Russian Hacking Scandal & Investigatory Options

by Katy J. Harriger, author of The Special Prosecutor in American Politics

As calls increase for independent investigation of the Russian hacking allegations, it is worth taking the time to look back at our modern American experience with such investigations. That experience tells us that it is important to think about the trade-offs involved in moving outside of the normal governmental process to gain independent investigation. In this post I’ll explore those trade-offs, based on my study of the use of special prosecutors in the 20th century.

While the use of special prosecutors is not unusual in state and local politics, until the Watergate scandal of the 1970’s they were a little used mechanism in national politics. Special prosecutors are used when there is a need for reassuring the public that allegations of wrongdoing by public officials are being investigated, and if necessary, prosecuted, without political bias. When calls for special prosecutors increase, it suggests a decline in elite and/or public confidence that regularly elected and appointed public officials can be trusted to impartially investigate allegations against high level officials, who may be either their superiors or people with whom they have close political or professional ties.

Before Watergate, special prosecutors had been used in national politics only during the infamous Tea Pot Dome Scandal of the 1920’s and during a less famous Tax Scandal during the Truman administration. After Watergate, however, because Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, there were at least 20 special prosecutor investigations between the time the act was passed and when it was allowed to expire in 1998. Arguably, only two of them were comparable to the Watergate scandal in that they implicated the president himself in the wrongdoing: the Iran-Contra scandal of Ronald Reagan’s second term and the Whitewater/Monica Lewinsky scandal during Bill Clinton’s second term. By the time Congress failed to renew the act both sides of the political aisle felt they had been unfairly harmed by the existence of the independent counsel provisions and decided the arrangement created more problems than it solved. Instead, the Department of Justice under Janet Reno promulgated a set of rules for determining when DOJ leadership should recuse itself from an investigation and under what circumstances they appoint an independent investigator (called special counsel). The one such appointment that we know about was for the investigation and prosecution of then V.P. Cheney’s chief of staff Scooter Libby, for his role in leaking the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

The election of 2016 brought the spotlight back to the special prosecutor. During the election Donald Trump promised that, if elected, he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate all the criminal activity he had accused Clinton of having committed. Indeed, he, his surrogates, and his supporters pre-judged the outcome of that investigation with the campaign chant “Lock her up!” Since Trump’s election, a new special prosecutor demand has arisen, this time from his critics concerned about troubling information about Russia’s attempt to use hacked material to sway the election against Clinton and Trump’s advisors’ meetings with Russian officials during this time.

The arguments for pressing for the appointment of a special prosecutor removed from direct control by politically interested officials are several and not to be easily dismissed:

  • The allegations involve multiple advisors and officials with direct connection to the President
  • The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is a close associate and seen as a partisan for the President
  • Public opinion polls show that a majority of those polled (made up of a very large majority of Democrats, a slight majority of Independents, and a quarter of Republicans) think some kind of investigation is needed either by Congress or a special prosecutor. This suggests a high level of skepticism about whether regular attorneys in the Department of Justice are sufficiently disinterested in the outcome of such an investigation.

But there are also arguments or questions that encourage caution before concluding that a special prosecutor is necessary in order to get to the bottom of the Russian hacking scandal:

  • Is there sufficient evidence that a crime was committed that justifies a criminal investigation with a prosecutor, a grand jury, and the possibility of a criminal trial? The burden of proof for criminal charges is high – responsible prosecutors always ask whether a jury is likely to convict on evidence that shows that the crime occurred “beyond a reasonable doubt”.   Refusal to prosecute doesn’t mean there is no reason to believe wrongdoing occurred. It just means we can’t meet the high standard to proof required of the prosecutor to gain conviction. The tradeoff involved in having a prosecutor in a situation like this is that inability to convict for violation of a criminal law can be interpreted as lack of evidence of wrongdoing, abuse of the public trust, or unethical conduct. These are not legal equivalents. Just because one is not a “criminal” does not mean one meets the ethical standards we desire for our public officials.
  • What is most important: public understanding of what happened during the election of 2016 or prosecution of the associates of the president who may have been complicit in the foreign attempt to influence the election? This is a judgment call but merits careful consideration. The tradeoff is between the greater public exposure to the evidence of what happened that can be generated through a congressional committee hearing or a special commission and the ability to prosecute specific criminal wrongdoing. It may well be that there is insufficient evidence to successfully prosecute anyone for violation of criminal laws against foreign attempts to influence elections, but that does not mean that there is insufficient evidence that there were inappropriate and unethical collaborations between Trump advisors and the Russians. Congressional committees and independent commissions are more likely to produce this kind of information. Then the burden is on voters to decide in the next election whether or not the evidence merits rejection or return of the incumbent implicated by the evidence.
  • Why not have both? In Watergate there was a special congressional investigation and a special prosecutor. While there was sometimes tensions between the two entities, one could argue that it was the combination of the two that led to both the president’s resignation and the prosecution of key actors in the break-in and cover-up.   But there is a counter example that must also be remembered. In the Iran-Contra scandal the decision by Congress to grant immunity in exchange for testimony to key actors in the affair made it extremely difficult for the special prosecutor to pursue his case. In the end, the convictions he gained in the Oliver North and John Poindexter cases were overturned on appeal because he was unable to prove that the prosecution had been untainted by the immunized testimony. Other special prosecutors who have been brought into a case after congressional investigations have begun, even when testimony has not been immunized, have reported that their investigation was made more difficult by the public airing of witness testimony.

All of these considerations suggest that simultaneous congressional hearings/investigations and special prosecutor investigations are difficult to accomplish without undermining the actual ability to prosecute should crimes be revealed. Watergate suggests it may be the best way to go, but Iran-Contra suggests that it should not be done unless Congress is willing to forgo use of its authority to immunize witnesses who could be key to prosecutions. But choosing one path over the other should be done only with a full consideration of the tradeoffs. One route maximizes the democratic process, using the normal checks and balances of the system, with the payoff usually being maximum information for the citizen about what happened. It works best when members of Congress find the will to cooperate in a bipartisan way.  If one party calls all the shots and it’s the party of the president, there is little likelihood that some significant swath of the public will accept the outcome. The other route tends to maximize independence (also interpreted as non-partisanship) and requires the norms of the criminal justice process be followed. Those being investigated have the protections of due process and the high standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” to protect them. If a prosecution happens, the public will get a full airing of the issues that relate to the criminal charges brought, but many aspects of the affair will be irrelevant in a criminal trial. If a special prosecutor decides not to indict, the public will have very little information on what happened and why because it is not the practice of prosecutors to provide detailed explanations for decisions not to prosecute.

