This was the second episode in our new subseries ‘American Politics and Policy’ in which we discussed the ‘Unfolding our Shared Future’ series with Professor Philip Davies, Emeritus Professor at De Montfort University in Leicester. As this was a particularly expansive interview and several details regarding the event series have since been altered, we opted to transcribe this interview.
Across a storied research career, Professor Davies has published and edited around 30 books and special issues, in addition to dozens of articles and book chapters. His research covers topics ranging from U.S. politics, film, science fiction, the Constitution, the Presidency, and elections. He has formerly served as the Chair of BAAS, the EAAS, the UK Council of Area Studies and the American Politics Group of the Political Studies Association here in the UK. His was truly distinguished company to have with us.
We discussed an event series spearheaded by Professor Davies, ‘Unfolding our Shared Future: Challenge, Possibility, and Potential in the 21st-Century’ a “travelling festival addressing issues facing the UK and US in domestic, transatlantic, and global contexts”. ‘Unfolding our Shared Future’ is delivered by the American Politics Group with the support of BAAS and the US Embassy in London.
We first asked Professor Davies what audiences had to look forward to:
Professor Davies: Well, what we were trying to do is to find a number of topics that were significant to a broad audience, not just academics, but also the interested public, and ones that would also interest a broad audience in terms of age, because academics get older and they tend to talk to other academics.
So we took our prompt, I guess, from things that were in the headlines like climate change, and that are clearly of massive significance, and also perhaps a number of others that don’t quite make the headlines, but they’re still very important, like people’s optimism for the future. One of the questions that the pollster Gallup has asked every month since it began was, ‘Do you think the future is going to be better economically for you and for your children?’ What you find in those polls is that in recent years, people have increasingly moved away from an optimistic view that the next generation will be better off, better served, have a better government, to one that is more jaundiced. Although that tends to be a kind of academic debate, it is one of broad significance.
What we’ve tried to do very much is make it regional and multinational within this country. We haven’t got to Northern Ireland—sorry about that, we’ll try to do it next time. But we have gone out and about and we’ve consciously avoided the Golden Triangle of Oxford, Cambridge, and London. They have plenty of stimulation. The regional universities also have plenty of stimulation, but they rarely have an opportunity like this, where an outside body has come in and tried to meld their interests and spread the word for the subject and these kinds of topics.
Interviewer: You talked about the Unfolding our Future’ themes and said there was a particular interest in getting public audiences, particularly younger audiences, to participate in this event. How do you hope to expand this conversation to reach as many audiences as possible?
Professor Davies: For much of that kind of thing, we rely on the local hosts and each of these universities has really brought into the idea. Hopefully, with an internet audience, the geographical footprint will be broader, and particularly as the series gets rolling, people will hear about it. But in terms of the local audience, we don’t necessarily have the expertise. The Northumbria audience, for instance, was really nice. It went from high school students who heard about the event, or whose teacher had heard about the event and brought small groups of students, through to local retired persons who were the kind of people who look out for university events to go to, and included university staff of both academic and non-academic kinds. So it was quite diverse and an interesting group—that’s the kind of thing we’d like to build up.
Similarly, we’ve looked for diversity in the speakers. We’ll always have an American voice on stage. In Northumbria, it was Stephanie Young, who runs Michelle Obama’s get-out-the-vote organisation When We All Vote. She came in from California to help us out. In other cases, it may well be well-known American voices who reside in the UK. For instance, Sarah Churchwell, who you may all have seen on your televisions, a fabulously perceptive critic and original writer. This will make people feel as if this is a body of people who are not divorced from them by their expertise but are integrated with them by their representation of the broad population.
But it’s difficult, there’s no doubt about this. It’s difficult to break out of the information network where we academics talk to other academics and talk to our students. It’s so accidental and yet critically important that we try to get through to this kind of interesting audience, both because of the significance of the topics, but also try to energise, particularly people who are not yet in university, into thinking of the kinds of subjects that will help solve these problems.
