Gabriella Kovalchick is a rising senior, majoring in Politics and International Relations with an American Politics Concentration

This post is the final one of this season of From the Field.  If you have not yet done so, read this brief post introducing Unstable Majoritieswhich includes not only a background on the book but also some amazingly helpful resources.

For our final book in the Politics Seminar, the subject moved towards a growing problem in the United States political scene. In Morris Fiorina’s Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting & Political Stalemate, Fiorina addresses the growing phenomena of polarization looking at U.S. history, other countries, and the 2016 presidential election. Taking time to lay foundational knowledge, this book was similar to our previous book in that it was accessible to individuals in and outside the field of politics. In response to this book and our discussions in class, while I often am pessimistic about our current political climate, I was ultimately convinced that there is hope for our system because we are resilient.

There are many dilemmas discussed in Unstable Majorites, but a primary one illustrated in the text is the overreach of political parties. Fiorina provides a simple definition stating, “By overreach, I mean simply that after it wins control of an elected institution, particularly when it wins control of all three elected institutions, a party attempts to govern in a manner that alienates the marginal members of its electoral majority” (93). Leading up to overreach, we are seeing a growing population of independents. Our current political parties are not representing the public, leading to party bases that encompass more extreme ideologies, and independent voters swinging between parties. This large population of independents primarily interacts with important elections, leaving the base supporters interacting with the rest, continuing the dilemma of parties not representing the people. However, in light of this book and class discussions, this dilemma is known, so it is just a matter of how we address it.

A key point I have taken away from Fiorina’s Unstable Majorities is the impact civic knowledge or lack thereof, has on our current system. Underlying many issues illustrated in this text is whether people know how to interact with the government. In the case of the growing population of independents, campaigns are shifting to target hot topics that sway independents (Chapter 6). People do not necessarily know how to respond to this tactic we have seen with overreach, many of these hot topics are not addressed while individuals are in office, so people need to learn how to look beyond the loud parts of politics. These findings underscore the importance of civic education, which has been a recurring theme in the course.

Although not a point with which I explicitly disagree, Fiorina surprised me by asserting that Trump could have a positive role in change. He suggested, “…Trump might play a positive role as a de-sorter, someone with the potential to disrupt the sorted parties that underlie much of our current political discontent and possibly even begin the construction of a new electoral coalition” (219). It is hard to look at politicians, especially Trump, as a figure of positive change in our political system. However, I can say that he has pointed out many flaws in our system, causing more individuals to call for positive change.

As I mentioned earlier, I always found myself being very pessimistic thinking about the current state of American politics. However, in light of class discussions, I think Fiorina has illustrated with historical comparisons that what we are dealing with is not new (Chapter 9). I have grown to see that we are resilient in working through these times of unstable majorities, and with more public outcry, there are more chances for change. What good does it do to not be hopeful? Even if the government does not explicitly care for the population, people are working every day to bring about justice and change. As an individual, I can continue to advocate for education in the hope that people will gain more hope in our system. It may be complicated, but there is hope that things will get better instead of only worse.

Jackson Hazen is a senior studying politics & international relations, as well as Spanish.


This post is the sixteenth of this season of From the Field.  If you have not yet done so, read this brief post introducing Unstable Majoritieswhich includes not only a background on the book but also some amazingly helpful resources.

America today is more divided than ever before in our history, at least that is what many politicians, reporters, and even members of the public would say when asked about the state of American politics. But despite our common assumptions and what we are told in our headlines, how divided are we really? Morris Fiorina argues in Unstable Majorities that the American electorate is not any more divided now than we were 20, 40, or even 100 years ago. Fiorina outlines how party sorting has resulted in a large portion of the electorate faced with choosing between two parties that nominate and run practically identical candidates year after year. The result is an America that seems divided because of the dramatically sorted parties, when in actuality there remains a large portion of the population that lies not on either end of the political spectrum, but clustered around the middle. Although not quite reaching as far to offer solutions, Fiorina does a good job of calming a panicked electorate with his critical yet unbiased approach, allowing civility to reign over tribalism.

To confront assumptions about a divided electorate Fiorina focuses on the rise in the number of voters who self-report as independents. This view directly contrasts with the most common assumptions about American politics, which is that voters have been running towards either end of the extremes of either party, increasing the number of people who identify as either Republican or Democrat. Fiorina points out, “…it is partisans, not independents, who have lost ground: independents are now the largest single ‘partisan’ category” (25). This finding is a key takeaway from the book because it reinforces Fiorina’s point that Americans are not as divided as one might think. As elections have passed the number of independents has not fallen, if anything the number of voters registering as “decline to state” (DtS) or another term for independent has risen. This shift is seen in states with party registration, where DtS registration rose from 12 to 18 percent between 1976 and 2008 (25). Fiorina makes it clear that, if independents are growing and make up a plurality of registered voters, then America is not becoming more divided than before.

