salient issue even though there are many others. The populist rhetoric is making inequality politically tangible for women voters and that is probably its only silver lining. In the interest of being bi-partisan, we leave you with the words of Dr. Condoleeza Rice, “Can’t wait until November 9!”
By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
Those of us currently on the academic job market while trying to finish dissertations could comfortably be classified as suffering from high levels of stress. Our day-to-day consists of writing, applying, paying Interfolio, and banging our heads against computer keyboards. For the authors of this piece, our main source of relief comes in the form of the best Pilates class in the world. Every Thursday morning we lie down and work on our cores amongst the elderly ladies of the Upper West Side. Recently, our instructor, a former Broadway dancer, said in her magnificent husky voice: “Choose your own stretch ladies, this is a democratic Pilates” to which one of our class compatriots replied: “It’s safe to be democratic here, it’s the Upper West Side!”
Given the current political climate in American politics, with Donald Trump threatening to jail Hillary Clinton for example, the notion that it is unsafe to let “the masses” decide has become more prevalent. Sadly, it is not unique to these elections and has had appeal for certain actors on several occasions in history. This elite sense of entitlement is objectionable, unproductive and even dangerous. First, no one group in society has the power to grant suffrage. Wealthy and educated urban elites are no longer suffrage gatekeepers, and when they were, US politics was certainly not better or even necessarily more liberal.
Donald Trump characterizes inner cities as “hell”, and liberal elites often imagine Middle America as rural church-goers with limited access to dental care. Both characterizations are misinformed and offensive. If liberals want to include minorities in the American story, they cannot pick and choose only those minorities they find easiest to co-opt. That is not how multiculturalism works. Instead, the process requires including those groups you find most challenging to engage with. Over the Jewish Yom Kippur holiday several rabbis expressed disgust from these presidential elections, and admitted they felt dirty by participating in the political discussion. Many congregation members nodded in agreement. The current political discourse left many feeling sullied. But while Trump alone is responsible for the dirty words and deeds, he does not have a monopoly over dirty sentiments.
The type of exclusive liberalism that has surfaced during these elections is quite common in Europe, and is failing badly. Across Europe, urban elites are increasingly losing their hold on political power to the rise of populist parties. Amidst the challenges of globalization and immigration, liberals have not yet come up with convincing solutions. Populists do not have the answers either, but at the very least they tend not to patronize those who feel most threatened by a changing world. It is impossible to fight populism with elitism.. There were moments in this campaign that Hillary Clinton managed to reach out to those beyond her base. Her supporters and media should to do the same.
Anti-democratic ideas have been tossed around with alarming prevalence during this campaign. The most recent example is of course Trump’s gross threat to lock-up his opponent if he wins the election, but there is a pervasive perception that the other side, Democrat or Republican, is fundamentally un-American, and perhaps not deserving of a voice. This discourse is dangerous and damaging to American democracy. We live in an anti-democratic time with regimes around the world curtailing once-common liberal rights. Politically correct discourse has been abandoned in favor of hate speech. Democracy needs to be protected, not by limiting rights and restricting suffrage (or even lamenting universal suffrage), but by an honest attempt to increase social ties across groups and cleavages. Even on the Upper West Side.
By Emily Holland and Hadas Aron
We spent Friday surrounded by giant flames, confetti falling from the sky, fireworks, water, flashing lights, and so much more. Yes, we went to the Beyoncé concert and yes, it was epic. Being the dedicated political scientists we are, even while watching the spectacle in awe, the political implications of the event did not escape us. Let us share with you the Political Scientist’s Guide to Beyoncé’s “Formation” Tour.