Congress has begun its investigation and it will no doubt be watched closely by those suspicious of whether the party in power will follow the evidence that is harmful to the president and his associates. The Attorney General has recused himself and it remains to be seen how the Associate Attorney General will assess the situation and exercise his power to request a special counsel for a criminal investigation. Whether the public can be fully informed of the Russian interference with the election and there can be successful prosecution of those (if any) who broke criminal laws remains to be seen.

Stay tuned.

Katy J. Harriger is a Professor and Department Chair in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University


How the War Over Obamacare Can Erode American Democracy

by: Daniel Béland, Philip Rocco, and Alex Waddan, authors of Obamacare Wars

“I can’t answer that question.” That was House Speaker Paul Ryan’s response when asked how many people would lose insurance if his plan, the American Health Care Act, became law. Ryan’s reticence reflects the political reality Republicans presently face. After six years of promising to repeal and replace Obamacare, Republicans now control Congress, the White House, and a majority of state governments and so they need to deliver on their rhetoric.

Yet, as initially laid out, Ryan’s plan seems to invite rather than deflect political pain. The proposal for flat tax credits would likely increase premiums for many lower and middle income Americans, while providing tax relief for higher earners. The plan would make major cuts to Medicaid, which covers millions of low-income Americans while paying for roughly half of all live births and the vast majority of nursing home stays. Unsurprisingly, healthcare industry stakeholders from consumer groups to the American Medical Association oppose the plan.

So, why has Ryan led his party into supporting a plan that will only exacerbate the most unpopular aspects of health care provision? As our book Obamacare Wars suggests, the answer lies with how partisanship has trumped constructive efforts at bipartisan policy making. In March 2010, every Republican representative voted against passage of the ACA. After that, rather than helping fix problems with the law as it was rolled out, most Republicans, at both the federal and state level, aimed at undermining effective implementation of the reform.

For example, in Congress Republicans gutted the risk corridor program, designed to stabilize the individual market as insurers developed experience with covering new and costly populations of consumers. When premiums increased as a result, Republicans simply blamed Obamacare itself. As we detail in our book, in the states, many Republican Governors and state legislatures did not join with the Medicaid expansion and refused to establish their own state level insurance exchange.

Importantly, not all efforts at obstruction were successful. The Obama administration was quickly able to implement regulatory reforms, such as banning insurers from discriminating against consumers with pre-existing conditions and requiring insurers to cover dependent children up to the age of 26. The Ryan plan spares these especially popular provisions from the chopping block.

But just as partisanship largely shaped the ACA’s implementation, it now shapes the fight over repeal. In drafting their plan, House Republicans shut out policy expertise, even from conservative wonks like Avik Roy and James Capretta. Instead, they relied on party insiders, convinced that the only “problem” is the fact of the ACA’s initial passage, but there is irony in the Republican resolve. The ACA was modeled on ideas previously endorsed by conservatives and implemented in Massachusetts under Mitt Romney. This has left Republican leaders with few options they can brand as a distinctive “conservative” alternative. How do you privatize a law that already relies on private markets? How do you “devolve” a law that already relies heavily on action by state governments? The answer that Ryan proposes amounts mostly to spending cuts and upward redistribution that will hurt the Republicans’ own electoral base.

If politicians still fear electoral backlash for decisions that harm voters, the AHCA is unlikely to survive in its current form. Yet, the efforts to keep policy under wraps and to push through key decisions without extensive deliberation suggests that Ryan thinks policy effects could be decoupled from electoral punishment. Perhaps, when Republican voters experience sticker shock at the physician, Obamacare will still be blamed. This seems to be the outcome Ryan is gambling on. His willingness to throw the dice illustrates the intensely partisan context in which Obamacare developed. Republicans simply heaped all political blame for bad outcomes on Democrats. If they can continue to do so while running government at all levels, it will have ramifications beyond the ACA. Rather, it will mean that partisanship is capable of eroding the foundations of electoral democracy itself.

Daniel Béland, Philip Rocco, and Alex Waddan are the authors of Obamacare Wars: Federalism, State Politics, and the Affordable Care Act (University Press of Kansas, 2016).

A President and Predators

by Frank Van Nuys, author of Varmints and Victims; Predator Control in the American West

9780700621316From the distraught and possibly jaundiced perspective of folks on the left wing of the political spectrum, “emboldened” has become a go-to word to describe opponents on the right. Conservatives. White nationalists. Anti-Semites. Racists. Xenophobes. Misogynists. All have been emboldened by the triumph of Donald Trump, not to mention liberated by the presumptive death of “political correctness.” For environmentalists, the new administration’s determination to steamroll “job-killing” regulations and Congress’s moves to eliminate nettlesome rules, deconstruct the Environmental Protection Agency, and gut the Endangered Species Act signify other alarming ramifications of that which the emboldened are capable.

Apparently, opponents of decades-long programs to reintroduce and facilitate the recovery of predators are feeling emboldened as well. The introduction of legislation in January to remove federal protection for wolves in four states – Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Wyoming – underscored a potentially significant shift in the perpetual conflict over management of predators. Occurring just days before Trump’s inauguration, the bill may have reflected a sense of confidence on the part of farmers, ranchers, trappers, hunters, and others critical of wolf recovery that a Republican administration held considerable promise for transferring the bulk of wolf management decision-making from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to the affected states. In broader terms, elements intent on rolling back the government’s oversight in wildlife management and environmental regulation should feel a sense of giddy anticipation at the arrival of a new era of relaxed federal controls and states’ rights.

gray-wolf_01_ngsversion_1484679603276_adapt_676_1The Gray Wolf State Management Act of 2017 (H.R. 424 and S. 164) orders the Secretary of the Interior to reissue final rules issued in December 2011 for the Western Great Lakes, and in September 2012 for Wyoming, that had removed wolves from Endangered Species Act protection when not on federal properties subject to more focused protection regimes (such as national parks). Court challenges by wolf advocates had led to suspension of the delisting directives for those regions. Those advocates fear, and anti-wolf forces hope, that the administrative and legal stalemate can be broken and predator protections weakened, at least. By barring judicial review, the proposed legislation removes one of the key tactics utilized by wolf supporters since the first attempt to delist wolves in the Northern Rockies in 2002. That is nothing new, it turns out. Congress’s unilateral removal of protection for wolves in Idaho and Montana in April 2011, signed into law by President Barack Obama as part of a hard-fought compromise on enacting a budget and debt-relief package, also blocked judicial review.

