A review of American Politics, Then & Now: And Other Essays, by James Q. Wilson.

Visit the politics or current events section of any large bookstore and your eyes will be assaulted by scores of hyperventilating polemics by irresponsible pundits, both liberal and conservative. Peruse nearly any academic political science journal and you will find page after page of mind-numbing statistics and graphs that say almost nothing about anything a sensible citizen would care to know. Among the thousands of people in this country who make a living writing about politics, only a few manage to combine systematic analysis with judicious use of evidence to address issues of fundamental importance. At the top of that short list sits James Q. Wilson, who after years of teaching at Harvard, UCLA, and Pepperdine, is now a senior fellow at Boston College's Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy. His scholarly work on bureaucracy, regulation, crime, and interest groups is unrivalled. He has managed to receive the top honor the American Political Science Association can give an expert on American politics, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the top honor American government can bestow upon a scholar. This might be the only time the APSA agreed with George W. Bush on anything.

Wilson's latest book collects 15 essays, most of which appeared initially in The Public Interest,Commentary, and City Journal. They are written for a general audience, not in the sense of being dumbed-down, but of addressing questions of concern to the educated public in a manner free from academic jargon and pretense. Those not familiar with Wilson's work will discover what it means to bring social-science evidence to bear on important contemporary problems. The many readers of the CRB who have already read some of these essays will have the opportunity to see how each fits into Wilson's broader analysis of politics, religion, character, liberalism, and democracy.

Despite its title, American Politics, Then and Now is not limited to the study of American politics. In fact, about a third of the book focuses on religion in Europe and Muslim countries. Several chapters deal with character formation and the role of government in promoting self-control; two return to the perennial nature-nurture debate. Most academic studies of politics these days promise precision through reductionism: they produce seemingly accurate formulas by ignoring anything that is not readily quantifiable. Wilson, in contrast, maintains that those things that are hardest to measure—the content of our character, the commands of religion, the ideas generated by intellectuals, the cultural norms that define what is acceptable and forbidden—are the most powerful forces in politics. When the noted economist Alfred Kahn was trying to institute marginal cost pricing for electricity in New York, he ran into stout resistance from regulators who claimed that their methods produced exact answers to the question of how to set electric rates. Kahn responded, "Do you want to be precisely wrong or approximately right?" That is a profound question for anyone who studies politics. Wilson prefers to be approximately, even tentatively, right.

The book addresses three questions: 1) How has American politics changed since the 1950s? 2) Under what conditions does religion either support or undermine liberal democracy? And 3) why must liberal democracy be concerned about the character of its citizens? These issues are actually closely connected. Religion helps temper men's impulses (literally: it is impulsive men that society has most to fear), but for most of recorded history it has also threatened human freedom. The massive expansion of federal authority that took place during the 1960s and '70s was often combined with an effort to expel both religion and any discussion of character formation from the public square. The polarization of American politics—certainly the most important recent change in our politics—has pitted secularists against those who go to church regularly. For decades those who studied American politics said nothing about religion, and those who analyzed public policy said almost nothing about character. Wilson explains why this was such a mistake.

The 1979 essay from which the book takes its title has stood the test of time remarkably well. It identifies the underlying shift that lay behind many of the frequently noted institutional changes of the preceding two decades. Coining the useful term "legitimacy barrier," Wilson wrote:

Once politics was about only a few things; today it is about nearly everything…. Once the legitimacy barrier has fallen, political conflict takes a very different form. New programs need not await the advent of a crisis or an extraordinary majority, because no program is any longer "new"—it is seen, rather, as an extension, a modification, or an enlargement of something the government is already doing…. Since there is virtually nothing the government has not tried to do, there is little it cannot be asked to do.


One might have thought that the ascent of Ronald Reagan little more than a year after Wilson wrote these words would have proven him wrong, that 20 years of Republican presidents (and eight years of a Democratic Leadership Council president who proclaimed "[t]he era of big government is over") would have re-raised the "legitimacy barrier." But that did not happen. In 1980 Reagan promised to abolish the Department of Education. In 2001 George W. Bush championed the most prescriptive education law ever enacted by the federal government. The change Wilson identified overpowered the Reagan, Gingrich, and Rove "revolutions." Analyzing election results without taking into account such broad shifts in our political culture leads us to exaggerate the significance of victories at the polls.

One part of the title essay does seem quaintly anachronistic, the discussion of hyper-individualism in Congress and the progressive weakening of American political parties. These were key features of American politics from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s. But to virtually everyone's surprise, party discipline and ideological divergence increased steadily thereafter. In "How Divided Are We?" Wilson evaluates a number of possible explanations for this unexpected change. He identifies several of the usual suspects, including segmentation of the media and the growing religious divide in the electorate. (Outside of Casablanca, the usual suspects often are guilty.) He places special emphasis on the way in which the habits of mind of well-educated elites have filtered down to the general public. Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford, has provided a great deal of evidence suggesting the public has not grown more polarized. He argues that the public only appears to be polarized because elites have presented the electorate with polarizing choices. Wilson is skeptical that year after year of polarizing political debate has left the average voter unaffected. My reading of the evidence collected since Wilson's essay first appeared in 2006 is that he is getting the better of the argument. But the jury is still out on this. He and Fiorina agree that polarization is dangerous—for Wilson, especially on foreign policy—and that the average voter should beware of educated elites bearing clever ideas.