1. Okay Ladies Now Lets Get in Formation: Much has been written about Beyoncé’s new-found feminism (though we do argue that Beyoncé has always been a feminist, but in less obvious ways). Her “Formation” Tour is visceral feminist experience. The opening act, DJ Khaled, brought on stage many leading rappers from the last two decades including TI, Ja Rule, DMX, Jadakiss and others. The crowd was enthusiastic, but it was clear that while the men were on stage, everyone was waiting for the main act: Beyoncé. Traditionally, rap is hyper-masculine, so it was interesting that the powerhouse of the evening was so unapologetically and powerfully female. Just as the rappers wrapped-up their performance, an orchid repeatedly opened and closed on giant screens. This was a blatant message, and we all got it loud and clear. The entire show was a feminist experience. Beyoncé performs with an entirely female, mostly black, group of dancers, backup singers and band. This is unheard of in the world of popular music, especially for a female pop artist. Men did make an appearance (both Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar literally rose from the stage in Beyoncé’s silver throne) but they were there under the sponsorship of Beyoncé. In particular, Jay-Z, on stage for no more than two minutes, was introduced by Beyoncé only as “my man”. Echoing her visual album Lemonade, feminist images repeatedly appeared on screen including flowers coming out of her mouth, a triangle between Beyoncé’s legs, and words like “diva” “boss” and “feminist”. Beyond the visual images, the entire message of the show was one of female empowerment. Beyoncé encouraged the crowd to take what is theirs without shame or inhibition.
2. I Might Just Be a Black Bill Gates in the Making: You may have noticed that this is a particularly divisive period in American politics. We can’t even agree on Tic Tacs and Skittles. All we have left is Beyoncé, and a quick informal survey of her crowd showed that she crosses class, race and regional divisions (we did not say gender here, although there were a few men in the crowd). Beyoncé’s Lemonade had a powerful black empowerment message, which resonated in the black community and did not alienate fans of other races. This is a unique quality of Beyoncé. There are certainly artists (including Beyoncé’s sister Solange) that are more openly activist in Black Lives Matter and other causes. But what is unique about Beyoncé is her ability to send a powerful message from the very center of the mainstream. She remains Queen Bey to white suburban fans even as she preaches black empowerment. That is a brave and admirable statement, particularly on the mainstream stages on which she performs like the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
3. I Dream It, I Work Hard, I Grind ‘Til I Own It: Industry and hard work have always been themes in Beyoncé’s music, and throughout the Lemonade experience she references the American dream, of which she is a shining example. In these troubled times which have seen real incomes stagnate and poverty become entrenched along racial lines, Beyoncé’s message, while inspiring, is at odds with the prevailing sense of economic pessimism, particularly amongst her Gen X and Y fans. Beyoncé has a personal fortune of around $450 million and continues to sing about how “hustling” and “grinding” means that she can now buy her own diamonds and buy her own rings. While we appreciate the feminist implications of her message, the fact is that social mobility in America is pretty much stuck and no matter how hard one works, it is hard to escape deeply entrenched institutional and social constraints. That said, the American dream has always been aspirational, and Beyoncé is an example of how hard work (and talent and luck) can pay off in exceptional circumstances.
4. Stacking Money Money Everywhere She Goes: Beyoncé is awfully rich. At the concert we thought about how Blue Ivy has a billion dollars and decided that is too much money for one baby. The show is obviously a huge moneymaker for Beyoncé, and if that’s not enough, before the show began, the screens blasted commercials for her new clothing line, Ivy Park. As impartial political scientists, we should note that Beyoncé’s commercial interests obviously align with her message, which indicates that this a moment in time where both feminism and black power sell to the masses. We don’t think this is a bad thing, but one that should be acknowledged in any case.
5. And She Worth Every Dollar, She Worth Every Dollar: Obviously the concert was amazing and worth the $235 per ticket we paid even though we are poor graduate students.
By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
In an interview with NPR this week, vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine was asked about his struggles to separate his personal faith from his political life. Kaine admitted that as a devout Catholic he faces a challenge, but explained the principle that guides his separation of religion and governance. “I don't think my job as a public official is to make everybody else follow the Catholic Church's teaching, whatever their religious background or lack of a religious background.” This statement seemingly contradicts the nature of Catholicism: namely its universality. Unlike states and or nationalities, who generally respect each others sovereignty over domestic citizens, the Catholic Church traditionally did not accept the right to practice other religions: there was only one true religion and its center was in Rome. For many years this was a struggle between the Church and states: see for example the French Revolution, the Thirty Years War and many others in Europe.
Tim Kaine represents both the new face of the Catholic religion and the uniquely American version of the separation of church and state. Under Pope Francis, Catholicism has made overtures towards different ways of practicing Catholicism and other faiths. Like Pope Francis, Tim Kaine turns to his religion on questions of broad morality, equality and poverty, but not on questions to which different faiths have diverging views. Kaine explained, “on many of the questions that I, you know, that I would struggle with, different religions have different traditions and preach different things. And I don't think, in fact I feel this is a really important principle and it's a moral principle, not just a governing principle, it's a moral principle: we are better off as a society when we're not trying to enforce the views of one religion over everybody. People can make their own moral decisions.”