Interviewer: As we referenced at the beginning, your career has bridged American Studies and American Politics, fields which have both undergone extensive methodological changes in the last two or three decades. Given the interdisciplinary nature of this event, what prospects exist for these fields’ collaboration in tackling these shared challenges? What could be done to further aid this dialogue?
Professor Davies: I think things are easier than they used to be. I have worked both as ‘the Americanist’ in political science programmes and as the political/social scientist in American Studies programmes. In the past, I really much preferred the American Studies context because it allowed me to do politics, and I very much entered politics from a kind of number crunching, if you like, non-American studies perspective. But it allowed me to do politics in a multidisciplinary structure and as you said earlier, what I ended up doing was mainly editing books, and organising other people to do the work. A clue, that!
I reasoned: I’ve already read science fiction, so why not investigate politics and film? In fact, I finished the chapter on politics and film over this weekend, I’m still doing it! And those are topics that in the past would have been quite difficult to pass off in many political science departments, whereas American science departments, as long as you’re talking about America, were perfectly comfortable with that. I think that politics departments have now become more flexible in their perception of how you can build intellectual capital in your institution. So I think it’s an external perception, but I think that things are better that way.
But there has always been something of a divorce between American politics and the rest of American Studies. Again, when I was a student [entering in 1966] American Studies was relatively fledgling, but it was seen as a combination of American history, politics, and literature. Well, it’s expanded a lot since then into American Cultural Studies and Media Studies. And in that expansion, the social science elements have often become rather overwhelmed in some places and some programmes have been lost. But, usually, they’re just kind of pushed aside.
Yet we’ve got to remember that whilst this caters brilliantly well to our incoming students who’ve been doing subjects such as English, History and possibly Media Studies, it doesn’t cater very well for those who’ve been doing Politics. And you can do American politics A-Level: after British politics there’s another number of subject topics you could choose and American politics is, I believe, the most popular. So you’re missing out on a talent pool if you’re not encouraging them to come in. I occasionally meet groups of sixth-formers who are deeply, deeply interested in American politics. I ask them what they’re thinking of going to university to do and 95% of the time its politics rather than American Studies.
So, I think American Studies misses a trick there, really, and I would like to see more of it. But at least with programmes like this, with things like the BAAS Conference, you do get the meld there. When I was chair of BAAS, it was always wonderful. I felt that while the number of American Studies programmes was going down, the number of academics coming to BAAS conferences was going up because, regardless of what department they ended up in, they still saw themselves as wanting to talk to other people who are interested in the study of America. And that included social sciences. When any group is a little bit out (and American Politics is a little bit out of American Studies) it would be nice to keep reaching out to them, even if they’re not very good at responding.
Interviewer: In recent years, American politics has been one of the most rapidly-developing global political stories, arguably gaining more interest than British policies. How has this recent turmoil and change in American politics translated into student interest in conferences, initiatives, and discussions like this?
Professor Davies: Well, obviously lockdown and so on makes it difficult to have a very clear assessment. But one of the programmes I’m involved in is the ‘Congress to Campus’ UK programme, where former members of Congress come over and we organise programmes for schools. The interest in that is always huge, and we reopened to in-person and didn’t do any advertising. Both full-day conferences were filled within hours—500 people straight away, mainly first and second-year sixth-form students.
They were a good audience. You know, when you put on a conference with five-hour long sessions and a couple of small gaps to get a sandwich and a coffee and people sit there through it and remain attentive, you know you’ve done something really good. But actually, when you do it time after time and they still do it, it’s because they’re interested. Even on a rail strike day, we had a school that got from Loughborough to London to this conference because they were that committed.
So there is real commitment out there, and the people who administer it now have also introduced much more internet streaming of events. And it loses something regarding personally being in the room with the speakers, particularly if they are former members of US government, but you can’t get to every school in the country. So, the introduction of that has also been fully subscribed, with others knocking at the door wanting to join in.