Despite the pragmatic outlook Fiorina provides, he does little in the way of offering solutions to the growing resentment directed towards elites, the media, and the system. Addressing the often-inaccurate characterization of those who voted for Trump in 2016, Fiorina points out the growing frustration with the nation’s elites that is prevalent in both the Republican and Democrat camps (218). Many are cold to traditional media and its straying from objectivity, and even more believe that the system itself is to blame, but Fiorina does not offer suggestions for what political scientists can do to solve these problems. By closing with, “For now, at least, an era of unstable majorities continues” (223), Fiorina paints a bleaker picture of American democracy that seems to be headed in the same direction as it has been for the past 15 years.

The perceived polarization of American politics has destroyed civil discourse, but Fiorina explains why this view is mistaken. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, many pundits and journalists made sweeping generalizations and statements that sought to portray the election as proof that a large portion of Americans were racist, sexist, or xenophobic. However, Fiorina takes a more calculated and realistic approach, he clarifies that voters more likely were responding to the economic and social conditions of the time, much like in other periods of divided government in U.S. history (163-166). Trump’s election was a continuation of the status quo of 2012, Fiorina states, “…in a majoritarian system like ours, small change in the vote can have enormous consequences for party control of our governing institutions and the policies they produce” (172). Trump being elected in 2016 was likely the result of small shifts in the electorate and not an underlying racist or sexist American populace. To be sure, criticisms of Trump and the way he ran his campaign are fair, but Fiorina makes sure to quell generalizations of the electorate that do more harm than good to our political system.

Unstable Majorities provides a fresh outlook on a system that we often misjudge or mischaracterize as deeply polarized. By allowing readers to see the political landscape for what it is rather than what we perceive it to be, Fiorina allows us to look past destructive tribalism and recognize that we are not as divided as we may seem. American politics is not headed for disaster like so many like to forecast, the system is resilient and has made it through tough times before. While Fiorina does not offer solutions, he paves the path for readers to do so. By understanding our similarities, and how they cut across our perceived differences, we can help guide the course of American politics. What happens in the next five or ten years is up to our response to the system – our willingness to collaborate and communicate – that is the way forward for American politics. It all starts with the understanding that America is not divided but disconnected.

Allie Mast is a newly-minted alumna of politics and international relations, with an American politics concentration and a minor in English. She will be attending the University at Buffalo School of Law in the fall

This post is the fifteenth of this season of From the Field.  If you have not yet done so, read this brief post introducing Unstable Majoritieswhich includes not only a background on the book but also some amazingly helpful resources.

With whose voice is public opinion spoken? In Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting & Political Stalemate, Morris P. Fiorina reveals the dyadic nature of American public opinion—splitting not along party lines, but between the political elite and ordinary citizens. In a robust analysis with statistical and historical evidence, Fiorina challenges our understanding of polarization and provides a sliver of optimism about the state of our politics: perhaps we are not as divided as we are led to believe. However, the absence of historical evidence in his concluding hypothesis regarding (now former) President Donald Trump, limits the credibility of this particular prediction.

Commonplace are the claims that the American people are polarized to an unprecedented degree. Fiorina contests such a notion, arguing instead that America itself has not changed, and that the ordinary American has not changed either. In fact, the ways that ordinary citizens think about policy issues ranging from poverty to business to religion to foreign affairs are largely the same today as they were in 1987 (29). If we turn the clock back to the 1970s and 1980s, we might find familiar battles. For example, we see threads of President Reagan’s crusade against the Warren and Burger courts in today’s landscape, namely with the overturning of Roe v. Wade and Grutter v. Bollinger. We may also trace President Nixon’s efforts to unshackle the police to the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements of 2020. Although 2023 voters are faced with wildly different candidates than in the 1970s and 1980s, Fiorina reports that “in the aggregate, the public today looks much the same as the one that chose between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976” (29). By realizing that ordinary citizens have remained relatively similar in their reasons for division and the extent to which they divide, Fiorina lessens the sense of doom that we may feel about the state of our polarization.

Additionally, Fiorina challenges claims which compare America’s current polarization to
the polarization of the Civil War era, citing the sentiments of radio talk show host Dennis Prager.
Prager warns that:

It is time for our society to acknowledge a sad truth: America is currently fighting its
second Civil War. In fact, with the obvious and enormous exception of attitudes toward
slavery, Americans are more divided morally, ideologically[,] and politically today than
they were during the Civil War (17).