Opponents of delisting claim wholesale destruction of wolf populations in the four states will certainly occur should the suspended rules be enacted, and they deplore the wolf hunting seasons that have taken place in Idaho and Montana, and, briefly, Wyoming, over the last several years. State game agencies maintain that it is in their interest to carefully monitor harvest levels to avoid relisting, and, frankly, population estimates in Idaho and Montana seem to bear that out. Idaho’s estimate of 786 wolves in 2015 represents an increase of close to 100 wolves over the 2012 estimate that I noted in Varmints and Victims. [ ,p. 70] Montana’s estimated wolf population is still in the hundreds while roughly 4,000 range across the western Great Lakes region. Wolf backers may be suspicious of game agencies’ statistics, but there is no serious reason to doubt their general accuracy. Wolf management plans agreed to by federal and state officials require the states in the Northern Rockies to maintain a population of at least 150 wolves and at least 15 breeding pairs, and both Idaho and Montana exceed those minimums by significant amounts. To this point, natural increase and migration appear to have prevented crashing wolf populations despite hundreds lost to hunters and trappers each year. Unless Congress or the Trump administration decide to target those benchmarks, wolves are in no immediate danger of being annihilated when placed under state management.

Not surprisingly, when stories about the harm being done or contemplated by either emboldened “wolf haters” or defensive “wolf lovers” come across our social media feeds or appear in newspapers, we react according to our political and environmental predilections. I am as guilty of that as anyone. Yet, as someone who has been cheered by the slow and steady recovery of mountain lions, grizzly bears, and wolves in parts of the West, I remain cautious about jumping to conclusions about what impacts the proposed legislation will actually have. Judging from the relatively stable populations in the Northern Rockies since wolf hunting began a few years ago, even the most emboldened among the animal’s detractors in Wyoming and the Great Lakes states should not look forward to revival of a wolf-free environment. On the other side, friends of wolves can be skeptical but not necessarily panicked by the current drift of policy. It’s a long game, this tussle over predators. Stay vigilant, certainly, but it is unlikely, at least in this corner of the constant adjusting to life in the Alice-in-Wonderland fog of Trump’s America, that the apocalypse is nigh.

The Gray Wolf State Management Act of 2017 has recently been subjected to some informational hearing activity, and agricultural interests are pressing for expedited passage to provide additional protection to livestock entering calving season. Once the bill emerges from committee and becomes the subject of additional debate, amendment, and eventual passage, emboldened combatants on both sides will be ready to rumble. At least a constitutional legislative process still exists and wolves cannot be simply outlawed and their extermination decreed from on high sans some semblance of public input. Although a dubious proposition to the most jaded among the nation’s beleaguered citizenry, the United States still operates under the rule of law. The most enduring challenge for opponents of delisting and wolf hunting is indeed embedded in the intent of the Endangered Species Act itself, a fact all sides in the predator debates need to acknowledge. The goal of achieving recovery for a listed population, then delisting and allowing states to manage that population was designed to achieve measurable outcomes that would satisfy most, if not all, stakeholders. This is, according to media accounts, what the Fish and Wildlife Service would like to see happen. As much as it must pain millions of Americans who love wolves and hate the idea of losing even one to trapping or hunting, this proposed legislation does not represent a particularly radical departure from the always contentious process of making policy for predator management.


Frank Van Nuys is professor of history at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology and author of Americanizing the West: Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship, 1890–1930.

The Tenacity of Hate

A submitted post by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, author of God Hates; Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right

The Sunday service at Westboro Baptist Church is over, and some members of the small, Topeka, Kansas-based church move on to music practice. They’re working on a hymn familiar to many Protestants this afternoon and later, some of the younger women will practice a parody of a pop song, its familiar words about love and romance replaced with a message about God’s hatred for America. Church members are quite talented, and the choir sounds good.

img_9363I hear it from the nursery that adjoins the church sanctuary, where some of the youngest participants in church life are playing.  As the women rehearse, I work through the theology that allows them to sing a hymn celebrating Christ’s redemptive death and a pop song celebrating the damnation of gay people in the same afternoon. A young mother is in the room, too, bouncing a baby in her arms. A blonde-haired cherub is showing me some toys and telling me about the Disney princesses she likes best in her sweet toddler voice. It turns out we share some favorites, and I join her in her play. Through the open door, and we hear her mother’s voice distinctly in the choir. It breaks the little girl’s concentration, but I assure her that her mama will be back soon, and we settle back into our game, pulling out new toys to join the scene we’ve already constructed. Behind the little noises we are making in our own world, the choir sings about God’s mercy for sinners. Above the crib, a sign declaring God’s hatred for gay people hangs in the place where, in a different church, there might be a painting of Jesus welcoming the little children or searching for a lost lamb.

westborobaptist4Rehearsal wraps up. The girl’s mother arrives and she excitedly tells her that we both love Ariel.  They are holding hands, her mother listening attentively. It’s a tender scene, one that informs, rather that disrupts, the church’s funeral picketing. They picket, explains one church member, because they love their own children. That love for their own children helps them understand the agony of a parent who is burying a child killed by an AIDS-related illness, an enemy IED, or a school shooter. It is their best qualities–their love for their families and their concern for other church members–that inspire what outsiders see as their most hateful activities: picketing funerals. The church sees such picketing as an act of love–albeit one almost universally seen as hate. “Love thy neighbor,” declares one church-produced video, means you must “rebuke” them when they sin. They would rather have you know this and hate them for it than for them to fail to tell you and thus fail in their duty to love you.

The advantage of ethnographic work on hate groups is that you cannot deny the humanity of groups members as you might be tempted to do if you are working with documents or statistics. The Institute of Hate Studies at Gonzaga University, with which I am affiliated, stresses that hate begins with enmification: constructing an enemy by denying their humanity–then, if you can, their right to exist, not just individually but in any form, and, finally, any trace of their existence. When working with hateful human subjects, you can’t emnify, even if you want to, because it is the humanity of the research participant that allows the research to happen. The work would be easier if the research subjects were less human. Their complexity can be exhausting and sometimes disorienting, requiring careful ethical consideration[1] and scholarly self-reflection on the difficulties.[2]

One challenge arises not from how different hate actors are from “the rest of us” but from how similar we are. They are like us not in our worst ways but in our best. They love their children, their friends, and their country–even if it’s not presently living up to their hopes. They see the world changing quickly in ways that are taking it farther from their ideals. They think changing it is possible through individual and collective action. They work hard and care deeply. Because they have good qualities–ones they may even use in the pursuit of wrong ends–we may be tempted by what Antonius C. G. M. Robben calls the “ethnographic seduction” to tell their stories in ways that affirm them and their causes.[3] Ethnographers of “unloved groups”[4] are not wrong, though, to report on the charity, kindness, hospitality, or generosity of people who also do awful things. Though we are right to be wary of confusing victims and perpetrators,[5] thick descriptions of unloved groups will almost always show joyful, tender, and gentle moments.

