Thursday, June 8, 2017

Teaching American Democracy at the American Studies Center - University of Warsaw (ASC-UW)

The Course: American Democracy and Critical Perspectives

Last Fall, I was fortunate enough to be selected as the first faculty member from Daemen College to participate in the exchange program with the American Studies Center of the University of Warsaw (ASC UW). The ASC is one of the largest American Studies departments in Europe offering interdisciplinary B.A., M.A. and postgraduate programs. As one ASC student explains, the “program extends into many areas of research including history, political science, literature studies, cultural studies, and social sciences which gives us a broad perspective on America and allows students to pursue their various interests.”

The American Studies Center (OSA-UW). 
Photo credit: Lisa Parshall
The course was designed to provide a critical view of American democracy with respect to the treatment of minority groups within the United States political system. I chose as our focus, the role of Native Americans and African-Americans—two groups with distinct, yet in some ways parallel experiences, as “the first and the forced” among our citizenry (Leiker, Warren, and Watkins 2007).
Felix Cohen, the foremost scholar on Federal Indian Policy, wrote in 1953: “Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith” (390). Cohen’s seminal work included the following observation by Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) director, John Collier:

“What sort of treatment dominant groups give to subject groups- how governments treat minorities– and how big countries treat little countries. This is a subject that comes down the centuries and never was it a more burning subject that in this year (1939). So this is the question: “How has our country treated its oldest and most persistent minority, the Indians. How has it treated them, and how is it treating them now?”
Felix S. Cohen, author of the Federal Handbook of Indian Law
Photo Credit:

The displacement of sovereign democratic nations in the founding of our own, and the subsequent treatment of Native Americans under federal policy, stands in stark contrast to American democratic ideals. So too has the treatment of African-Americans and the continued legacy of slavery and segregation presented a paradox for the celebration of American democracy. These brutal histories, and the contemporary realities faced by minority communities, are ongoing “problems” for a democratic political system that is founded upon the logic of equality and the promise of equal protection under law.

The design for the course was already ambitious, covering a blend of historical and contemporary issues impacting Native and African Americans as lens through which to view the effective functioning of the American political system. I had no idea in designing the course that events would conspire to make the spring semester one of the most dynamic times to be teaching a democracy course. The 2016 election and developments of the early Trump Administration provided twists that were both a challenge and an opportunity. Whatever one’s politics, the first few months of the Trump Administration have proven eventful in terms of the daily news cycle; and the functioning of the executive branch has been anything but routine.

Even as we talked about the fundamental elements of what constitutes a democracy, intelligence reports confirmed efforts at external election interference; the investigations of the House and Senate investigatory committees lurched on in fits and starts. Then came the firing of FBI director, James Comey, and Trump’s tweets about the possible existence of tape recorded conversations raised the specter of a brewing crises with shades of Watergate. Former National Intelligence Director, James Clapper, asserted that American institutions were under assault—internally as well as externally. With mounting pressures, an independent counsel was named. The ongoing litigation over Trump’s travel ban sparked more rhetoric challenging the independence and legitimacy of judiciary. The President’s first international trip revealed a United States out of accord with important democratic allies on climate and trade. On his return, Trump announced he was pulling the United States out of the Paris Treaty and there were renewed assertions of executive authority in the aftermath of two international terrorist attacks. In short, the basic foundations and function of our constitutional system of separated powers and checks and balances were on full display. 

The pace of developments germane to minority rights was no less spectacular. A course which started with a historical overview of the loss of Indian sovereignty and territory ended with the administration’s intention to privatize ownership of federal lands. Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court appointee and the first justice in a long while to have substantial experience with Native American legal issues (from his time on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals), assumed his seat on the Court. Our classroom discussion of the Standing Rock Protests coincided with news of another leak in the newly opened Dakota Access Pipeline. Our discussion of the long history of Civil Rights, concluded recent announcements by Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, that the Department of Justice was rescinding federal investigations of state, local, and tribal authority and proposed budget cuts in the civil rights divisions in the departments of labor and education. And our discussion of voting rights was topped off by the Supreme Court’s condemnation of the North Carolina redistricting efforts for using partisanship as a proxy for race with the surprising key vote of Justice Clarence Thomas.  

All of this was set, of course, within the context of global politics, the rise of national populist movements, and a re-examination of democratic trends. As one of the students noted, “the rise of nationalistic sentiments and populism in global politics,” makes understanding “American democracy’s place in the international arena even more important.” When and how do democracies backslide?  What are the harbingers of democratic dysfunction? 

Reflecting on the timing of the course and the importance of American studies more generally, one of the students writes:

The United States, being one of the hegemons of democracy is an important subject of study. I think it is a very good time to study American Democracy, because of what’s been happening in both Europe and in the United State over the last few years. As more and more people are starting to doubt democratic systems, they are turning towards nationalistic ideas. America exerts huge influence on the rest of the world: politically, economically, culturally. Some would even say that we may be witnessing a moment, when some democratic principles are being questioned or dismantled. People assume that democracy will last forever; however, it is not so simple.