This author has long felt that such claims lack perspicacity, for how they appear to be rooted in history but are actually divorced from a historical context. Fiorina effectively addresses two problematic aspects of the above excerpt, first that “Americans are divided.” What Americans are divided? There may be truth to Prager’s warning if the Americans he speaks of are the political elites—elected officials and candidates, donors, party and issue activists (21). However, if “Americans” are understood to be the electorate, or what Fiorina calls “normal people,” the data clearly suggests that Americans are not deeply polarized (30). Furthermore, Fiorina addresses the claim that America is “currently fighting its second Civil War.” If the division we are facing today is of a civil war level, then surely this cannot be only our second. As Fiorina explains the falsity of Prager’s claim, he demonstrates the difference between a claim grounded in historical context, and one that merely refers to history.

Fiorina consistently provides statistical and historical evidence to back his assertions, rendering the instance where he fails to do so all the more stark. In the final chapter, Fiorina comments that President Trump might play a positive role as “someone with the potential to disrupt the sorted parties that underlie much of our political discontent and possibly even begin the construction of a new electoral coalition” (219). Fiorina also describes Trump as one who might drive a wedge through the factions of the Republican, and potentially even Democratic, parties (219). To an informed student observer, Fiorina’s prediction is logical. However, one is left to wonder whether there is a precedent for a candidate producing such disruption, especially since, by the end of the book, readers have almost been conditioned to expect a historical or statistical basis for his assertions. Furthermore, there lies a body of research on factions and their longevity, that is to say that Fiorinia’s hypothesis is not in uncharted waters. Even so, if Trump’s disruption of the parties would, indeed, be without precedent, then Fiorina fails to acknowledge the tentativeness of his remarks. Albeit a minor observation among a sea of fully supported claims, to close with a relatively unsubstantiated prediction weakens the credibility of his closing remarks.

Perhaps the problem with America’s political elite is not that they are polarized, but that they are ignorant—ignorant to the degree that the American electorate is polarized, ignorant to the real culprits of polarization, and ignorant to the extent of racial, ethnic, and labor violence in this country’s history. As a civics and history lesson might reveal, the disagreement and disorder that characterizes politics today is not historically unique, and furthermore, they are of a lower order of intensity compared to the conflicts of the mid-twentieth century (217). If William Neuman suggests that “things are never so bad that they can’t get worse”, then Fiorina offers that “it’s been worse!” Fiorina’s Unstable Majorities is not merely a call for hope, but a call for historical perspective and highsight. Whether partisan or independent, an engaged or passive observer, we must question the claims of politicos and pundits as they spout about public opinion, asking if their assertions are rooted in an accurate perception of the electorate and placed in the context of American history.

Kyle Chu is a senior politics and international relations major (American politics concentration), with minors in music and statistics.

This post is the fourteenth of this season of From the Field.  If you have not yet done so, read this brief post introducing Unstable Majoritieswhich includes not only a background on the book, but also some amazingly helpful resources.


Conversations are the lifeblood of community. A community comprised of good listeners, wise discerners, and neighborly responders will be able to face the problems of its time, growing stronger as a result. On the other hand, when a community’s members put up psychological walls against the voices of differing views and begin to shout their own views without discernment, the problems of the community grow stronger while the community itself languishes. Is America a conversationalist nation? That is, does America’s political infrastructure allow the voices of every group in the U.S. to be heard and effective? Morris Fiorina, in his Unstable Majorities, answers in the negative: America’s two parties have sorted, leading to issue and affective polarization that hamper bipartisan deliberation. Moreover, a glaring discontinuity exists between the respective agendas of the two parties and the desires of the American electorate. Unfortunately, Fiorina leaves his readers without any substantive solutions to these crises.

First, the Democratic and Republican parties have sorted, meaning that both parties have become ideologically homogeneous (i.e. only liberal Democrats and only conservative Republicans) (47). Sorting has produced partisan polarization in both the policy arena and in the emotional arena (i.e. affective polarization). Regarding partisan polarization surrounding policy, abortion is a good example. According to the General Social Survey, before 1992, Democrats and Republicans did not diverge significantly concerning the average number of circumstances in which they thought “it possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion.” (50) However, by 2014, the averaged difference grew to 2 circumstances, with Democrats favoring more circumstances than the Republicans (52). Regarding affective polarization, Fiorina quotes Iyengar, Sood, and Lelkes: “Democrats and Republicans not only increasingly dislike the opposing party, but also impute negative traits to the rank-and-file of the out-party…affective polarization…exceeds polarization based on other social cleavages…” (60) Thus, the two parties have created a zero-sum scenario: partisans, particularly the partisan leadership, tend to live, move, and have their being with people of the same mind, voice, and disdain for the other party (49, 62), and such partisans see the other party as an uncompromisable threat. Accordingly, bipartisan conversation suffers.