Much of our discussion about hateful acts focuses on how those committing them are unlike us, the good, moral, righteous people. We invoke psychology to suggest that they are abnormal and the legal system to label them criminals. We report on them as “outsiders” and “lone wolves.” We invoke “not all men” or “not all white people” or “not all Christians,” making them exceptional when they are, in fact, as Clara S. Lewis notes, “disturbingly conformist.”[6]  In short, we emnify the emnifiers, denying that our silences support misogyny or white supremacy or religiously-inspired violence, rewriting our national history to erase the hate on which the nation is (literally, through Indian removal and African enslavement) built, pretending that our collective romance with guns and violence is irrelevant to “lone wolf” actors, refusing to see hateful actions as an “expression of extended histories of often state-sponsored violence against minority groups,”[7] and ignoring the way that many of us benefit from the hateful acts that others commit. Violent white supremacists see themselves as saving white America, and, to be sure, all white people benefit from terrorism against people of color just as all men benefit from misogyny–even if they also suffer from it.

Our surprise that hate actors are also often generous, kind, and loving speaks to our own need to distinguish ourselves from them, to have an alibi for our “shallow understanding” and “appalling silence,”[8] and even, at times a scapegoat. But surprise is a privilege. Enslaved African Americans knew that slave traders, plantation overseers, and slave patrollers were often “good people”–to some people. KKK members from 1865 and onward have seen themselves as good patriots and defenders of women and children, not as racists and xenophobes-[9]-just as members of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant groups do today.[10] Those who have seen hatred up close–its targets, those who have left hate groups, scholars of hate studies–know that hate actors see themselves as heroes, not villains. Today, the narrative of white supremacy is less about genetics (how unpalatable!) and more about Crusaders saving civilization non-white, non-Christian forces–the same racist story that “won the West” and the 2016 presidential election.

Even as (or perhaps because?) those with firsthand memories of the Holocaust and pre-Civil Rights America pass away, the hatred inherent in Trumpism has inspired new conversations about the ability of seemingly ordinary people to commit extraordinary violence. In the days after Donald Trump’s executive order prohibiting the legal entrance of many foreign-born travelers and residents into the US but before its thorough rejection by a federal appeals court, low-level government employees followed through on orders with cruelty beyond what the rejected executive order required. A five year old American citizen returning from travel abroad was kept from his mother for more than four hours, despite ample forewarning from his senator that the child would be disembarking; parents of an infant being treated for burns in a US hospital were left stranded in Iraq as their baby headed to the United States; a breastfeeding infant—an American citizen—was kept separated from her mother. We wonder at the TSA agents who separate small children from parents and the ICE agents carting deathly ill undocumented immigrants from the hospital to detention centers, just as we wonder about National Guards opening firing on student protestors, Bull Connor’s police officers, the guards at Japanese internment camps, the white picnickers cutting the knuckles and toes off the lynched black man as souvenirs of their families’ day out, the soldiers opening fire at Wounded Knee, the Pinkertons killing labor union members, the auctioneer facilitating to end of a slave family. We didn’t need the Milgram experiment; history has shown us–and we’ve captured it in photos–that it is frighteningly easy to follow orders that inflict pain on others when you believe authorities command (or even simply permit) you do to so , whether those orders excite already-held prejudices or not. Yet, here we are, making laws to protect drivers who hit protestors and inviting transphobic collaborators to report trans people using the “wrong” bathroom. These are not laws to enforce public safety but efforts to make permissible violence that would otherwise be clearly immoral—a kind of Crypteia for our age.

We don’t need to be shocked at either the idea that hateful people are often also good or at the idea that good people will sometimes (and sometimes often) be hateful, especially in political contexts that reward them for it. Hate is not exceptional but functional, perhaps the most destructive tool in oppressive systems worked hard to maintain inequality, and many of us–even otherwise good people, people who love our children, people who sing in church choirs–will pick it up when we want to maintain our preferred supremacy.


Barrett-Fox is a professor of sociology at Arkansas State University. She is currently researching Act for America, “the nation’s largest nonprofit, non-partisan, grassroots national security organization.” You can follow her blog at



footnotes: [1]Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki, “Who’s Afraid of Oral History? Fifty Years of Debates and Anxiety about Ethics,” The Oral History Review 43, no. 2 (2016): 338-366.

[2] See, for example, Kathleen Blee, “White-Knuckle Research: Emotional Dynamics in Fieldwork with Racist Activists,” Qualitative Sociology 21 no. 4 (1998): 381-399; Journal of Contemporary Ethnography’s 2007 special issue on racist and far right groups, edited by Kathleen M. Blee (vol. 36, no. 2); Pete Simi and Robert Futrell, American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015); Fieldwork under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival, edited by Carolyn Nordstrom and Antonius C. G. M. Robben (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995); or Rebecca Barrett-Fox, “Anger and Compassion on the Picket Line: Ethnography and Emotion in the Study of Westboro Baptist Church,” Journal of Hate Studies 9, no. 11 (2010/2011), 11-32.

[3] Antonius C. G. M. Robben, “Ethnographic Seduction, Transference, and Resistance in Dialogues about Terror and Violence in Argentina,” Ethos 24, no. 1 (1996), 71-106.

[4] Nigel G. Fielding, “Mediating the Message: Affinity and Hostility in Research on Sensitive Topics,” in Researching Sensitive Topics, edited by Claire M. Renzetti and Raymond M. Lee (Newbury Park: Sage, 1993), 146-180.

[5] See, for example, “Similarities among Differences,” Martha K. Huggins and Marie-Louise Glebbeek’s introduction to their co-edited Women Fielding Danger: Negotiating Ethnographic Identities in Field Research (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 1-30.

[6] Clara S. Lewis Tough on Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crimes (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013): 85.

[7] Ibid., 60.

[8] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Signet, 2000), 73 & 74.

[9] Kelly J. Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. 

Are Public Lands for Sale?

by James R. Skillen, UPK author of Federal Ecosystem Management; Its Rise, Fall, and Afterlife (2015)

The 115th Congress began with housecleaning. After battling the Obama administration for years, the Republican majority anticipated a fast-moving legislative agenda supported by President Trump. They started by brushing aside rules they felt hindered legislative work and by wielding the Congressional Review Act against President Obama’s late regulations. Voters looked on with a sense of relief or consternation.

us_federal_land_agencies_svgPublic lands are certainly part of the Republican agenda, both as a target for deregulation and as a resource for increasing oil, gas, and coal development. But could there be something even more significant in the works? Could Republicans be planning a campaign to sell or give away millions of acres of federally owned land? One Guardian article warned on January 19 that “Republican lawmakers have quietly laid the foundation to give away Americans’ birthright.” Specifically, they revised House rules so that public land sales and transfers will be treated as “cost free” actions that do not require budgetary review or offsets. This means one less hurdle for wholesale public land disposal. Elevating these fears, Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced H.R. 621 on January 24 to sell 3.3 million acres of federal land to the states.