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In his extended discussion of religion and politics Wilson ventures far beyond the Beltway, focusing primarily on why America remains so much more religious than Europe and how religion can either foster or inhibit the development of liberal democracy. (He pauses briefly to examine two other questions, "Why Don't Jews Like the Christians Who Like Them?" and "What Makes a Terrorist?" The answer to the latter, by the way, is peers and a modicum of privilege, not poverty. So forget trying to eliminate "root causes.") Wilson provides extensive evidence to support Tocqueville's argument that the strength of religion in the U.S. is a product of our separation of church and state. On this side of the Atlantic public anger at repressive government has never tarnished the church, as it so obviously did in France and many other European nations. Just as importantly, since churches cannot count on government support, they must respond to consumer demand: those that do prosper; those that don't go the way of mainline Protestant churches. Wilson does not give Locke, Spinoza, Madison, or Jefferson much credit for religious toleration and disestablishment. In England many people concluded that toleration of a limited number of religions would be better than more years of warfare. In the U.S. all sects were more fearful of their rivals grasping political power than they were confident of doing so themselves. America has remained a "Christian nation" (with many practicing Jews, Muslims, and Hindus) because no particular Christian denomination was able to dominate politics and club others into submission. This reality is so central to American politics that secularists should stop worrying about the coming "theocracy." Wilson notes that "despite the presence of conservative presidents, scarcely any bill favored by what is now called the Christian Right has been passed by Congress."

The most perplexing religion question Wilson poses is whether Islam is compatible with liberal democracy. In a subtle analysis that defies simple summary, he answers, "Yes, but…." Turkey demonstrates that Muslim countries can become liberal democracies, although the government might need to embrace a rigid secularism to make that possible. Both Morocco and Indonesia have taken alternative routes to create relatively decent, liberal governments—but not democracies. A key problem is that in many Muslim countries the only institution capable of mobilizing support against autocratic rulers is the mosque. In Wilson's colorful words, "Political activism gathers around religion the way salt crystallizes along a string dangling in sea water." Pluralism is hard to cultivate in this environment. Moreover, Islam and Christianity had much different founders and offer divergent teachings:

[Muhammad] was not only a prophet but also a soldier, judge, and governor. Jesus, by contrast, was an outsider who neither conquered nor governed anyone, and who was put to death by Roman rulers…. Jesus asked Christians to distinguish between what belonged to God and what belonged to Caesar. Islam made no such distinction: Allah prescribed the rules for all of life, encompassing what we now call the religious and secular spheres.


Questioning the compatibility between a major world religion and our own modern, quasi-religious devotion to liberal democracy is not fashionable. But Wilson has never shied away from unfashionable ideas. And he pays respect to Islam by taking its core beliefs seriously.

Wilson's most important contribution on this topic is not his analysis of Islam, but his explanation of how hard it has been to create liberal democracies in the West. In his examination of the evolution of separation of church and state he notes, "The central question is not why freedom of conscience failed to come to much of the Islamic world, but why it came at all to the West." In many ways, he suggests, we were just lucky. The first liberal democracies developed only in countries that were isolated and homogeneous, and had managed slowly to establish private property. He quotes his teacher and colleague Edward Banfield, who characteristically argued, "A political system is an accident. It is an accumulation of habits, customs, prejudices, and principles…. If the system works well on the whole, it is a lucky accident—the luckiest, indeed that can befall a society." So much for planning—or even for founding.

Those familiar with Wilson's defense of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might wonder how he squares this profound skepticism of social engineering with the Bush Administration's effort to spread democracy around the world. Wilson is surely no Wilsonian. In contrast to the Bush Administration, he emphasizes that while we are unlikely to create American- or Euro-style democracy in these countries, we at least have a shot at creating liberal regimes decent enough not to murder or terrorize their citizens. "We cannot be the policemen of the world, but we can fight back against the worst forms of tyranny even when (perhaps especially when) our allies will not." This usually will require staying in the country for a long time—which is why he is so concerned about partisan polarization and the media's post-Vietnam "deep suspicion of American government," at least when it operates overseas.

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This is not the only tension that emerges when one looks through 30 years of Wilson's essays. The final two chapters deal with new evidence of the hereditary nature of many character traits (even, he claims, political ideology). If, as Wilson maintains, genes are even more important than we previously imagined, how can character formation be such an important concern of families, churches, public schools, and the criminal justice system? In particular, how can we "hold people accountable even for some actions that are clearly involuntary"? In "The Future of Blame" he confronts this question and tries to reconcile his understanding of the power of heredity with his belief in the importance of enforcing clearly enunciated moral standards. Whether he succeeds I will leave to the judgment of those who have investigated this issue with more care than I have. There is also some tension between Wilson's description of the post-1960 changes in the American regime and his embrace of American exceptionalism (in the volume's conclusion). For better or worse, in many ways American exceptionalism ain't what it used to be. But that should not prevent us from appreciating the many differences between democracy in America and democracy in other advanced industrial countries.

Wilson is a master at making complex issues understandable. But he does not claim to provide a simple map of the political world suitable for use by political activists. Instead, his analysis reminds us of political life's dilemmas and paradoxes. At the end of his review of Robert Putnam's latest work on the conflict between ethnic diversity and the development of social capital, Wilson writes, "In every society, people must arrange for trade-offs between desirable but mutually inconsistent goals…. When it comes to the competing values of diversity and social capital, as when it comes to other arrangements in democracy, balance is all." In a world filled with so many smart-alec political analysts, sober teachers like James Q. Wilson are in exceedingly short supply.