A short recap of our trip to the Annual Meeting of the Political Science Section of the German Association for American Studies (GAAS).
This year, we went all the way to the south of Germany, to the University of Passau, to attend the Annual Meeting of the Political Science Section of the German Association for American Studies.
For those of you who do not know this conference, here is some information about this yearly event: The Political Science Section of the GAAS is a branch of the GAAS (in German: DGfA – Deutsche Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien). The association’s goal as an academic non-profit organization is to “support American Studies in Germany on an academic basis and to contribute to the consolidation of academic and cultural relations between Germany and the United States.” (DGfA 2018) The GAAS has been around for quite a while, it was founded in 1953. As of now, it is represented at virtually all universities and institutions that are concerned with American Studies. It is also part of the European Association for American Studies (EAAS) and closely related to the American Studies Association. (DGfA 2018) Each of the several disciplines related to American Studies has its own annual meeting, as well as an overall annual conference of the whole GAAS at changing locations throughout Germany. There is also a Postgraduate Forum (PGF) that focuses on young scholars’ research in American Studies and that organizes annual conferences and meetings, too. Moreover, there are several publications and other resources made available by the GAAS. You can find more information on their website.
The Annual Meeting of the Political Science Section, just like the grand annual meeting, is held at a different location every year. The topic of this year’s meeting at the University of Passau on Nov 15- 17, 2018 was Transformation of Democracy: Mobilization, Representation and Responsiveness. It was organized by Dr. Michael Oswald and Prof. Dr. Winand Gellner from the University of Passau, in cooperation with the Atlantische Akademie Rheinland Pfalz.
The keynote addresses focused on the not-so-subtle elephant in the room: President Trump and the Midterm Elections, which had taken place two weeks prior to the conference. Kerry L. Haynie from Duke University spoke on “The 2018 Election: The People Have Spoken. What Did They Say?,” Justin Vaughn from Boise State University talked about “Rethinking Presidential Greatness in the Age of Trump,” and Alisa Kessel from the University of Puget Sound provided insights into her thoughts on “Trump or Trumpism? American Political Thought and the Aesthetics of Trumpian Politics.”
Vaughn illustrated how ‘great’ presidents magnified the executive branch at the expense of the other branches of government, although the Constitution’s focus implies that Congress was intended as the strongest governmental branch. While experts in political science rank Trump as a ‘bad’ president, per definition he should be ‘great.’ It remains to be seen how history will remember the 45th president.
Alisa Kessel spoke on the idea of “Trumpism.” According to her, Trumpism is neither a new nor concise ideology but describes how President Trump rebrands things. Her ongoing research focuses on the Trump aesthetic, in which she sees some resemblances to fascist aesthetic.
Apart from the keynotes, scholars from all over Germany offered a wide range of topics focusing on recent American politics. The panels reflected this diversity. On Friday, the firstpanel was called A Crisis of Democracy, a Constitutional Crisis or Business as usual? In this panel, Christian Lammert from the John F. Kennedy Institute, FU Berlin talked about inequality, responsiveness and the viability of democratic rule in today’s America. Betsy Leimbigler, also from the JFKI, presented a first look on a topic that focuses on the responses to globalization. She looked at the anti-globalization protests from the political left in the past and tried to make sense of the current globalization backlash from the right. Jörg Hebenstreit from the University of Jena looked at whether the US could be defined as an oligarchy today. Loosely based on Aristotle, we can say that oligarchy means the rule by the (wealthy and powerful) few in the interest of the (wealthy and powerful) few. He presented different forms of oligarchy, like civil oligarchy, and whether they suited the US context. Not all too surprisingly, current US politics might, to some extent, be interpreted that way.