Second, discontinuities exist between the party leadership and the broader electorate. As Figure 2.6 on page 24 portrays, three surveys, the ANES, the NY Times/CBS News, and the General Social Survey, all show that Americans, in contrast with the party sorting and polarization of the political class, have remained ideological centrists for at least the past 4 decades. The growing asymmetry between the political class and the broader electorate invariably has led to an asymmetry between party platforms and the desires of the populace and to the burgeoning of the “independent” partisan category (25, 99, 105). Fiorina condenses this complex relationship with the concept of party overreach: because of the close party divide, each party must win a majority of independents in order to win majorities in government (93). Accordingly, during elections, the parties “soften some of their core positions and downplay some of the issues of most concern to their base supporters.” (91) However, after elections, parties focus on the agendas of their respective bases, which alienate the marginal supporters (91, 105). For example, President Obama focused on core issues of the Democratic base during his presidency, such as climate change, gun control, and immigration, even though the broader electorate was concerned much more about the economy, jobs, and terrorism (101-102). Such discontinuities indicate a failure in conversation between the party system and the electorate.

Unfortunately, Fiorina leaves the reader with this pessimistic outlook of the American political infrastructure without proposing any substantive solutions. He does suggest the possibility of Donald Trump catalyzing a party realignment:

Trump might play a positive role as a de-sorter, someone with the potential to disrupt the sorted parties that underlie much of our current political discontent and possibly even begin the construction of a new electoral coalition. By taking positions on trade, entitlements, and foreign policy that violate Republican orthodoxy, Trump might drive a wedge between Republican factions. By supporting a big infrastructure program he might drive a wedge between gentry liberals and the blue-collar factions of the Democrats (219). However, bleak indeed the American situation must be if political scientists are placing any considerable stock of hope in Donald Trump, a man who is not unfamiliar with unevidenced invective, hyperbolic name-calling, and alienating propaganda in remedying the demise of political conversation and deliberation in America. In other words, Fiorina critiques the plight of American politics with nuance and perspicacity; however, he stops there, ending his book like a critic with no feet.

In Unstable Majorities, Morris Fiorina effectively unveils the failure of American party politics in facilitating crosscutting conversations across the American populace, especially between the political class and the “ordinary” citizen. Party sorting has intensified partisan polarization pertaining to both issues and emotion, and the two parties no longer represent with reasonable accuracy the desires of the American electorate. Unfortunately, Fiorina leaves us remediless in restoring the American conversation. We must seek out the solution to U.S. polarization and the breakdown of representation. Otherwise, our problems will only grow, and we will only grow weaker.

Dr. Robin Lauermann, professor of politics, edits this series

This post is the thirteenth of our new season, For Times Such as This.  If you have not yet done so, please read this season-opening post for some brief context. 

It seems impossible to turn on the news or talk about the political climate without the issue of red versus blue parties, officials and citizens arising.  Unlike the more pessimistic perspective of our prior course read – Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse – the author of the final book of our capstone this year offers us important insight for constructive change.  Dr. Morris Fiorina of Stanford University and its Hoover Institution is among the most renowned scholars of the political behavior of voters and members of Congress. His knack is not only brilliant insight about the developments in these areas, but also his willingness and ability to write for a general audience.

(We are fortunate to welcome him this coming fall for our annual American Democracy Lecture – more details will follow, but please save the date for Monday October 28, 2024!)

In his 2017 Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting and Political Stalemate, Dr. Fiorina offers a clear and compelling alternative account for polarization within contemporary American politics.  Amid gridlock, acrimony and widely fluctuating policies (when passage can occur),  the idea of polarization is front and center in our system.  However, as we shall read in the analyses ahead, the causes are not what common thought would have us believe.  As a result, realistic opportunities exist to work towards an improved political climate.

If you are motivated by the video summary above and analyses that follow, a number of excellent, practical resources exist.  Here are just a few:

As capstone closed at the end of the semester, students worked in groups to apply the lessons from Fiorina t0 problem-solving reforms.  They left encouraged – and I hope you will too!  These students also participated in an amazing panel at Messiah’s Humanities Symposium in late February. Read on for the first analysis in this segment!

Allie Mast is a December ’23 graduate of politics and international relations, with an American politics concentration and a minor in English.

This post is the twelfth of this season of From the Field.  If you have not yet done so, read this brief post introducing Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse.