Has Chaffetz opened the floodgate of public land sales? If so, it would hardly constitute a political 9780700621279surprise. Western Republicans have criticized federal land ownership and management for decades, most famously in the Sagebrush Rebellion of the late 1970s and early 1980s. When Republicans took control of Congress is 1995, they proposed selling public lands to balance the budget. A number of state governments in the West repeatedly challenged the constitutionality of federal land ownership during the Obama administration. The occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 was only an extreme example of private opposition to federal land ownership. Republicans even made public land disposal part of the platform for the Republican National Convention, writing “Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.” Republicans have long called for public land sales, and their control of both Congress and the White House has given them an unparalleled opportunity to act.

While the possibility of large-scale public land sales is real, history suggests that it remains unlikely. While Republicans have shown unified frustration with federal land management, they do not have a unified alternative. Some, particularly Tea Party Republicans, genuinely want to see large areas of public lands transferred to the Western states, which would manage them for a higher rate of economic return. Others, including many currently calling for public land sales, are not actually interested in land ownership; they are interested in land use. Members of Congress will likely find that steps to shift power away from environmental organizations and toward resource development interests will please both groups of Republicans, while proposals to sell large areas of federal lands will divide their constituencies and undermine their support.

Mr. Chaffetz found this when he proposed selling 3.3 million acres of federal land and faced immediate, bipartisan opposition. And he should not have been surprised. Last summer President Trump’s nominee to head the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke, resigned from the committee drafting the Republican National Convention platform over its position on public land sales, and Donald Trump, Jr. has been outspoken in support of public lands remaining public. Zinke and Trump, Jr. represent millions of Republican outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen who benefit from and support federal land ownership. And their opposition to H.R. 621 is particularly striking when one considers that it focused primarily on scattered tracts, rather than large, contiguous units of public lands, and that the Clinton administration initially selected these lands. Indeed, opposition reflects the remarkable level of distrust that Democrats and Republicans alike have in Congress to serve the national interest through land sales and exchanges.

So it seems unlikely that Congress will liquidate federal land holdings. It is far more likely that the Republican majority will make significant changes in public land planning and management to reduce environmental regulation and increase resource production, striking down administrative processes and requirements that stand in their way. For example, Republicans in the House voted to repeal the Bureau of Land Management’s new planning rules, Planning 2.0, which were finalized at the end of the Obama administration. The new rules were driven, in part, by frustration with the cost and length of land use planning and the additional financial and temporal costs of subsequent litigation. To address these problems, the rules require greater public participation, including earlier and more frequent participation; they emphasize landscape-scale planning issues that transcend public land boundaries; they require BLM to take scientific measurements of resource baselines that will be used to assess management actions in the future; etc. These rules, the BLM hoped, would produce more robust plans that stand a better chance of surviving legal challenge and give land managers better footing when they make subsequent decisions.

As Republican critics understand correctly, though, Planning 2.0 will impact the current balance of power in public land planning. Though it is difficult to predict the exact impacts of Planning 2.0, two things seem clear. First, it would likely make participation more accurately reflective of diverse interests in the public lands, giving environmentalists and resource developers, local citizens and national organizations, a place at the table. Second, it would shift the focus of planning from land uses to land and resource conditions, and this is a shift that environmentalists have sought for decades. Because of these and other potential impacts, the Western Governors Association, the oil and gas industry, and the livestock industry all opposed Planning 2.0, arguing that it would unfairly privilege environmental protection and the voice of national organizations over economic development and the voice of local communities. As congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-WY) put it, Planning 2.0 “represents a federal power grab that ignores expert knowledge and undermines the ability of state and local governments to effectively manage resources and land use inside their own districts.”

If history is at all predictive, the most important battles waged by the Republican majority in Congress and the White House will not be over selling public land; they will be battles over public land planning and management. And it is here that they are most likely to build their legacy of reduced regulation and increased resource development.

pensiveskillenJames R. Skillen is assistant professor of environmental studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

New Release: Yellowstone and the Smithsonian

It was nothing more than a happy accident that lead Dr. Diane Smith to research the relationship between two iconic American institutions: Yellowstone National Park and the Smithsonian Institute. In fact, if not for an old box in the Yellowstone archives, Yellowstone and the Smithsonian; Center of Wildlife Conservation may not have been written.

yellowstone“I was in the Yellowstone archives, looking through boxes,” Dr. Smith explains. “I found an ordinary box that was full of records of animal shipments. It was absolutely fascinating. It listed animals, as if they were commodities being shipped from the park east to the Smithsonian, and to other national parks and zoos. There were elk and bison and bears – literally hundreds of animals. That completely changed how I looked at park management and conservation.”

Dr. Smith’s book explores the early relationship between Yellowstone National Park and the Smithsonian Institution as they tried to conserve American wildlife for future generations. By viewing Yellowstone’s history in relation to that of the Smithsonian, the National Museum, and ultimately the National Zoo, Yellowstone and the Smithsonian sheds new light on wildlife management in the park prior to the National Park Service, highlights the important role animals played in Yellowstone’s management and development and illustrates how visitors viewed and experienced the park.

“While much has been written about the history of Yellowstone and its wildlife,” Dr. Smith writes in the book’s introduction, “few have explored the story of how the cavalry transformed the park into a centralized source for museum and zoo animals and developed its own system for trapping, displaying, and shipping wildlife around the country and even around the world.”

The book explores the relationship that developed between the two institutions as the organizations tried to conserve American wildlife for future generations, with each becoming more like the other.

“These animal transfers are so clearly documented I am surprised no one has written about them before,” Dr. Smith says.

Congress established Yellowstone National Park in part to “provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park, and against their capture or destruction for the purposes of merchandise or profit.” Thus, from its founding, Yellowstone focused on protecting the great herds of bison-003animals that once roamed free in the American West. Just as Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century expected to see native wildlife preserved in both museums and zoos so, too, did travelers to Yellowstone assume threat they could view specimens of the American West in the Park. In essence, Yellowstone’s wildlife, sandwiched somewhere between domesticated and wild, served as living representatives of their species just as they would in any other museum or zoological park.

Dr. Smith explains that the shipping of animals out of Yellowstone became such a common occurrence that many of today’s national parks could, essentially, trace animal lineage back to Yellowstone.

“It’s not too strange to argue that,” Dr. Smith says with a laugh. “The sheer number of animals taken out of Yellowstone and sent to other parks and zoos is kind of staggering. To this day we continue to view Yellowstone National Park as a center of wildlife conservation, although no that wildlife faces different challenges.”