The second panel focused on Threats to Democracy. Curd Knüpfer (Weizenbaum Institute, Berlin) talked about his research on the populist right-wing’s digital news environment, “The other Breitbarts” so to say. For example, he described the news cycle between Fox & Friends, President Trump, and other right-wing media. He presented compelling evidence that Fox & Friends, a morning show on Fox News, puts issues on Trump’s agenda. Turning from news as a threat to democracy to the US economy, Natalie Rauscher (HCA, and co-author of this piece) spoke on “How Digital Technologies and the ‘Future of Work’ are Unsettling America.” Rauscher talked about the future of the American workforce, marked by further wage polarization, loss of jobs, and further insecurity fueled through technological progress and how these trends might be mitigated. Both Mike Cowburn (M.A. student at FU Berlin) and Philipp Adorf (University of Bonn) focused on American parties and partisan majorities. Cowburn argued that factions, especially those on the extreme right or left, play a much larger role in the party landscape today, looking specifically at election primaries in different states. Philipp Adorf, on the other hand, observed how the demographic transformation from Red vs. Blue to Black vs. White has shaped partisan majorities. He talked about how the Republican Party has taken over the southern vote since the 1960s, alluding to white voters by putting them and their interests first. However, the demographic development of the US could turn this around. When the US turns into a majority non-white state in a few decades, majorities in elections that are only based on the white vote will not be sustainable. Yet, change in the Republican Party is not to be expected in the near future.
On Saturday, there were two more panels, one focusing on Changes in Institutions and Policy, the other on Implications of the Ongoing Elite and Mass Polarization. Picking up the topic of Kessel’s keynote address, Maren Schäfer (HCA, and co-author of this piece) talked about “The Influence of Contemporary Populist Framing on the Anti-Authority Attitude in the United States.” Painting a rather dark picture of increasing elite and mass polarization, Schäfer observed that more and more politicians use the “us vs. them”-frame to negatively characterize opponents, thus potentially influencing public opinion and the political agenda.
Two talks by scholars researching the Supreme Court, Michael Dreyer (University of Jena) and Sebastian Dregger (KU Eichstätt-Ingolstadt), assured the audience that the newly elected conservative judges might not bring that much change to the Supreme Court after all. Over the years, the court has become more liberal, as society has generally also become more liberal. Although there are political leanings, much of the everyday decisions are very technical, not as headline-making, and are based on precedent. Precedents and the Constitution put a hold on any form of political ‘majority thinking’ as we would have it in a parliament. Turning towards another institution, Patrick Horst from the University of Bonn spoke on when and how Congress can impeach a president, seeing little likelihood for an impeachment (and even less for a conviction) of the current president.
Presentations by Guido Rohmann and Ana-Constantina Frost (both JFKI) dealt with changes in policies and their impact on Americans (or those living in the country). Rohmann, presenting his PhD project on “Geographies of Discontent,” was puzzled by anti-establishment voting in many Western democracies (e.g. UK, US, Germany) and the proximity of those events. This led him to pursue his project on public goods provision (or the lack thereof) and anti-establishment voting, which he will compare with regards to the US, the UK, and Germany.
Frost focused on a current policy, as well, giving the audience a closer look at “Central American Advocacy in Response to the Revocation of TPS.” Frost laid out that mobilization of immigrants has changed, with the trend going towards community mobilization. According to Frost, the recent lawsuit (US District Judge Edward Chen granted a preliminary injunction stopping the government from terminating temporary protected status) was important in raising awareness for the issue and will hopefully contribute to preventing the total revocation of TPS.
Being the year 2018, we also need to talk about the composition of this year’s conference. We certainly appreciated the effort to make the conference less male-dominated. There was at least one woman on each panel and one female keynote address in the form of Alisa Kessler. Most female contributors, however, were young scholars who are still pursuing their PhDs, the authors of this post being among them. We hope to see these female scholars, along with many new faces, at next years’ conferences where they would be very welcome.
In general, based on our personal experience, the conferences have always been edifying and fun, with experts and young scholars from all over Germany coming together, and the local organizers making an effort for everyone to feel welcome. The atmosphere has always been open and constructive. If the young scholars among you are looking for a great first conference experience: look no further than the annual GAAS meeting of political scientists!
The next conference of the Political Science Section of the GAAS in 2019 will take place at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. We are looking forward to welcoming you here.
DGfA.2018. “About the DGfA.” accessed Nov 19, 2018. https://dgfa.de/about/welcome-to-dgfa/.
Conference pictures by authors
Passauer Dom vom Fünferlsteg aus gesehen: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7f/Der_Passauer_Dom_vom_%22F%C3%BCnferlsteg%22_aus_gesehen.JPG; Urheber: High Contrast [CC BY 3.0 de], von Wikimedia Commons