When democracies stumble, we are quick to point to human fallibility. When democracies flourish, seldom do we point to the beauty of humankind, in its capacities for resiliency, rationality, and empathy. In times of flourishing, do we notice our ability to profoundly know one another? To recognize that, even if we are not neighbors by proximity, perhaps we are neighbors in the shared experience of humanity. There is an author who has achieved a balance of both, detailing the roots of a democracy’s plunge into chaos, while also intimately narrating the stories of a nation’s people. In Things are Never So Bad that They Can’t Get Worse, William Neuman embarks upon a telling of Venezuela’s history and humanity. From a standpoint of clarity, he may be limited by his quest for narrative creativity, but this is hardly a detriment to his message of the tragic beauty of imperfect beings in an imperfect system.

In detailing Venezuela’s deeply-rooted corruption, Neuman underscores the nuance in our conversations about human morality. Corruption has ravaged Venezuela, penetrating not only its government but also generating corruption among its citizens. After Chávez instituted currency controls, everyone—the Chavistas, the financiers, and especially the middle class—began to buy cheap dollars to sell for a profit on the black market (176). Neuman writes that:

The nation was an all-you-can-eat-buffet and everyone was pushing to the front to fill
their pockets with delicacies before they ran out…It destroys your sense of right and
wrong…It destroys your sense of belonging to a society, something that matters and has
value. It destroys the idea of being a citizen (177).

The corruption demonstrated here was partially to satisfy human greed. But the middle class was not immune from Venezuela’s food and medicine shortages and the power blackouts. What if the black-market profits provided resources for a hungry family? As further fodder for this conversation, we can examine the role of gang bosses in Venezuela. After a woman’s daughter disappeared, the neighborhood’s gang boss, who is the “law in a lawless place” tracked down the man who had kidnapped and killed the girl (92). Presumably, the gang boss killed the man, as “that’s how justice is done in the barrio” (93). The morality of corruption in Venezuela is a question of means and ends. In an admittedly unethical way, Venezuela’s corruption has provided and likely will continue to provide (so long as there remain gaps left by the government) some twisted form of good.

Neuman succeeds in his criticism of America’s approach to relations with Venezuela. While it is an unfortunate reality that Neuman may scrutinize his government’s actions with no repercussions, we know from Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse (for instance, the experience of José Vincente) that such liberty does not exist in every corner of the world. Neuman details the experience of Tom Shannon, who was, for many years, “considered to be the person in the U.S. government who best understood what was happening in Venezuela” (185). In times when American leaders might have chosen an aggressive policy, Shannon advised diplomatic and moderate approaches. Shannon retired during the Trump presidency, at a point where he had largely been shut out of discussions about Venezuela (193). Neuman allows dissent to occupy space in the narrative as Shannon explains how the Trump administration lacked an understanding of Chavismo and the larger social, political, cultural, and historical contexts within which Venezuela operates: “I think that’s foolish, quite frankly,” says Shannon (193). By including criticism, Neuman does the work of holding the United States accountable. In doing so, he makes Venezuela’s lack of accountability, and the inability of Venezuelans to hold their government accountable, all the more stark.

To this author, there is little room for disagreement with Neuman, for this book is a telling of history and a portrayal of Venezuelans’ life experiences. Disagreement with the characters and policies of Chávez and Maduro would be too great a task and plain disagreement with the citizens who have fallen victim to populism would be ignorant of the experiences that have molded their understanding of a legitimate government. Instead, we can direct our disagreement towards Neuman, as the one who has organized the telling of Venezuela’s history and humanity. Indeed, Neuman is successful in crafting a unique pace and maintaining the attention of the audience with his narrative creativity. In doing so, however, he sacrificed a degree of historical clarity. For a reader who might be entirely unfamiliar with Venezuela’s history, Neuman’s bouncing back and forth between history and personal narrative is potentially confusing. For instance, the interspersing of the “Blackout” chapters kept the reader from a chronological time context. Ultimately, Neuman’s authorial choices are a tradeoff that is in service of the book’s narrative strengths.

William Neuman’s Things are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse is a commitment to truth where he sets forth what he has witnessed: a democracy’s infliction of suffering upon its people. His narration is not paralyzed by the weighty task of portraying hardship and corruption. By way of narrative creativity, Neuman illustrates a people who have found the bravery and courage to persist amid darkness. As students of politics, may we strive, just as Neuman, to know and understand, not only the details of geo-politics and a nation’s history, but the experiences of our neighbors both near and far.

Natalie Hamlen is a senior, majoring in Politics & International Relations as well as Human Development and Family Science


This post is the eleventh of this season of From the Field.  If you have not yet done so, read this brief post introducing Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse.

