Politics & Policy

Political Science and the Big Uneasy

On gay marriage, it's political.

It may surprise some readers — even the political scientists — but the American Political Science Association is less, well, political than are a lot of other major associations in the humanities and social sciences.

Yes, APSA’s membership undoubtedly includes a great many more liberals than conservatives. But in the most recent issue of the National Association of Scholars’ quarterly Academic Questions, the editors reproduce resolutions of pious left-wing twaddle on the Iraq War by majorities of the American Sociological Association, the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Anthropological Association. It is difficult to imagine the APSA generating a similar afflatus of self-importance.

Perhaps this is due to the organization’s small-yet-critical mass of conservatives (or at least non-leftists), or perhaps to political scientists being professionally inclined to view politics in all its fullness, complexity, and intractability. But more likely, it’s the group’s constitution, institutional structure, and history.


For it was not ever thus. Four decades ago the APSA was nearly torn apart by the efforts of a New Left group calling itself the Caucus for a New Political Science, which exploited a constitution that lodged the power to elect officers in whoever showed up to the annual meeting. The caucus’s agenda was to bring to the discipline a “radically critical spirit” regarding the issues of the day — in other words, to embroil the APSA in political controversies (such as the Vietnam war) by taking stands enunciating the caucus’s belief in the “inherent weaknesses of the American political system,” which it was confident it knew how to improve. The caucus’s bid to take over APSA’s offices was defeated at the contentious 1969 annual meeting, and thereafter contested elections were decided through mail-in ballots of the whole membership, securing a broader voter base that would frustrate the designs of a tightly organized avant-garde. Future resolutions, and amendments to the constitution, were also essentially walled off from energetic assaults by on-the-spot factions at the annual meeting. But the caucus did win one victory, adding the final sentence (beginning with the word “But”) to the following passage from Article II, section 2 of the APSA constitution:

The Association as such is nonpartisan. It will not support political parties or candidates. It will not commit its members on questions of public policy nor take positions not immediately concerned with its direct purpose as stated above [to encourage the study of political science]. But the Association nonetheless actively encourages in its membership and its journals, research in and concern for significant contemporary political and social problems and policies, however controversial and subject to partisan discourse in the community at large these may be.

There were some caucus sympathizers who thought this sentence a feeble change, and who would have preferred to strike the preceding “will not commit” sentence. Certainly the caucus did not make it substantially easier to push APSA into improvident proclamations on the issues of the day. And since that time the caucus itself has become just another interest group within APSA, an encrustation of the establishment rather than an alternative to it. It’s like a worn-out pair of Birkenstocks in the closet, called simply the “New Political Science Section” of the APSA (one of 39 organized sections).

The caucus’s downward spiral does not mean that political folly hasn’t occasionally befallen APSA. In the 1970s, the governing bodies decided to move the 1979 meeting from Chicago to Washington, in a fit of pique over the Illinois legislature’s refusal to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The Hilton hotel chain, with which the APSA had contracted to host the Chicago meeting, responded with threats of legal action. A settlement with Hilton obliged the association to put its meetings only in Hilton hotels for the next ten years, which of course imposed some costs on APSA’s members — the officers could not take bids from competing hotels or locate the meeting in cities without downtown Hiltons. In that all-Hilton decade the APSA’s disapproval of Illinois was soon forgotten, as Chicago was the site of two annual meetings in the 1980s. It was a costly expression of high dudgeon.


Now the APSA looks about to do it again. Not over the Iraq war, like its colleagues in other disciplines, but over the issue of gay marriage.

In 2003, the association signed contracts with the Sheraton and Marriott hotel chains to hold the 2012 APSA meeting in New Orleans. (Yes, they do this that far ahead — there are only so many cities that will lodge upward of 7,000 political scientists within walking distance of meeting venues.) But the next year, the people of Louisiana passed an amendment constitutionalizing the state’s exclusive recognition of marriages between men and women (one of each, please).

Despite the fact that surveys of homosexuals indicate New Orleans is “gay-friendly” — and the fact that it’s the scene of an annual gay “Southern Decadence” event, coincidentally the same weekend as the APSA meeting — the agitation has begun to relocate the 2012 meeting on grounds that the state’s “homophobic” policies make Louisiana an “unjust regime” (to quote the association’s Committee on the Status of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual and Transgendered in the Profession, or LGBT Status Committee for short).

