Sociology and the Presidency

The current election season sparked me to reflect on the access (or lack thereof) to the ears of Presidents that sociologists have enjoyed over the past several decades.  It seems clear that sociologists’ Oval Office influence pales in comparison to the access wielded by economists.  Numerous economist-and-President pairings have become famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) – for instance, can you think of Arthur Laffer or Jude Wanniski without also thinking of Ronald Reagan?  If you’re searching for sociologists who have served as Presidential confidantes, the pickings are slimmer.  There is Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served as an advisor to Presidents of both parties and whose Washington connections helped ensure that his “Moynihan Report” on the African American family would become as famous (or – once again – infamous, depending on your point of view) as it did.

But the high-water mark of sociological influence on the Presidency may well have come in the summer of 1979.  The typical story of that period reads something like the following:  As the country grappled with high inflation and energy shortages, President Jimmy Carter delivered a speech diagnosing a national malaise, which fell flat and contributed to his eventual loss to Ronald Reagan.  In his 2009 book What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?  Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country, Ohio University Professor Kevin Mattson fills in some of the gaps in the story of the speech.  For starters, Carter never actually used the word “malaise.”  But beyond that, Mattson’s book illustrates the extent of sociological thinking’s influence on Carter in the weeks leading up to the speech.

In an attempt to take the pulse of the nation and investigate his hunch that the nation’s troubles ran deeper than long lines at gas stations, the President met with dozens of academics, religious leaders, political figures, and ordinary Americans, as well as his own pollsters and advisors.  I took particular interest in Mattson’s references to Carter’s meetings with Robert Bellah and Christopher Lasch.  Bellah, a sociologist from the Univeristy of California at Berkeley, advised Carter to speak uncomfortable truths to the public about the decay of the bonds that held them together.  Americans had once shared a sort of “national covenant” – a commitment to one another that transcended self-interest.  By the 1970s, Mattson describes Bellah as telling the President, this covenant had eroded into a “contract model” of society that facilitated the growth of narcissism.  This trend toward selfishness was further discussed in Carter’s conversations with Christopher Lasch.  While he was not a sociologist by trade, Lasch and his book The Culture of Narcissism, a surprise bestseller in 1979, have long received considerable attention in sociological circles.  Intriguingly, Mattson describes Lasch as cautioning Carter that a discussion of the need for sacrifice might fall on deaf ears in light of increasing public cynicism. 

Ultimately, on July 15th, 1979, Carter gave a speech in which the themes Bellah and Lasch had discussed figured prominently.  Carter appeared to hope that Lasch had been wrong about the way the public would react to a call for sacrifice on behalf of the common good.  The President spoke of a crisis of confidence that he saw sweeping the land and the renewed public commitments that would be needed to overcome it.  In other words, he exhibited more confidence in the ability of the American people to acknowledge and respond to Laschian concerns than did Lasch himself.  Among the President’s words were the following:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.  Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.  But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.  We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose” (quoted in Mattson 2009:  211).

So then what happened?  Another valuable contribution of Mattson’s book is its discrediting of the notion that the speech was an immediate disaster.  On the contrary, the public response was initially positive.  In time, however, a number of factors would contribute to the collapse of both Carter’s standing with the public and the resonance of his speech.  For one, Carter squandered much of the immediate momentum from the speech by orchestrating a purge of his Cabinet in the following days.  More fundamentally, however, the American public was unsure exactly how to go about addressing the crisis of confidence.  The most appealing response, offered by Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, proved to be the rejection of the entire concept of a decaying national covenant.  In Reagan’s eyes, according to Mattson, the American covenant required little in the way of sacrifice.  On the contrary, the pursuit of self-interest was to be celebrated and encouraged.

What lessons, then, do Carter’s speech and Mattson’s account of it hold for sociology?  I believe that the initially positive reaction to Carter’s speech suggests that a President can stand to gain from bringing sociology to the masses.  The juxtaposition of the positive response to the speech and Carter’s eventual loss to Reagan and his message of unabashed individualism points to a duality of American civic culture.  We value individualism, yet strive for something beyond ourselves. 

At the same time, we should also acknowledge that the variety of sociology that speaks of a “national covenant” is but one of many.  Who gets to define this national covenant?  Who has the right to try to change it?  It seems possible that the negotiation and maintenance of a national covenant could take place under the terms of those with the most power in our society – Whites, men, heterosexuals, and so forth.  The thicket of these debates is familiar terrain for sociologists, but the complexity is perhaps indicative of why Presidents have generally been reluctant to engage with the discipline.  Better to just tell everyone to go shopping.