“He called it Tierra de Gracia, the Land of Grace” (45). In Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse, William Neuman details the history of a country inundated with natural resources and commodities. Just as the indigenous people did not benefit from the resources exploited by explorers in 1498, neither do Venezuelans today experience the “grace” of the land. The novelty of populist leaders quickly wears off as living conditions continue to decline. Neuman skillfully chronicles the collapse of Venezuela through varied accounts of life from both inside and outside of a country engulfed by governmental corruption and economic disparity. Although Neuman’s deference to the personal life stories of Venezuelans evokes a deeper level of insight into the crisis, his biased depiction of the efforts by political parties in the United States to navigate conditions in Venezuela undermines his attempts to fully represent and explain the collapse of the Latin American country.

Neuman investigates the crisis in Venezuela by using the overarching event of the 2019 blackouts to symbolize the government both figuratively and literally leaving the citizens in the dark. He relies upon eyewitness testimonies from everyday Venezuelans to uncover the abundance of unfulfilled promises made by President Maduro on behalf of the government. Committed to addressing the healthcare crisis, the president announced the construction of new hospitals. However, Neuman’s interviews with locals in Venezuela revealed the government’s shortcomings. He recounts a woman’s story, depicting the scene following a house fire in her neighborhood. The ambulances that arrived to provide medical care did not have oxygen masks, and the hospitals lacked the necessary resources to care for the survivors (362). Survivors quickly became victims due to insufficiency, which has become the outcome for many Venezuelans as Maduro continues to issue empty promises (382). Instead of addressing the root cause of the crisis–corrupt and failing leadership–the Venezuelan government continues to deflect blame to other parties. When they do show up, it is only to put out fires–merely proximate causes of an abiding crisis that threatens to engulf the country.

Neuman’s work sheds significant light on the stories of many Venezuelans living in the dark. His book created an opportunity for the people of Venezuela to fill in the gaps left in the reports on the country. Neuman wrote about the incidence of looting, for example, but graciously used the personal stories of those partaking in the action as a vehicle to explain it. Plagued by hyperinflation, Venezuela is a starving country. Neuman does raise the question of where one might locate a sense of morality within the crime, but his account opens up a dialogue for a Venezuelan woman to speak directly on her experiences and justify why humanity loses its sense of right and wrong in times of crisis (50). Instead of giving his own answer, Neuman gave Venezuelans their dignity back. He recounts the stress experienced by the woman as she tried to balance the desperation to put food on the table with the knowledge that stealing is wrong (51). Neuman rationalizes her struggle by explaining that the crisis stripped Venezuelans of the ability to think past tomorrow, which would give a reason as to why people no longer could justify adhering to any sort of standards to promote prosperity and stability for a future that might not exist.

Although Neuman includes a portrayal of the United States’ response to the collapse of Venezuela, his bias undermines the effectiveness of his argument. In contrast to a more ardent and well-intended characterization of the Democratic Party, Neuman’s description of Republicans indicates his clear opposition, “In the United States the Republican dream was to starve the beast, to cut government financing so deeply that most of the things we expect the government to do become impossible” (Neuman, 365). He invites an unreasonable comparison between the Republican view of small government and the Maduro administration’s failure to fulfill the responsibility to provide functional services, such as public hospitals (365). Neuman’s penchant for blaming Republicans in the United States for the struggle of Venezuelan citizens (primarily referring to the use of sanctions) and disregard for more than a century’s worth of problematic interference by both parties indicates his bias and, therefore, brings the legitimacy of his argument into question. Although I do not believe Neuman intends to use Republicans as a scapegoat for Maduro’s incompetency, his characterization of Venezuela as the “Republican dream fulfilled” allows for the failure of Maduro’s government to take responsibility for its citizens.

In his illustration of the collapse of Venezuela, Neuman represents a variety of different perspectives to demonstrate the complexity of politics. Even in the presence of an obvious problem, identifying, defining, and responding to an issue remains a complex process for both internal and external actors in both domestic and comparative contexts. Despite being victims of a humanitarian crisis as a result of poor decisions made by the government, not all Venezuelans agree on the culprit of the crisis and, therefore, the party responsible for solving it. Neuman’s interviews include the perspective of a Venezuelan who came to realize how Chávez exploited the country, as well as a Venezuelan whose belief in Chávez’s sincerity and innocence never wavered (384-386). The difference in opinion caused some Venezuelans to leave the country after realizing the government would not take responsibility for the collapse and others to remain in hopes that the government would recuperate. Whichever stance the population of Venezuela finds itself inclined to adhere to, Neuman’s work rightfully validates the suffering of the people living under a government incapable of bringing them into a better future.