The only tangible form of harm anyone has cited that might come to any APSA member in New Orleans is this: If a member attending the meeting must go to a New Orleans hospital owing to a sudden injury or illness, and if that member is incapacitated and cannot communicate his own medical decisions to hospital personnel, and if that member’s same-sex partner is with him (or subsequently arrives) and wishes to make those decisions on his behalf, and if these partners have not executed and carried with them a legal document establishing the right of each to make decisions for the other under such circumstances, and if the hospital personnel decide to be hardheartedly strict under state law in the absence of such documentation, then a disrespect of their relationship with potentially terrible consequences will have occurred. All this would have happened just as easily before 2004 — gay marriage was already illegal; all the amendment did was forbid the courts from changing that by fiat.

The proper response to this is to repeat the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. But the extreme improbability of such a scenario, even if 8,000 political scientists attend, explains why the real argument has revolved around such terms as “recognition” and “respect” and “equal dignity.” The bottom line for the “no to NOLA” members is whether the APSA will take a stand against what they see as anti-gay bigotry, and do its bit to pressure states to liberalize their marriage laws — or at least unshackle their courts so that gay-marriage advocates can appeal to the activist impulse.

Twenty-six states constitutionally protect traditional marriage, and 19 others do so by statute (make that 18 since the California high court struck down the state’s statute). So the APSA has a dwindling number of possible annual-meeting venues, and might never meet again in the South.

The association’s executive council has before it two policy proposals to govern future siting decisions. The more moderate Proposal 1 promises that the APSA will disfavor cities where state law restricts recognition of same-sex unions and thereby “create[s] an unwelcoming environment for our members,” but would permit APSA decision-makers to make exceptions on a “case by case basis.” Proposal 2 would bar the annual meeting from ever being held in a state that “severely restricts the recognition of domestic relationships legally recognized in other jurisdictions.” Depending on how one reads “severely,” this could lock the APSA into meeting only in Boston or, depending on what happens this November, in San Francisco or another suitable California city — or in Canada, where it will meet in 2009.

Naturally there is a strong push among the LGBT group and its supporters for Proposal 2. But the APSA council should adopt neither, and the reason is contained in that constitution quoted above: “It will not commit its members on questions of public policy nor take positions not immediately concerned with its direct purpose.” If there is a hotly contested public policy in America today, it is gay marriage. Proponents are winning occasionally in the courts; opponents are more favored at the polls. But the noisiest members of APSA on this subject want to treat the question as closed in favor of gay marriage (or at least same-sex unions tantamount to marriage). No moral or religious reasons not to abandon the consensus of all of civilized history will be given a hearing by these members, or even be admitted to exist as a good-faith matter in the minds of intelligent, decent colleagues. For the advocates of a “welcome environment,” the welcome will not be complete until everyone else agrees with them or shuts up.

If APSA is to defy its constitution, it had better come close to unanimity. But even if it does so, it faces both legal and financial risk. In its contracts with the hotels, APSA has this for wiggle room:

if the government of the city in which the hotel is located establishes or enforces laws that, in the estimation of APSA, abridge the civil rights of any APSA member on the basis of gender, race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, marital status, physical handicap, disability, or religion. [Italics mine.]

In the debates among APSA members in recent weeks, much virtual ink has been spilled on the question of whether the “government of the city” language can extend to that of the state.. But even if it can, there is still an obvious problem: Recall that when APSA signed the contracts in 2003, it was already illegal for gays to marry in Louisiana. The organization still agreed to the contract, so it was transparently not its “estimation” that the “civil rights” of its members with respect to their “sexual orientation” were at risk. If APSA’s governing authorities pull out of New Orleans on these grounds, the hotel’s lawyers should take them to the cleaners.

That would upset me greatly, and not just as a long-time member whose dues would go up. I’ve never been to New Orleans, and I’ve been looking forward to the 2012 meeting, but I don’t think I want to go there ten years in a row.

Matthew J. Franck is professor and chairman of political science at Radford University, and he blogs at NRO’s Bench Memos.


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