The American Studies Center Sign
Photo Credit: Lisa Parshall

Unique Perspectives on American Democracy

The students at the OSA-American Studies Center are among the best and brightest, and it was a rare treat to teach a class to graduate students who brought a unique perspective on these issues of American Democracy. Impressively, my students were not just well-versed in basic American history and politics, they were avid consumers of American news, which greatly enhanced our discussions and allowed us to incorporate current events in our consideration of democratic processes.  

Each of the students in my class had chosen the elective because of their interest in minority rights in the United States. Their broader research interests, however, were much more varied and included African-American political thought, gender and queer studies, immigration, and international politics. For several students, the consideration of Native Americans’ place in the American Political system was of special interest. “Even though I have been enrolled in an American Studies program for four years now, I had never had a class on Native Americans and my knowledge about them was very limited.”  The absence of courses dedicated to Native American tribal sovereignty and federal Indian policy is common in the curriculum of American colleges and Universities as well. 

The perspective of the course was designed to be a critical one, providing students with “more diverse and nuanced perspectives, instead of an idealized picture” of a “utopian American democracy.” For one student, the class “confirmed my view that American Democracy (just like any other democracy) isn’t perfect and there are flaws, which are often overlooked in school or university curricula.... Thanks to the broadening of my knowledge concerning Native Americans and African Americans position within the American legal system, I was able to more fully understand both the causes and the consequences of contemporary inequalities.”

As importantly, I learned a great deal from the students regarding the state of liberal democracies in Europe and Poland, and of the impact of globalization and economic decline on minority rights. Their own interests sometimes took the course in unexpected, yet no less important directions as we expanded our lens to consider the place of women and the LGBT community in politics. Overall, the interaction of  such differing vantage points helps to “force both students and faculty to step out of their bubble and confront different ideas about America and American Democracy, and greatly contributes to academic development.”

The Exchange Program Between Daemen College and the ASC-UW

The exchange program was made possible through the efforts of Professor Andrew Wise, the Director of Daemen College’s Polish Studies program in collaboration with Dr. Sławomir Józefowicz, the International Mobility Coordinator at the ASC and with the support of ASC director, Dr. Grzegorz Kość.

In Fall 2017, Assistant Professor Dr. Karolina Krasuska will travel to Daemen where she will team-teach a course with Professor Andrew Wise: HST 206, Twentieth Century Europe. For faculty and students in the classroom, the exchange is “an opportunity to learn about the different culture of studying and teaching. Even though both Poland and the United States are considered part of the so-called Western world, there are some, maybe even considerable, differences in the approach to the subject of university studies. This is a chance to see differences in the curricula; the observations may serve as an inspiration as to what could be changed or differently implemented.”

As envisioned, students who take part in the exchange would not necessarily be limited to taking coursework in the ASC (University of Warsaw) or the Department of History and Political Science (Daemen College), but may potentially take classes in other disciplines of their specific academic interest. The respective departments might, in other words, serve as a home-base for students seeking to take coursework at the partner institution, allowing them to partake in the immersive experience which comes from studying abroad. “Above all else, the exchange is a chance to experience living and/or working in a foreign country: an experience that may prove to be essential in one’s future career and life.”

Łazienki Park (Park Łazienkowski) is one of many beautiful greenspaces in Warsaw.
Photo Credit: Lisa Parshall

American students traveling to Poland will discover a safe and comfortable experience.  There is no shortage of places to explore in Warsaw, including beautiful parks, cultural and educational museums, cafes, and clubs.  The Metro system is convenient and easy to navigate. And cities like Krakow and Gdansk are easily accessible by train.  ASC students advise our English-speaking students not to view language as a barrier: in Poland “most young people can speak English at least on a communicative level, so there’s nothing to worry about.”  They also add that “some Americans might have a stereotypical idea of Poland, since we are economically disadvantaged compared to the rest of the European Union,” but note “that we are not in poverty and our cities are comparable to big cities in Europe.”  The important thing is to “keep an open mind,” and “to take the opportunity to try to learn something about the Polish culture.”

Scenes Along the Royal Way in Old Town
Photo Credit: Lisa Parshall
Special thanks to the ASC-UW class for their contributions of thoughts and observations to the blog (and whose quotes are indicated by italics).

Daemen College students who are interested in learning more about the Polish Studies Program and/or the exchange opportunity with the ASC-UW should contact Dr. Andrew Wise, Professor of History, at  Daemen College’s Global Programs Office can help any answer questions you may have about studying abroad and can help provide logistical support.   


The First and the Forced: Essays on the Native American and African American Experience.  Edited by James N. Leiker, Kim Warren, and Barbara Watkins (2007).

The Federal Handbook of Indian Law, Felix S. Cohen (1942).

The Erosion of Indian Rights, Felix S. Cohen (1953).

Monday, April 24, 2017

Chair's Report on the State and Local Politics Section of the New York State Political Science Association’s 71st Annual Conference

Why State and Local Politics Matter

I love teaching State and Local Politics. As citizens, our lives are directly impacted by the choices made by our state and local elected officials.  Polling demonstrates that citizens feel closer to and have more trust in local governing bodies than they do in our national institutions.  