“As the national park with the highest profile, to this day Yellowstone inevitably ends up I the middle of contentious and politicized debates, ranging from the advisability of snowmobiles to the natural role of wildlife fire,” she writes in Yellowstone and the Smithsonian. “But many of the park’s greatest controversies still focus on the fate and treatment of Yellowstone wildlife – from bison to wolves – that continue to wander both into and out of the park. Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not Yellowstone National Park administrators can provide a center of conservation for some of the nation’s last free-ranging animals as part of a greater expanse of wildlife habitat in the American West, or must resort to managing a relatively small island of land as if it were just another national zoo.”



Diane Smith is a research historian with the USDA Forest Service and the author of Pictures from an Expedition and Letters from Yellowstone. She lives in Missoula, Montana.

Off the Shelf: The Iconography of Malcolm X

fullsizerenderPublished in 2003, Graeme Abernethy’s The Iconography of Malcolm X marks the first systematic examination of the images generated by this iconic cultural figure—images readily found on everything from T-shirts and hip-hop album covers to coffee mugs. Abernethy captures both the multiplicity and global import of a person who has been framed as both villain and hero, cast by mainstream media during his lifetime as the most feared man in American history, and elevated at his death as a heroic emblem of African American identity. As Abernethy shows, the resulting iconography of Malcolm X has shifted as profoundly as the American racial landscape itself.

Currently in Lagos, Nigeria, Abernethy answered questions about the book and how the iconography of Malcolm X continues to evolve.


What was the major draw to researching/writing about Malcolm X?

4c72f33fmalcolmxmalcolmx“It was Spike Lee’s Malcolm X that first made me aware of Malcolm X. The marketing for the film bled into popular culture when I was still very young. And I would say that as an even smaller child, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the NBA, the Jordan versus Bird video game, and baseball cards were my initial orientation in African American popular iconography. I grew up in suburban Canada, but I was a student of American popular culture, as most people are through sheer capitalist force. I later read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. It’s a special book — politically urgent and deeply personal. It contains so many elements: crime, jazz culture, mass media, religion, the civil rights movement, travel, the tragedy of his death. And what became most interesting to me when I found a copy of a first edition was the inclusion of photographs from Malcolm’s personal collection. I began studying them more deeply as a graduate student.”

How did your idea of Malcolm X change through the process of writing your book?

“While writing the book I did become wary of the Autobiography as a ‘pure’ or transparent document of Malcolm’s life. Alex Haley’s (and Malcolm’s own) interventions in the text — commercial, religious, political — became very apparent to me. I also became aware of how extensively Malcolm articulated a philosophy of visual self-representation and how knowingly he collaborated with various photographers at home and abroad. I think he was well ahead of his time. He was more than a celebrity or religious or political leader. His death elevated him to unique status. ‘Icon’ is the only word that describes him for me. I do think the word ‘icon’ is often misused in popular culture these days.”

What was the process through which Malcolm X became aware of the “power of imagery.” Has that idea manifested in modern politics?

“As a child, Malcolm X came to know the power of images to inspire and enthrall by seeing and sharing pictures of Marcus Garvey and Joe Louis. He illustrated his personal and political evolution during his ‘Detroit Red’ years by sending photographs of himself in his new zoot suits to his family and friends. He studied a picture of Elijah Muhammad while in prison, becoming aware of photography’s transfigurative associations. And the Nation of Islam taught its adherents about ‘tricknology,’ the pattern of deceptive and racially degrading images and ideas circulated during the Jim Crow years. Malcolm sought very actively to counter this through what he called the ‘science of imagery.”

How has America’s perception of Malcolm X changed in the last decade? Do you think it will adjust again under the current administration?

paozofv6ow809c8ssytiMalcolm’s voice clearly resonates in the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ movements — as do those of the Black Panthers, who were themselves inspired by Malcolm. I do anticipate Malcolm X resurfacing again and again in the coming years. His travel journals were recently published. But more than in old modes, I see him (and the culture generally) moving into newer expressions: social media, holograms, video games.”

What was your greatest challenge while writing the book?

“The Iconography of Malcolm X was a joy to write and working with the University Press of Kansas was a pleasure. The real challenges were those of time and discipline. I wanted the book to be faithful to the history of Malcolm’s life and cultural afterlife. His life and views were extremely complex.”

What has been your biggest satisfaction associated with the book?

“The book has been well received, which is satisfying. It has also led me in Malcolm’s footsteps to Nigeria, which he visited in 1964. I have been lecturing in Lagos for the past 4 years, learning much more about what Malcolm X celebrated: the cultural links between Africa and the Americas.”


Graeme Abernethy is a writer, researcher, and educator based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Meet the Author: Jill Abraham Hummer

First Ladies and American Women; In Politics and at Home

Dr. Jill Abraham Hummer learned to ‘Just Say No’ from the first lady of the United States. She won’t say that led her to write about book about First Ladies, but she does give Nancy Reagan some credit.

“I grew up in the 80’s,” Dr. Hummer says with a laugh. “Any child of the 80’s is familiar with Mrs. Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign. I don’t think that awareness of the first lady set me on this course, but I guess you could say that was my first real consciousness of the American First Lady.”

9780700623808Dr. Hummer’s intense knowledge and research into the role of the American First Lady is the basis of her highly anticipated book First Ladies and the American Women; In Politics and at Home.

Unelected, but expected to act as befits her “office,” the first lady has what Pat Nixon called “the hardest unpaid job in the world.” Michelle Obama championed military families with the program Joining Forces. Four decades earlier Pat Nixon traveled to Africa as the nation’s official representative. And nearly four decades before that, Lou Hoover took to the airwaves to solicit women’s help in unemployment relief. Each first lady has, in her way, been intimately linked with the roles, rights, and responsibilities of American women. Pursuing this connection, First Ladies and American Women reveals how each first lady from Lou Henry Hoover to Michelle Obama has reflected and responded to trends that marked and unified her time.

While Hummer was an undergraduate at Allegheny College she began to question the role of the First Lady. The ‘position’ is full of responsibility and attention, though its demands and expectations are completely undefined.

“I wanted to understand the strange and unique office of the first ladyship,” Dr. Hummer explains. “They are not elected, but the American people often look to them for leadership. It’s a strange study. ‘Why do they do anything?’ ‘Why does she do the things she does?’ I started asking those questions. My research really started to fascinate me.”

Hummer’s interest became the basis of her doctoral thesis while at the University of Virginia. “I spent a lot of time researching archives of presidential libraries,” Dr. Hummer says with a laugh.

Though First Ladies and American Women covers the same topic as her doctoral thesis, Hummer is quick to correct the idea that the book is an extension of her graduate work.