This reflects the nature of faith in the modern world, where some people are believers and others are not, and they all must live together. It also reflects the long-standing American tradition of high religiosity combined with religious freedom. In states that have a high level of participation in religions practices, there is often a state religion. Others like France have managed to separate church and state thanks to secularization. As we see today, when faced with an influx of a community of believers, these states struggle to adapt. One example of this is the ongoing controversial attempt to regulate religious practices in the public sphere by banning hijabs and more recently “burkinis” on French beaches.
But even in the US, religious tolerance is not unidirectional. While Tim Kaine may be leading by example, others are trying to overturn the long-standing place of religion in public life. In his recent speeches, Donald Trump refers to the American people “under one God”. Calling for unity under one God excludes non-believers and believers of non-monotheist religions. Even within the monotheist group, it is unclear if the one God is the same one. In the US politicians often talk about religion as a source for both their own and communal values. But these statements usually assume the plurality of religious faiths. Just like Fox News’ allegation of a “War on Christmas”, this is in contradiction with the very principles of the American constitution.
On this, and on many other issues, Donald Trump is emulating global trends. Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey and Modhi’s India are all moving towards an explicit establishment of state religion, in which all citizens must participate. This is a source of conservative identity that connects nationalism to the masses in an apolitical way while also undermining liberal values. If this American version of the separation of church and state represents a modern idea of religious practice in a plural world, then the new state religion ideologies are a backlash against the very idea of modernity.
By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
This week a Russian group hacked into the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) athlete database and released the private medical records of three leading American athletes: Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Simone Biles. The documents revealed that all three athletes had received medical exemptions to use banned drugs during competition. This comes following the ban of many Russian athletes from competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics due to systematic state-sponsored doping.
Policymakers and academics tend to think of cyber warfare as an issue of national security. Cyber terrorists hack into defense and intelligence targets and use the information to increase their security vis-à-vis targeted organizations. Prominent American targets have included the Pentagon, the State Department and the Department of Defense. Although this is a relatively new field of scholarship, it is termed cyber-security and is studied in reference to theories of terrorism and technology security. However, the targeting of a 19 year-old 4’9” phenomenal athlete can hardly be classified as an issue of national security.
How does Russia benefit from targeting these athletes? First, the medical records support an age-old Russian narrative that the system is rigged against Russia. According to this logic, when Russian athletes failed doping tests, it became a worldwide scandal and led to the banning of the majority of the Russian team. When American athletes take banned substances, they are given exemptions by WADA, allowed to compete, and win. We know very little about the process of exemptions, and there is no suggestion that these athletes did anything wrong, but that matters little to the Russian hackers. In Russia, the victimization narrative is supported by many examples: since the end of the Cold War the West has moved to expand its influence countries that were traditionally in Russia’s sphere of influence, like Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. This was done with complete disregard to Russia’s interests and security concerns in the region. Other minor examples include the lack of international outcry over the Russian plane downed in Egypt compared to the response to terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. These things cause outrage in Russia and real sense of grievance.
Second, the records also promote the idea that the United States is hypocritical. Many Russians think that while the US presents itself as a liberal democratic country, it is actually no different than Russia. The average person on the street in Russia would likely tell you that Russia is a democracy, certainly as much as the United States. Of course, Russia has little to no political opposition and a lack of free media, but in the United States capital and political power are intertwined and the turnover rate in Congress is extremely low. A common view is that while Russia may limit certain individual rights, the United States also does this in regards to certain vulnerable domestic and international populations. Similarly, while it is true that Russian athletes dope, so does everyone else, including Americans. According to the Russian view, Americans should get off their high horse in their dealings with Russia.