Jackson Hazen is a senior studying politics & international relations, as well as Spanish.

This post is the tenth of this season of From the Field.  If you have not yet done so, read this brief post introducing Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse.

The state of Venezuela has served as a harrowing example of the fragility of new democracies when they are placed under extreme distress. However, when commenting on the state of Venezuela, many political pundits and politicians miss the key factors that have led Venezuela down the wrong path. William Neuman brings his journalistic expertise and his experience working and living in the region in Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse to reveal those often-missed truths. His purpose is to portray the historical realities that have caused Venezuela to become so broken, while also showing readers real stories of Venezuelans to bring back some humanity and dignity to people who are often overlooked and whose interests are often subverted. In the text, Neuman demonstrates how the power of populism can lead to the deterioration of a state. Although at times leaning on his journalistic experience of impartiality, Neuman also writes into his own bias which has the effect of muddling some of the points being made in the text. But overall Neuman crafts a story that combines facts and history with the personal stories and narratives of Venezuelans to demonstrate to his predominantly U.S. audience how complex and issue the Venezuelan state really is. In doing so, Neuman allows the people of Venezuela to reclaim a national identity themselves, one that lies beyond the speeches and actions of their leaders, and one that exemplifies their resilience and humanity.

Neuman reveals the power a populist leader like Chavez can have over a nation. Often when Venezuela is spoken of in U.S. public discourse incorrect assumptions are made as to why the state has reached the point it has; the answer to the question of why Venezuela failed is far more complex than a simple answer like “communism”. The power that Chavez held, which would later be transferred to Maduro is a large part of the reason why Venezuela has reached the point they are today. Chavez (and Maduro) held centralized power and knew how to control the system and the people to maintain control. Neuman builds on the work of political scientist Jan-Werner Müller to explain that “populism incorporates a moral vision that pits the pure people against the corrupt elites” (82). Chavez knew how to play his people; he would speak to them directly using the television in his Aló Presidente broadcasts. In these broadcasts, “He would make announcements that his supporters knew would enrage his enemies, and because of that, they loved him even more” (67). The power that a populist leader can have over a nation was one key takeaway from Neuman’s book.

Neuman demonstrated excellent journalistic qualities throughout the text, however, at times he leaned more heavily into his own bias, which became evident in the latter half of the book and did at times inhibit the points being made. Though Neuman kept a fair account of history and was critical when appropriate, there were instances when it was clear that Neuman held one position over another. When Neuman spoke of the Trump administration or of Republicans he was more critical than when he spoke of the Democrats or of the Biden administration. For example, when writing about the lack of government services in Venezuela Neuman wrote, “The irony was that Republicans in the United States considered Maduro their enemy, they should have been applauding him, he was their fellow traveler” (269). His writing bias takes away from the point of the book by distracting readers with U.S. political rhetoric. Keeping a fairer tone would have served the book better.

Though Neuman’s political bias did show through in the book, his portrayal of Venezuelans not as objects or pawns, but as real people with lives and stories to tell, shone as a high point in the book. Throughout the book, he writes the stories of citizens who, despite all the hardship and suffering they face, are still living in the country they love. One example that stood out to me was Neuman’s story of his visit to Maracaibo. He spoke with a man who was scavenging in the pit in the center of the city when a woman who had lost her purse approached them. She asked them if they had seen her purse, and neither of them had, but the man told Neuman, “I would have given it to her if I’d found it” (244). This story, and many others shows how the Venezuelan people are not broken and hopeless as so many think to portray them as but are resilient and hopeful.

Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse is a valuable tool for anyone who is in the realm of politics. It reveals how complicated history is connected to issues and problems that we face today. It also shows how important it is for those connected to politics to be able to communicate with the public, as well as some of the dangers of leaning too heavily on our own biases and notions when writing. Neuman’s book also serves as an example of how to convey complicated information to a broader audience while not getting lost in jargon or specifics Additionally, the book also does an excellent job of covering a complicated issue while not losing the human stories that are behind it. It also serves as a reminder for us to not be arrogant in our actions because, as we saw in the book, it is this arrogance that can lead to bigger problems.

Dr. Robin Lauermann, professor of politics, edits this series

This post is the tenth of our new season, For Times Such as This.  If you have not yet done so, please read this season-opening post for some brief context. 