“It’s completely new research,” she says. “I didn’t ‘copy and paste’ a single sentence from my thesis for this book.”

first-ladiesHummer divides her narrative into three distinct epochs. In the first, stretching from Lou Hoover to Jacqueline Kennedy, she demonstrates the advent of women’s involvement in politics following women’s suffrage, as well as pressures on family stability during depression, war, and postwar uncertainty. Next comes the second wave of the feminist movement, from Lady Bird Johnson’s tenure through Rosalyn Carter’s, when equality and the politics of the personal issues prevailed. And finally we enter the charged political and partisan environment over women’s rights and the politics of motherhood in the wake of the conservative backlash against feminism after 1980, from Nancy Reagan to Michelle Obama.

“It’s clear, obviously, that no two First Ladies are the same,” she says. “I think the most important thing to consider when discussing the role and impact of each First Lady is that they are all products of the time and historical moment of their husband’s presidency. They each had unique situations and how they handled that environment is what the American people will use to view them.”

Throughout the book, Hummer explores how background, personality, ambitions, and her relationship to the president shaped each first lady’s response to women in society and to the broader political context in which each administration functioned—and how, in turn, these singular responses reflect the changing role of women in American society over nearly a century.

“It’s safe to say that the role and expectations of the American First Lady have grown along with society,” Hummer explains. “The last three First Ladies, prior to Melania Trump, have all had advanced degrees and have all lead high-profile roles in the administration. For example, the more public image of Michelle Obama was working in the White House garden and doing push-ups with Ellen. But she had major influence and political capitol with the Department of Agriculture. Obviously Hillary Clinton played a significant role in her husband’s administration, both socially and helping shape policy.”

Hummer notes that, while it’s traditional for each First Lady to champion a cause, a 1995 Hillary Clinton speech to the United Nations has set the benchmark for advocating for international women’s rights and human rights. In the speech, then First Lady Clinton makes the case for human rights.

“Laura Bush and Michelle Obama followed in her footsteps, and I think their own international women’s rights projects were savvy political choices, allowing them to advocate for women’s rights while also avoiding domestic U.S. feminism.”

Without prompting, Hummer volunteers an answer to the question she says she is most often asked.

“My two favorite first ladies are Pat Nixon and Lady Bird Johnson,” she says lightheartedly, before offering a solid critique of each. “Pat Nixon was very misunderstood. She came into the White House during the rise of the women’s movement. Clearly her husband’s presidency has cast a shadow on her as a First Lady, but I think people would be surprised to learn about some of the things she represented.”

Hummer also finds Lady Bird Johnson fascinating.

img_9384“She made the case for the ‘natural woman’ approach,” Hummer says. “Lady Bird made it clear that a women’s first priority is to take care of her family. But, she was adamant that women not check out of the process. She was a strong advocate for staying involved in your community and making sure your voice is heard. She understood the fatigue in raising a family, but she warned against letting that take you out of your larger community.”

As Melania Trump navigates the role of American First Lady, Hummer thinks she has a unique opportunity to help women.

“With her husband’s reputation as a business man, and her own business interests, I think she has the chance to advocate for women entrepreneurs,” Hummer says. “It would keep her interests close to home and correspond well with the administration’s ongoing dialogue. Will she do that? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”




Jill Abraham Hummer is Associate Professor of Political Science at Wilson College. Her research focuses on women and the presidency, and, in particular, American first ladies. She has written for White House Studies, The Journal of Political Science Education, and PS: Political Science and Politics, and her writing has also been featured in the Christian Science Monitor, Baltimore Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and The Hill

Off The Shelf: Hip-Hop Revolution

“Hip-hop has been the sonic backdrop to my life,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Ogbar from his Connecticut home. “Since I was 8 or 9 years old I can relate songs and albums to specific moments of my life. From middle school to playing baseball to college and even today, hip-hop is there. It’s the music of my life.”

img_9376In 2007, UPK published Hip-Hop Revolution; The Culture and Politics of Rap. In the groundbreaking book, Dr. Ogbar celebrates hip-hop and confronts the cult of authenticity that defines its essential character – that dictates how performers walk, talk, and express themselves artistically and also influences the consumer market. Hip-Hop Revolution is a balanced cultural history that looks past negative stereotypes of hip-hop as a monolith of hedonistic, unthinking noise to reveal its evolving positive role within American society.

Dr. Ogbar has established himself as one of the preeminent academic experts on the political and cultural evolution and influence of hip-hop music. He has been teaching a course on the topic for nearly 20 years at the University of Connecticut. In fact, the course is the 2nd longest continually taught course examining the cultural history of hip-hop and rap in American higher education.

“I was working on my dissertation about black power and I gave a talk at St. Lawrence University about the culture of hip-hop,” Dr. Ogbar explains. “An academic in the audience approached me and asked if I would be able to expand and elaborate on the talk for an article to be submitted to The Journal of Black Studies. That article kind of became a one-hit wonder for The Journal. That’s when Nancy Jackson (former acquisitions editor) at the University Press approached me about writing a prospectus for the book.”

Dr. Ogbar’s book examines the contextual concepts of black identify, misogyny, conflicts with authority and equality as address by MCs and rap culture from the late 1970’s to the early 2000s. He identifies changes in perception and production

“When hip-hop and rap emerged, politics and social commentary were not a big part of the content,” he explains. “In the late 70s and early 80s, Eric B, Big Daddy Kane and Run DMC – they didn’t address societal issues or the realities of being a young black man. Then there was a shift. Public Enemy and KRS-One and N.W.A. made entire records based on social problems and railing against violence and mass incarceration.”

Dr. Ogbar is clearly a passionate fan of hip-hop. Between making scholarly arguments comparing the ebb and flows of a growing democracy to the changes in popular rap, he quotes Snoop Dogg and Chuck D. He takes the study seriously, but is also a fan. The combination makes Hip-Hop Revolution a fascinating read.

220px-publicenemyittakesanationofmillionstoholdusback“Around 1988 two records came out that really captured the public,” Ogbar says. “Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ and N.W.A.’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ both exemplified the progressive black messages that emerged in hip-hop. Those records were engaged and tackled the problems of police brutality, violence, mass incarceration and the war on drugs.”

With the rise of ‘gangsta rap’ in the early and mid-1990s, Ogbar noticed a significant change.

“Those records with Dr. Dre and the Dogg Pound signified a 180-degree shift,” he says. “The idea of violence against other blacks and celebrating selling crack became the norm. Not to mention misogyny and perpetrating sexual assaults. That set the tone for popular hip-hop that persists today. The pressure is to be accepted or to be validated as a real rapper is often related lyrical content that emphasizes taking another brother out.”