Finally, consider the images of Simone Biles flipping through the air in the Rio Olympics, her Wheaties box and Serena Williams, with her beautiful athletic form winning dozens of international championships. This is the image that America wants to portray to the world. It is powerful, multi-racial and promotes gender equality. This is exactly the image that Russia wants to tarnish. In general, sports are an instrument of soft power. During the Soviet period, Russian gymnasts were marketed as a sign of Soviet femininity and power, and they won. Larisa Latynina was the most decorated Olympian for 48 years, until her record was broken by Michael Phelps in 2012. Through their athletes, Soviet Union wanted to project normality and success to the Western world. This aspect of soft power should not be taken lightly. States devote significant resources to their sports programs. Of course, one reason for this is health and other benefits to youth, but many of the more advanced programs are designed to create national winners. The United States had an enormously successful 2016 Olympics: the US was first in the medal table with 121 medals overall, 46 of them gold, far ahead of the rest of the pack. In contrast, Russia’s rump team had 56 medals total, 19 of them gold. This new attack is an attempt to even the score.
There is no evidence of a connection between the Russian hackers and the Kremlin. However, the group, Fancy Bear (!), has been tied to the G.R.U., Russian military intelligence. In any case, the cyber attack solidifies strong Russian political narratives both domestically and abroad. This is a great example of why the connection between cyber-security and soft-power should receive more attention, especially in the scholarly community.
By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
In an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Julian Assange dropped the bomb that he would release “thousands” of documents that will have a “significant” impact in the upcoming presidential elections. Earlier this election season Assange’s WikiLeaks published emails from DNC officials leading to the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz amongst others. Now he has announced that he will put out some “teasers” and then release documents about Hillary Clinton, the DNC and the upcoming presidential election.
As liberal academics whose normative inclination is to open information democracy we were surprised that our reaction to Assange was negative. Perhaps we are the type of liberals who only stand by our liberal values when it is convenient. But maybe there is more to this aversion of Assange and his tactics.
Assange continuously presents himself as a champion of transparency and freedom of information. But in fact, WikiLeaks chooses which information to present, how to publicize it and the most effective timing for achieving its goals. WikiLeaks has had these emails for months and could have easily published all of them together, letting readers decide for themselves what is important. Publicizing “teasers” of the emails and timing their release before the height of the presidential race goes far beyond the admirable goal of freedom of information. Assange and WikiLeaks have a political goal and framing it under the guise of freedom of information is misleading.
Some, in particular those in the Democratic Party, accuse Assange of having ties to Russia. We do not have the information to weigh in on this accusation, especially because there is a war of narratives between the U.S. government and Assange, both of whom are powerful media actors (of course the US has the advantage here). But it should be noted that freedom of information in the world since the inception of WikiLeaks is not on the rise. Many regimes, including Russia, have become less transparent in the past decade despite the rise of open information online. Another prominent example is China: despite the enormous rise in internet availability the state still controls the flow of information and government processes are still very opaque. The online revolution of information seems to affect only liberal democratic regimes.
Assange presents himself as the prophet of free information unveiling the dark secrets of powerful actors. But in fact free information is not a new phenomenon. Although the technology has changed, whistleblowers have always been influential in politics and other arenas. Throughout history insiders have uncovered plots and secrets and mobilized popular support accordingly. There were numerous plots revealed during French Revolution that influenced the course of events, the Dreyfus affair hinged on notes found in a trashcan, and of course Watergate and the Pentagon Papers were scandals around the release of secret information. Assange did not invent whistleblowing and in fact WikiLeaks has had probably less effect than these pre-internet examples. Today there is a massive amount of information being leaked: they key to its usefulness is selection and interpretation. Traditionally this is the role of the media. Assange argues that in the age of Internet there is no need for elite gatekeepers to filter information to the masses, but in fact he is himself assuming the role of an elite gatekeeper without honestly acknowledging it.
We support freedom of information and believe in transparency. But it is important to remember that all information comes with an agenda, whether it is the agenda of the US government or the agenda of Julian Assange. These actors are so powerful it makes it difficult to identify the agenda, especially when they are not being honest about it. We believe that the role of the media as an interpreter and communicator of information, with its own agenda, ideally to support liberal democracy, is as important as ever.