According to current research, countries around the world have experienced a wave of autocratization – whether turning from democratic systems to authoritarian ones, or remaining democratic broadly, but experiencing backsliding that sees leaders acting in ways that undermine the system.  (See this summary report from the respected organization IDEA – International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Accountability.)  One such “contraction” of democracy has been the rise of populism in recent decades, a development that has occurred in many countries across the globe.  Scholars such as Guillermo O’Donnell and Nadia Urbinati have characterized populism as a dysfunctional or disfigured democracy, as it tends to rely on popular support, but as a means to gain power to undercut one of the central elements of democratic systems — that of pluralism intended to spark competing views to evaluate decisions.

Our third text of the fall capstone course Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse by Wiliam Neuman, offered a deeper dive into these themes from our comparative and international relations subfields.  Neuman, a journalist with long-term coverage of Latin America, examines the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and the country’s eventual economic collapse within the larger international context in which these events occurred.   With almost 8 million of its citizens displaced around the world — more than a quarter of the 30 million who had lived there in 2016 — readers gain a sense of the struggle that has prompted mass migration from the country.  Its dependency on oil as a revenue source has subjected the nation to a very fickle source of income, one that the state did not manage well.  Neuman also provides a small window into how U.S. foreign policy shaped events in Latin America through recent sanctions, which are part of a larger pattern of economic and military influence and intervention that stretches back almost two centuries.  In all, the book launched rich conversations, provoking critical thinking about these issues.

Read on for the first analysis of the book – “A Failed State, Not a Failed People”

Leengee Pierre is a senior politics and international relations student.

This post is the ninth of our new season of the From the Field student blog series: For Times Such as This.  If you have not yet done so, please read this opening post for some brief context. 

In Life Worth Living, Volf, Croasmun and McAnnally-Linz observe that “[w]e are reason-seeking animals, and we are (all too often) people in pain. We need responses to suffering that both help us cope and help us fit the pain and disjointedness we find in our lives and our world into a larger picture.” (202). Suffering has been the biggest part of human lives. We know suffering can have a huge effect on our lives; it has impacted not only who we are as an individual but also the community that we are in. That part of our lives is one of the ways we learn from and can improve ourselves overall. Despite our suffering, we should seek happiness because we would not want to be one’s suffering. They are ways to work against suffering.

Through God, we should have the ability to see beyond our suffering. Yes, we suffer because of our sinful nature, but that does not stop us from rebuking any effect that suffering would bring to us. As 1 Peter 5:10 says, “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast.” (NIV). Through God, you will find happiness despite your sufferings. God’s purpose in your life has no negative effect on your life, but the sinful world that you live in. Those experiences of suffering sometimes create a feeling of God being absent in your life, but it is not ceasing your faith in God. As the authors stated, “God’s purposes and wisdom far surpass any powers of ours to ferret out the meaning of things. The appropriate thing to do is to bear suffering patiently while we wait to see what good it brings.” (Volf et al., 193). Through our suffering, we will find something good out of it when we have God helping us overcome it. There will be happiness, no matter how it hurts you, but it should not stop you from doing the things that need to be done in our life; we must move forward.

Through suffering there will always be an end. Nietzsche’s view on suffering is that it is baked into life, you can learn from your suffering. This suffering helps you understand more about certain things about yourself but also learn about certain things that would prevent you from having that same suffering. Through that suffering, you can see a positive outcome to it. As Nietzsche said about suffering, “Each of our lives sits atop the heap of all history that went before it, each life would have come about without every ounce of that history” (as cited in Volf et al. 196). That history of suffering will be a memory of what you have overcome because there was a purpose through your experience. There will always be a connection to all the experiences and suffering that you have encountered in your life.

I believe you can avoid suffering depending on the circumstances you experience. Sometimes you know you should not put yourself in a situation, so you avoid it. Much of our suffering is based on what we could have done to remove ourselves from the specific situation, which you later find the solution to the problem. For instance, you can struggle to do well in a course, but through practice, study, and meeting with the professor, you can overcome that struggle. We should not accept suffering within ourselves, but pursue happiness. Nietzsche believes that we consider pain ““as evil, hateful, deserving of annihilation, as a defect of existence.” (Volf et al., 195), which is true. I believe that we should accept something that does define who God wants us to feel; happy. God does not want us to suffer, and we have the Bible to guide us into happiness and the path that He wants us to go. We should not let suffering dictate our happiness because there is nothing great about suffering.

For me, this book has exposed various aspects of life that we humans feel in our daily lives. It gives a view of different ways to accept or overcome certain aspects of our lives. Using different beliefs, Bible scriptures, and stories would give us an understanding of how we should think about life and ourselves, especially how we view suffering and our worth to ourselves and the world. It also gave me an understanding of how different people from diverse backgrounds and beliefs – such as Apostle Paul, Confucious, Muhammad, and Buddha – relate each subject to their understanding. It made me realize many thoughts and opinions about myself and others that are around me.