In his book, Ogbar also explores problematic black images, including minstrelsy, hip-hop’s social milieu, and the artists’ own historical and political awareness. Ranging across the rap spectrum from the conscious hip-hop of Mos Def to the gangsta rap of 50 Cent to the “underground” sounds of Jurassic 5 and the Roots, he tracks the ongoing quest for a unique and credible voice to show how complex, contested, and malleable these codes of authenticity are. Most important, Ogbar persuasively challenges widely held notions that hip-hop is socially dangerous—to black youths in particular—by addressing the ways in which rappers critically view the popularity of crime-focused lyrics, the antisocial messages of their peers, and the volatile politics of the word “nigga.”

Ten years after it published, Dr. Ogbar is impressed, but not surprised, by the state of hip-hop. Since he wrote Hip-Hop Revolution, rappers have performed for and been promoted by the President of the United States and the most popular Broadway show in a generation boasts a hip-hop soundtrack.

“What’s most interesting to me is the great rise in activism even before the election,” Dr. Ogbar says. “Never before have protesters shut down major thoroughfares in major cities on this scale. These crowds are multi-racial. They are black and white and Hispanic and Native Americans. And the thing is, these crowds are listening to hip-hop. This music has become common ground. It has become a connecting force. That’s interesting.”

Hip-Hop Revolution: A Spotify Mixtape by Dr. Jeffrey Ogbar

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Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar is associate professor of history and director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity and edited the volume The Civil Rights Movement: Problems in American Civilization.

Rebuilding Trustworthy Politics in a Post-Truth Age

by Nadia Hilliard – UPK author of The Accountability State; US Federal Inspectors General and the Pursuit of Democratic Integrity (April, 2017)

It will not surprise American voters that the Oxford English Dictionary declared the 2016 Word of the Year to be “post-truth.” The term resonates with all sides of the American electorate who, confronted with “fake news” and “alternative facts,” have struggled to know which facts are trustworthy enough to ground their political opinions and decisions. Yet while partisanship is always a feature of politics, it is rare for partisan arguments to be decoupled so starkly from truth, and for citizens to be so untrusting of the media and public officials. To whom can voters – and elected officials – turn for legitimate facts and narratives in this era of post-truth politics?

accountability-stateInspectors General (IGs) have quietly operated under the radar in the federal bureaucracy since the late seventies, auditing, investigating, inspecting, and acting as in-house management consultants. They are presidential appointees, but are statutorily required to be non-partisan, and enjoy bipartisan support. They are, moreover, Congress’s “eyes and ears” in the executive branch, and depend on congressional approval for their funding. But they are also full members of their host departments, and report directly to their department head, and indirectly, to the president. This divided loyalty reinforces their independence from any single institutional or partisan commitment.

Although individual IGs have at times been mired in scandal (recall the VA IG’s travails in 2015, or the State Department’s disgraced IG in 2007), their profile and reputation has grown in recent decades, and they are cited more and more frequently and positively in the press. More important, the outcomes of their reviews are trusted by Congress, and serve as an alternative source of facts to the host of incompatible narratives bandied about in the blogosphere. They are respected on both sides of the aisle, providing political leaders as polarised as Darryl Issa (R-CA) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) with the rare opportunity to agree in their support of IG work.

Two major IG reviews are now underway to shed light on recent landmark political phenomena: FBI Director James Comey’s public suggestion of wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, and the administrative unfolding of the Trump administration’s Travel Ban. While IG reviews are certainly used to partisan ends after their release, the best reviews refrain from drawing conclusions as a prosecutor would.  For instance, State Department IG Steve Linick’s June 2016 review of Hillary Clinton’s emails provided informational fodder for both Clinton’s supporters and detractors: while some media outlets focused on the finding that Clinton had indeed used a private server extensively, and criticized her heavily, others emphasized that the review unearthed long-standing State Department practices of avoiding department servers, and that she had not in fact broken any laws or even contravened any departmental policies.

1024x1024Justice IG Michael Horowitz, spearheading the Comey review, and DHS IG John Roth, leading the Travel Ban review, have both earned their laurels as trusted, rigorous IGs. The Justice Department Office of Inspector General has long served as a beacon for rigorous, non-partisan reviews accepted and respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, and Horowitz’s reviews have followed in this tradition.  Similarly, the DHS OIG investigation of the implementation of the travel ban equally promises to establish an accurate picture of the administrative decisions shaping the roll out of the recent executive order.

Arguably, the IGs are very well poised to investigate both of these events. IGs focus on procedure and adherence to rules and norms above all, and in both cases, much at stake regards adherence to protocol. Whether or not Comey broke department policy by announcing his suspicions of Clinton is a question separate from the possible partisan motivations he might have had in doing so, just as the legal status of departmental compliance with Trump’s executive order and the subsequent nullificatory court order is distinct from the question of overall discriminatory intent. It is not the IGs’ role to prosecute, or otherwise to initiate a political battle. Their immediate procedural focus permits the IGs to avoid the wider political significance of the events when constructing the narrative, leaving the political battle in the hands of elected officials, the media, and citizens. This deserves to be emphasized: IGs are unelected bureaucrats, and their legitimacy depends on their commitment to non-partisan work.  The facts need to be established outside of the political fray before any political battle can begin. Yet the political significance of their reviews cannot be understated.

If these reviews are welcomed as trustworthy sources of fact, there remains a pressing political question, with grave importance for the integrity of the political system: will these investigations go through without undue interference? Murmurs that the Trump administration contacted a handful of IGs to ask for their resignation prior to his inauguration bubbled into a hearing, and ultimately led to the Trump team’s abandonment of these plans.  Traditionally – at least since their appearance in 1978, and not withstanding Reagan’s routinely criticized, comprehensive sacking of the first IG class in 1981 – new administrations do not replace entire cohorts of IGs.  Stability of office and continuity of leadership affect an IG’s capacity to provide robust, non-partisan oversight of federal departments and agencies.  Despite having made challenges to other political institutions designed to keep the executive in check, the Trump administration has thus far refrained from a wholesale ousting of the current IG class. Yet the possibility remains for the president to oust any single IG – especially ones who investigate sensitive topics or unearth unsavory details about his policies.

The first step in rebuilding a functional political system, including restoring a healthy and vibrant ideological center, is to have common institutions trusted by all. In this post-truth era, we need trusted public intermediaries who not only have unfettered, protected access to the sources of fact – the relevant documents and interviews – but also independence and a commitment to offering non-partisan narratives to Congress and the public.  It is rare in this polarized age for an institution to command such bipartisan support and enthusiasm, and even more so for specific individuals – such as Horowitz and Roth, among many others – to command the respect and praise of both sides of the aisle simultaneously. The IGs’ legitimacy provides a starting block for rebuilding a healthy politics.



Nadia Hilliard is Junior Research Fellow in politics at Balliol College, University of Oxford and a post-doctoral researcher at City University in London. Her book, The Accountability State; US Federal Inspectors General and the Pursuit of Democratic Integrity, will be released in April, 2017.