So, certainly, the keenness in schools is there and I’d say, in a sense, this is something that’s slightly unfortunate for American history and American literature. American politics does have its own A-level paper, and so there are people with a very clear incentive to be involved. With literature and history, it’s more difficult to identify the kind of material that would pull in audiences of this kind.
‘Congress to Campus’ is not the only A-level American politics thing that goes on, there are commercial ones that pull in hundreds and hundreds of students every year and are very successful. So the appetite is out there. It’s a shame that the effort to create an American Studies GCSE and A-Level got overtaken by the reorganisation of the exam boards. So it’s a matter of giving people who are not necessarily taught that way [in American Studies], the opportunity nevertheless to take part in any way that we can.
Interviewer: And of course, many will be interested in the upcoming 2024 elections. We’re talking on November 28th, very soon after the recent mid-terms. ‘Unfolding our Shared Future’ discusses many of the likely issues: voter suppression, the next pandemic, the future of security, AI and internet regulation, the climate challenge… This may be an impossible question to answer, but which of these themes do you expect to be most impactful going into 2024? What should we keep an eye on?
Professor Davies: Yeah, it is going to be another historic election. Everything is up for grabs at the moment, really. Climate change: nobody’s going to talk about it because all the Republicans don’t want to talk about it, so they don’t care. They might care as individuals, but it’s not an issue they will debate with each other about, and it’s not an issue they’ll want to debate the Democrats on either. It will reaffirm certain Democrats in voting Democratic, but I don’t think it will change people’s minds.
Immigration will be big—it’s not something we [‘Unfolding the Future’] talk about, but it is a bone of contention. One of the things we’re talking about are narratives of history, and that will turn up in terms of debates over critical race theory or perceived ideological infiltration of schools. It’s an argument that’s been around for a long time, but it recently seems to have gained a lot of exposure. Republicans have realised how much they can generate hot-button issues in local elections, as seen in school board elections. They are now being used by senior politicians—Glenn Youngkin in Virginia [the Republican Governor of Virginia elected in 2021] was a classic example of this—to talk about freedom and limiting the freedom of parents to decide what their children learn. The issue will probably be significant, at least in Congressional elections, possibly not in Presidential elections—although that depends if Trump becomes the nominee.
I doubt the next pandemic will feature because we all have a rather limited policy memory. I think there’s a feeling that we’re through it, that we can forget that for a while, except if you happen to be in the business. Whereas healthcare (the pandemic is part of healthcare) became a problem partly because people were dying, but partly because the healthcare system couldn’t cope with it. Healthcare will continue to be an issue, with some people thinking it’s just too expensive and too available and others feeling it’s not available enough and the cost should be cut.
But the big issues are nearly always the health of the economy; the number of jobs and/or rate of unemployment, particularly economic and employment changes for the middle classes; and then immigration. Abortion drove votes in the midterms more than I expected because it did affect independent voters and some Republican women voters as well as Democrats. I thought that would be an affirming issue for Democrats but would not bring many people in. Perhaps it mainly got more voters out rather than actually changing minds. But I think that will matter in 2024 because by then we’ll have some case law of whether people really are being arrested for having abortions in the wrong place.
Of course, any crisis can happen internationally to change things, and there will be things that Republicans and Democrats can argue with and against each other about when it comes to the general election.
Interviewer: Well, there’s a lot to look at! It’s an election where, as Dr Richard Johnson noted at the event of Northumbria, 80% of votes may already be chosen. It may depend on four states. But that, of course, only makes events like this more important. USSO will continue to release event reviews, so please do watch this space and watch this incredibly ambitious series. The next event, ‘AI & Internet Regulation’, will be held at the University of Glasgow on March 14th, and then the University of Liverpool will host ‘Stories We Tell’ on March 24th. The guests, the discussion, and the remit are fantastic, and I think it will deservedly grab many people’s attention as we proceed into 2023.