How Sociology Explains How Soccer Explains the World

Like virtually any two influential social institutions, sport and academia have a knotty and multi-faceted relationship.  Despite popular assumptions that jocks and nerds inhabit mutually incomprehensible cultural worlds, there is a long tradition of academic attempts to grapple with the social significance of sport, and sociology boasts a thriving subfield devoted to the subject.  However, these academics’ engagements with sport are most often carried out in the context of their roles as scholars, rather than as “sports fans” per se.  Indeed, the very identity of the sports fan, rooted as it is in the word fanatic, seems difficult to reconcile with academic commitments to question dogmatic assumptions and pay heed to empirical evidence.  What empirical evidence could possibly exist to suggest that the devotion of attention and emotional investment to sports teams, particularly perennial losers like baseball’s Seattle Mariners or hockey’s St. Louis Blues, yields anything other than anguish and a monumental waste of time, money, and energy?  At least a life spent following the New York Yankees reaps the psychological reward of basking in the glory of championships at the rate of about two a decade.

Nevertheless, I can’t help noticing a conspicuous exception to this academic reluctance to engage in fandom when it comes to soccer.  The recent Euro 2012 tournament was another reminder of the genuine excitement many of my academic friends and acquaintances have for the sport.  I’m far from the first person to notice the affinity between the highly educated and the “beautiful game” (though every time I see that phrase applied to soccer, I am forced to conclude that the user has been cruelly denied the opportunity to witness the exquisite splendor of a fast break by the UNC basketball team).  In his 2004 book How Soccer Explains the World, Franklin Foer looks at soccer as a front in the culture wars.  Soccer fans, at least in the United States, are a worldly, cosmopolitan lot, while its detractors tend to be downscale believers in American exceptionalism whose distrust of globalization in general shines through in their dislike of soccer and of those who suggest that America take a cue from the rest of the world and embrace it.  It isn’t hard to pick out which side of that divide academics would want to line up on.

So it’s not without some serious cognitive dissonance that I announce to the world that I, an aspiring academic, a dutiful liberal, don’t particularly care for soccer.  I love football (as it is defined by Americans outside the ivory tower), basketball, and hockey and the North Carolina-based teams that play them, I love baseball even though North Carolina doesn’t have a major league team, and I love the basketball team at my alma mater of UNC Chapel Hill, but I just can’t muster enthusiasm for the sport that the rest of the world – and, more importantly for the social capital of a graduate student, the apparent majority of sports fans in academia – adores.

Realizing the sort of company one keeps by virtue of a disinterest in soccer is enough to provoke a near existential crisis in a young academic.  Foer’s book describes some of the more vociferous members of this rogue’s gallery.  Witness, for instance, the appalling homophobia of sports radio shock jock Jim Rome, whom Foer quotes as saying “My son is not playing soccer.  I will hand him ice skates and a shimmering sequined blouse before I hand him a soccer ball,” or the peculiar style of patriotism practiced by NFL quarterback-turned Congressman Jack Kemp, who argued against an American bid to host the 1994 World Cup by proclaiming “I think it is important for all those young out there, who someday hope to play real football, where you throw it and kick it and run with it and put in in your hands, a distinction should be made that football is democratic, capitalism, whereas soccer is a European socialist [sport].”

And so if these are stakes, whose side am I on?  I used to believe that my hatred of the Atlanta Falcons was enough to solidify my understanding of myself as a fundamentally good and decent person with a bright future.  (Didn’t Max Weber call hating the Falcons the most commonly accepted sign of eternal salvation among people who couldn’t commit to the Protestant work ethic?  Everyone needs a Plan B.)  Now I realize I must expand my horizons.  I must make a change.  And so I resolve now that as part of my broader system of preparation for a career in academia, I will apply the same level of dedication and diligence that I commit to studying for comprehensive exams and writing articles for publication toward acquiring a taste for soccer.  After all, if I ever have to make a good social impression at a reception following a job talk, I’ve begun to resign myself to the fact that no one is going to want to hear about the offensive line play of the Carolina Panthers.  But Ronaldo, on the other hand…

<Turns on soccer game.  Two minutes pass.>

Then again, forget it.  I’ll just go back to studying for comps.