“Political Parties & U.S. Foreign Policy,” seemed to me a promising title for the lecture to be given by James Mann last week. I suppose that is why I was so disappointed by the cluttered, almost disconnected strings of information that I took notes on that night. Perhaps it is simply that I am not well versed enough on some of the examples he used (so I lost track of his line of thinking), but it appears as though Mr. Mann could have been more coherent, more informative, and more in depth.
Take for instance, the broad ideas that he chose to lead with. He asserted early on that arguments of parties “change over time and context.” Perhaps there were some members of the audience who thought party ideals and arguments were static, but at first glance it was an overly simple and unnecessary statement. His initial example, however, was easy enough to follow. He contrasted the Carter and Bush administrations in which Democrats and Republicans opposed each other on the exact same issue (argument: countries should not be forced into democracy vs. people of other nations are not fundamentally different from us and deserve the same freedoms), but switched places, the Republicans in the former being against democratizing Iran, and the Democrats in the latter against democratizing Iraq. Then, without much analysis, he switched to asking the seemingly naive question: “do parties really believe in their principles?” or use them “to get results”? Mann answered this somewhat predictably, saying that some principles remain the same and some “switch back and forth.” He briefly talked about one or two stereotypes of each party before launching into a series of historical references, attaching party trends here and there, that included topics such as grass roots democrats, peace dividends in the Cold War, Republicans in Vietnam, Ron Paul, and Gary Hart of the 1980’s. It all came a little fast to detect an overarching point, and a neat heading didn’t lend itself until he brought up the debate: “Is American power inherently virtuous?” at which point he claimed Republicans were more inclined to this belief and to not see abuses by the American government as an “occupying issue.” A relatively coherent discussion of Exceptionalism followed, the “city on the hill” theme was alluded to, and then ironically the lecture began to unravel again after he changed gears once more to talk about American decline.
From that point, some major assertions I was able to extract were the shifting of alliances are something “you can depend on,” and that American power and influence overseas tends to be overestimated by Republicans and underestimated by Democrats. Hardly a conclusion, Mann seems to confirm my interpretations by saying “I hope I’ve confused you,” implicitly attributing the manner of the lecture to a more “realistic” and “less self-righteous” analysis of our political parties. All in all, my impression of the author was that he was very amicable and intelligent, someone who knew a lot about what he was discussing, but could have improved his organization and clarity, as I walked away with no new/profound realizations.