Durham Academics Q&A Six

Interview with Dr Neil Visalvanich, Assistant Professor in the School of Government and International Affairs 

What is the relationship between History & Politics in an American context? 

There are certain trends or issues in American society that have been a part of American history since its founding. Among these there are race relations, the history of slavery and how these have shaped politics in the U.S. Racial politics are still significant in America, despite slavery having been abolished over a century ago and the passing of the civil rights era half a century ago. There are also issues related to the Constitution: its meaning, the kind of values it preserves and its relevance and workability, given modern day political events which the Framers did not envision. These issues inform how politics plays out today.  

How did history inform the Framers in their writing of the Constitution? 

The Framers of the Constitution wanted to create a workable government, but also with certain roadblocks incorporated. Consequently, a sort of pluralism was built into the system by which there was inherent conflict within the American system so that it would protect certain people and their unalienable rights. A lot of American politics is defined by a dissatisfaction with how government works. This leads to the big question, which many in American politics grapple with, whether these institutions, which are over a hundred years old, are still serving the people. Part of the reason for the rise of populism and the rise of Trump is due to this general sense – not necessarily a majority sense – that political institutions are ineffective.  

If many are dissatisfied with governance and political institutions in America, is the Constitution outdated and could the Constitution ever be significantly changed or even replaced? 

In the past, the Constitution has generally not been changed but reinterpreted to provide more power to certain institutions. For instance, the Presidency has not always been conceived to be the all-powerful office that is today. However, political change has been funnelled through the institution. So, the barriers to change are very high due to constant vested interest in keeping the status quo. Therefore, any sort of material change to the Constitution in the near term is unlikely. However, I would not rule out the idea that there could be a reinterpretation of the function of the Constitution in American life, which itself could lead to some sort of reform. What form this would look like, and how it could happen, is up in the air.  

Regarding the relevance of the Constitution, people still find certain parts to be a core part of American society and values. For instance, regarding issues of freedom of religion and freedom of press. However, a lot of the conflicts built into the Constitution may no longer be relevant today. For example, the idea of states as entities, deserving of protection, was built in due to fear of inter-state conflict. However, the American society and economy has moved to a more nationalised form. Nevertheless, the Constitution still guarantees equal representation in the states whilst demographic change has moved to give a lot of weight to certain people living in certain areas. Hence, these boundaries are less important than they were during the founding era. Consequently, this has contributed more to this malaise and sense that American democracy is now less representative.  

Normally the President does badly in the midterm elections. However, Biden fared better than expected in November. What do the midterm results mean for Biden’s Presidency and for legislation?  

It goes to show how winning is a matter of perceptions in addition to actual results. In the immediate term, Republicans have still taken control of the House of Representatives and that means any hope of a partisan agenda are dashed with the assumption that the Republican majority are able to hold together – which is an open question given the nature of the Republican party and the narrowness of this majority. For the Biden Presidency, these results boost his case for re-election. At least internally within the party, midterm outcomes do not have any bearing upon the result as in the past, presidents have suffered big midterm defeats but have been re-elected relatively easily. Therefore, it is not necessarily indicative as to how Biden will perform in a couple of years. However, regarding the Democrats, there is a general sense that Biden is not a very inspiring leader and does not have great popularity ratings. Maybe, the party should look for another candidate for the next presidential election. However, I feel these fears have quelled a little bit. Inherently, what this says about Biden is that for whatever reason – trends in society or himself – he is not as polarising a figure despite the polarised nature of American politics. Regarding practical effects and sweeping legislation, this will not happen anymore. However, a Senate majority means that Biden has a lot of leeway regarding positioning himself against the new Republican House and means he has more freedom regarding appointments, which would have been blocked if the Republicans had also won control of the Senate.  

There are currently high levels of polarisation & partisanship and issues surrounding health care affordability, gun rights, arguments of election fraud. Consequently, news stories regarding American politics have recently been negative. Is it fair to say American democracy is in crisis? 

The midterm election results have moved America a step away from the precipice. The real threat to American democracy is not one party winning over another but when events become so polarised that we have both parties unwilling to accept democratic outcomes. That was the way the Republicans were heading into the midterm elections. The only way political parties learn and adjust their platforms is through election results. The Democrats faring a lot better in the midterms and specifically the Trumpian election denier faring significantly worse than your average Republican, is better for American democracy. This has led the Republican party to question whether this sort of positioning will be beneficial for them electorally. Therefore, America is not necessarily out of the woods, but the outlook has improved. The question then becomes who will win out within the Republican party – the normal Republicans, who are still conservative but do not claim election illegitimacy, will beat out the Trumpian wing of the party that takes a harder line on these election issues. This internal debate of the direction of the Republican party, is good for American democracy: the real nightmare scenario for America is if the election denying Republicans had won elections and then, come another narrow election in 2024, try to gain more influence electorally. Hopefully, this situation has been dodged as such candidates lost in the swing areas. This sent a clear signal to the Republican elites that these issues were political losers and that they should introduce some measure of introspection to decide where to take the party in the next election – this I think is good for American democracy.  

As an American teaching politics in the U.K., of the two countries, which political system is the most effective at protecting and representing their citizens? 

It is very much an apples and oranges comparison. In the U.K., there is parliamentary sovereignty, and everything runs through a single institution. On the one hand, this effectively means a greater degree of political consistency within the institution. However, this is not as much so in America where there is a lot of gridlock and acrimony – particularly with the Biden government. On the other hand, if after the last election you were anti-Brexit and not that Conservative, you may see the British system as wholly unfair as Leave only won a bare majority and the Conservatives won a majority with only 40% of the vote. Yet, a whole raft of policies are now coming through, which many may not have majority support in the U.K. currently. However, the U.K. government is generally more effective at enacting large scale reform and being responsive to people in a way American government is not.  

There is that, the politics of it but there are also other aspects of society where America does better. For instance, economically America is in a stronger footing than Britain. Whereas, here everyone is dug in for two years of misery at least. There is not this attitude in the U.S. as people feel the economic fundamentals are a lot stronger. Any sort of economic downturn in the U.S. would be self-inflicted at this point, granted that they are dealing with the same issues as the rest of the world. Overall, it is a hard question to answer as on different dimensions, both countries are more or less attractive.  

Conducted by Ingrid Sykes, Podcast and Interview Coordinator