Who Knows: Political Science Professor Tom Dumm

Submitted by Caroline J. Hanna

Next up for the “Who Knows” series is Tom Dumm, professor and chair of the political science department. Dumm, who will teach Amherst’s The American Presidency course during the Fall 2008 semester, spoke with John D’Angelo ’10 about the class and the final stages of this year’s presidential campaign.

JD: Do you only teach this course during election years?

TD: Yes, pretty much. Both of the times I have taught the class before have been really wild. [During] the 2000 election, I tried to organize the course so that we would be studying presidential elections right around the actual election, but we never ended up leaving the subject because things were suspended through the end. The semester ended with us not knowing who was the president of the United States. In fact, I was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal because they wanted to know how professors were teaching the moment.

JD: Does the course primarily surround the presidential election?

TD: Well, the course consists of a comprehensive view of the American presidency and deals with questions of the Constitution, separation of powers issues… We will be interested presidential power and its exercise. What has been happening in terms of presidential and congressional relations? Have we indeed moved to this centralization of power in the Bush presidency permanently, and is it going to continue or shift after next election?

JD: Does the content of the course change over time due to the actions of previous presidents?

TD: There are certain core things, but frankly the Bush administration has been so radical that you really have to rethink an awful lot about what the presidency is now…

One of the fun things about teaching about the presidency is that every time my students and I meet we talk about what has been going on politically in the current presidential campaign. So I will devote 45 minutes to the materials that we are going over and then we have an open discussion.

JD: Do you think this election has been particularly pivotal in defining the role of the presidency?

TD: It’s always difficult to say when an election actually is pivotal. It seems that every time an election comes around people call it pivotal. However, both parties are closely reevaluating their directions. It does seem as though the Republicans are exhausted by what they have to offer. There is more internal critique by the Republicans of their inability to offer an alternative to what they have. What the Democrats don’t have is a really coherent program. Usually you understand elections as critical in retrospect.

JD: Is that what happened in the 2000 presidential election?

TD: It wasn’t actually a critical election in that there was ongoing Republican domination of American political life. The tricky thing was that Clinton had been a very popular president but he had actually governed as a kind of moderate Republican. And Bush campaigned as another moderate Republican, but then what happened was this far right domination.

JD: Bush hasn’t really ruled as a traditional conservative, though, has he?

TD: The idea of [a] traditional small government conservative does not exist anymore; we live in a very corporatized society. In fact, [political theorist]Sheldon Wolin, who is 82 years old, recently came out with book that claims the United States is going through a period of inverted totalitarianism. In other words, we go through formal elections, but private power—in the form of corporate power—is ruling behind the scenes. We can have all the formal elections we want, but the basic fundamentals are not going to change. I think he exaggerates some, but there is that going on. It will be very interesting to see, if the Democrats win, whether they will push hard against it. Barack Obama says he will, but if you look at the substance of his policies, despite what the Republicans are saying, they are not that progressive. Clinton hit a real weak point with him whenever she mentioned the working class/populace because he doesn’t have a strong position there.

JD: Do you think the hotly contested primaries caused the candidates to chip away at each other to the point of weakening each other?

TD: That’s what everyone always says when there is a hotly contested primary. The substantive differences between Clinton and Obama weren’t that big and everyone had hurt feelings. But if you were a woman who was voting for Clinton, you would be crazy to vote for John McCain unless it was all about personality and it isn’t merely about that.

Another fascinating thing about this campaign is the ascent of YouTube and the Internet and the intensification of the 24-hour news cycle. One of the strange things about this spring primary was following North Carolina it was virtually impossible for Clinton to capture the nomination. The numbers simply weren’t there. She would have had to win every race after that by a margin of 65 to 35 in order to win. But look at what happened afterwards: you have this whole range of different states that held primaries despite that foregone conclusion.

JD: Why do they spread the primaries out like that?

TD: Well, it wasn’t the spread that was important. One of the reasons I believe it kept going is that the cable news networks wanted to continue to characterize it as a race. If it ceased to be a race, their ratings would go down. Part of it is the need to act as though things are incredibly competitive even when they are not, in order to attract eyes to the screen. So that is a very interesting development this year because this primary was virtually over back in early April.

JD: Does the constant scrutiny of everything the candidates say detract from the actual race?

TD: It all depends on what you mean by the actual race. Hillary and Bill Clinton, one of the reasons they were so infuriated was that they got sideswiped by a new kind of campaign. They thought that they knew how to win and they did. But they knew how to win in the ’90s. They did not understand how things have gone viral and how much the Internet matters. Bill Clinton especially did not understand that everything he said in public was going to explode. And fundamentally they did not understand the fundraising power of the Internet. Frankly, the Obama camp did. [Political consultant David] Axelrod did a brilliant job from early on.

Without that money [from Internet fundraising], [Obama] would not have won. In the end there is one golden rule in American politics: they who have the gold, rule. There’s a book by Thomas Ferguson called The Golden Rule and he observed that in every election either the leaders follow the money or the money follow the leaders.

That’s another thing that happens in these presidential campaigns. The last election’s conventional wisdom is the one that everyone talks about for the following election. Everyone thinks that the country is divided into red and blue and it’s going to be a real tight election in the fall. The underlying metrics in terms of political science indicate that it’s going to be a blowout for the Democrats. The only thing that’s going to keep it close, I think, is the race factor.

JD: How important will the candidates’ vice presidential selections be?

TD: Not too much. It will a little bit more important on the Democratic side. There is a rumor out there, on the wonderful Internet, that Obama is thinking about giving Al Gore a complete portfolio in terms of global warming and environmental issues. He might be interested. He’s quite clearly not interested in the power anymore; he didn’t run for president. But he might see that as the best position from which to advance his agenda on the environment. He has practically risen above politics at this point. In fact, that might be the reason he wouldn’t want to do it, but if Obama could manage to do it, it would be a brilliant choice. The problem is presidential nominees don’t typically make bold moves when choosing their vice-presidential candidates.

JD: Do you talk in class about your own political leanings?

TD: That is the interesting thing about teaching The American Presidency. I don’t disguise my own political leanings. That would be like Fox News pretending it’s impartial. But because I have to make all students welcome, my way of doing it is to let all voices be heard. It’s sort of like getting into a ring, with me as referee. Last time I taught the class, it got heated at times. That’s fine with me—heated disagreement helps the learning process a lot. No one can assume that everyone agrees with each other, so lazy assumptions get knocked down quickly.