By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
When swimmer Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova entered the Olympic swimming pool in Rio ahead of the 100m breaststroke finals the crowd booed loudly. Efimova, who had previously been banned from competition twice for doping, is a controversial figure at the Rio Olympics and has been embroiled in a major drama over the race to gold in the breaststroke. It was another chapter of the ongoing drama in the breaststroke race. Efimova’s chief contender, Lilly King, had said in an interview after the semi finals, “You’re shaking your finger ‘No. 1’ and you’ve been caught for drug cheating…I’m not a fan.” The crowd in Rio was not a fan either. King went on to win the gold medal and did not hesitate to rub it in, exclaiming to the press, “It just proves that you can compete clean and still come out on top with all the work you put in.” No one likes a cheater, so at first glance it seems only natural that the crowd sided with King: the Russian doping scandal dominated the headlines before the games even began, and Efimova herself failed a substance test twice. But beyond unsportsmanlike behavior, the Russian swimmer’s response to critics made a valid point, “I always thought the cold war was long in the past. Why start it again, by using sport?”
Booing Efimova may be about sportsmanship on the surface, but it reflects a deeper cultural paradigm on both the individual and the international levels. On the individual level, as much as Westerners would like her to be, Efimova is hardly a Russian uber villain. As elaborated by Sally Jenkins in The Washington Post, Efimova trains in Los Angeles rather than Russia. Her first doping offense was due to a banned substance found in a legal supplement she bought at GNC and was deemed an honest mistake. Her suspension was accordingly reduced. The second offense was caused by a prescribed medication provided by her Russian doctors that was only banned in January 2016. The timing of the ban and the fact that she may have consumed the substance only before it became banned and is the reason she was allowed to participate in the Olympics in the first place. Despite media coverage to the contrary, Efimova is a talented swimmer, and not an evil Russian spy.
Because we are political scientists, the international aspect of the Efimova affair is even more interesting to us. We agree with Efimova (not about everything: swimming the breaststroke seven hours a day sounds almost worse than writing a dissertation): there is a definitive Cold War vibe to these Rio Olympic Games. Under the guise of clean sports, the so-called Western world is aligning behind the US and showing open hostility toward Russia and even its traditional allies. True, the scale of the Russian doping scandal is likely huge, but other countries have been implicated in similar doping scandals before and received have been much less vilified. Jamaican athletes for example, have persistently failed drug tests, and yet, while the suspicion toward Jamaican athletes is present, the hostility is decidedly absent. As the Russians rightly pointed out, doping in sport is universal, but few countries are openly booed by the international crowds and antagonized by their peers. As we argued before, the Olympics is ultimately an exercise in nationalism, and vilifying Russians is familiar territory.
In the eyes of Westerners, and particularly Americans, Russians are already villains, so any evidence of their “evil ways” underscore old narratives and seem to prove what we already know to be “true”. Although the US has made new “evil” enemies since the end of the Cold War, international terrorists do not compete under their own flag in the Olympics. Countries from which terrorist emerge are either victimized, and thus worthy of our Western pity, or are not competitive at major sports so we never even get the chance to see them. In this soft power game only the big kids can play, and so only the big traditional international animosities reemerge. But wasn’t there a time when Americans didn’t hate the Russians and everyone just got along? Of course, but it was during the 1990s when Russia was weak and non-threatening both on and off the podium.
The idea that large ideological international competitions are being played out in microcosm at the Olympic Games is underscored by the wide range of participants. Lily King and the Americans aren’t the only bullies on the playground: Australia’s Mack Horton called China’s Sun Yang a drug cheat, with France’s Camille Lacourt jumping in and accusing Yang of “pissing purple.” The reaction was swift and telling: in the wake of the accusations Chinese media and social media users called the remarks “disrespectful to China” “evil”, “gross” and “ignorant.” One user Chinese user wrote, “There is a scientific explanation for why he [Horton] swims so fast. It’s because he’s light, he has no brain.”
One of the projects we have been working on is about international state reputations: how, why and under what conditions are they are formed? Can countries do something to change them? When will these efforts succeed? The Olympic Games are great opportunity to examine the persistence of state reputations in popular media and culture because the whole point of the games is one of friendly international competition. The reaction to Efimova and Sun Yang show that despite major changes to the international system, Western attitudes towards our traditional rivals have long shadows.
By Emily Holland and Hadas Aron
Every four years, people all around the world, many of whom are otherwise uninterested in sport (I’m looking at you political scientists), are drawn to their couches to eat pizza and cheer as athletes perform super human achievements. But in addition to the anticipation, melodrama and tension of watching Simone Biles twist and flip through the air, the Olympics is a fascinating study of international relations in practice. Here, we examine the Olympics with the “impartial” eye of trained social scientists, applying the theories we struggle to teach undergraduates to several aspects of the games.