Yet, there is an unfortunate lack of civic knowledge and literacy particularly regarding politics at the state level.  For many people, their daily news intake is focused on national politics (and it is not as if there is nothing to see nowadays) or on the very local -- what’s happening in their own back yard or community.  For those living outside of the capital region, the regular workings of State government are not as regularly covered by the media they consume – and what is covered may be disproportionately focused on the dysfunctional or corrupt. 

I’ll admit it: when I teach state and local government, I often focus on the dysfunction as a hook for generating student interest.  In this respect, New York is the gift that just keeps on giving.  Following a lecture just after the 2009 state senate coup, I remember a non-major approaching me after class to pronounce the whole affair as “wicked interesting” and to express shock that so many New Yorkers (himself included) could be blissfully unaware of the high drama and low comedy playing out in our statehouse.  Another semester, the class kept busy resetting the “legislative arrest clock” (seeing how many consecutive days we could go without a legislative indictment or arrest).  It was fun—until it wasn’t; until the students, as citizens, realized that we all deserved better.  And that’s what makes “gawking at the train wreck” okay – if those of us who teach state and local politics can hook our audience with the “fun” in the sometimes spectacular dysfunction, we can then turn the corner into discussing the value of being civically literate regarding the role, function, and purpose of local government.  From that somewhat unhappy starting place, we can move on to more productive avenues of discussion, including the various paths for meaningful reform. 

Since 2009 (with a hiatus in 2015), I have had the privileged to serve as the chairperson of the State and Local Politics section of the New York State Political Science Association (NYSPSA).  I have never been more convinced of the vibrancy and importance of state and local governance, or of contributions made by the academic study of state and local affairs.  My role with this professional organization allows me to work with and learn from the best.

The State Constitutional Convention Question

At the 71st NYSPSA Conference (hosted by Nazareth College in Rochester, NY), New York State and Local Politics took center stage. Among the highlights of the Conference were presentations and a Keynote Roundtable discussion of the upcoming Constitutional Convention (or Con-Con) vote.  As detailed in a previous blogpost, in the upcoming general election (November 7, 2017), New York voters will have the chance to vote on the constitutionally mandated question of whether or not to convene a constitutional convention with the purpose of reviewing and proposing revisions to the New York State Constitution. My section of the conference bought together some of the leading experts on New York State politics and reform. 

A group of scholars from the Hugh I. Carey Institute for Governmental Reform (Wagner College) and the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) (Columbia Law School), presented their research on “Achieving Reform Through State Constitutional Change,” situating New York within a nationwide study of state constitutional reform efforts.   

Dr. Stephen Greenwald (left) leads a discussion following the presentation on Achieving Reform through State Constitutional Change. 

Dr. Robert Herbst provided an overview of the pros and cons of constitutional conventions, highlighting many of the positive, popular elements of New York’s Constitution which were the direct result of conventions past.  A contextual frame was provided by law professor and CAPI Director, Jennifer Rodgers, who detailed the group’s ongoing research:  a comparative analysis of state constitutional provisions. Their completed study (due out this summer) will serve as the basis for specific policy recommendations, would educate voters, and inform the convention delegates as they consider revision.  Dr. Stephen Greenwald emphasized how constitutional revision might enhance representative democracy by addressing existing dysfunctions, including the devolution of decision making autonomy of state legislators.

New York’s Broken Constitution (2016), 
co-authored by our presenters details
 issues with New York's current
 constitutional design.
Saturday’s plenary session was a roundtable presentation by some of the State’s other leading experts on New York State’s constitutional history. The discussion was moderated by Robert Bullock, Deputy Director of Operations at the Rockefeller Institute of Government (RIG). (A full biography of the Keynote Roundtable participants can be found here).

Christopher Bopst, one of the co-authors (along with Drs. Peter Galie and Gerald Benjamin) of New York’s Broken Constitution (2016), set up the context for the impending ballot question, by providing an overview of the constitution and the history past constitutional conventions. He emphasized the unique power held by New Yorkers (“We the People) to bypass the legislature and demand reform via the conventional ballot vote. The convention and delegate selection processes, including the external factors which influence public and organizational support and opposition, were addressed by Dr. Dullea (a participant in past conventions and an expert on convention politics).  Dr. Galie explained the arguments for and against reform, highlighting the ways in which a constitutional convention is uniquely different from politics “as usual.”

What did We Learn?

            There’s a need for reform:
Ø  New York’s Constitution dates back to 1894. The last time a convention comprehensively studied was 50 years ago (1967); the last time there was a systematic revision was 79 years ago (1938)
Ø  The speakers identified numerous issues for review and revision, including:
o   Public ethics and anti-corruption reform
o   Campaign Finance reform
o   Legislative reforms – to create a more participatory legislative process
o   Voting reforms – to promote turnout and ease restrictions on the right to vote
o   Criminal Justice Reforms
o   Education Policy Reforms
o   Judicial Reforms
o   Local government reform
Ø  The mandatory referendum is a rare opportunity for voters to bypass the legislature and demand review and revision on a multiplicity of issues that matter most to the voters.

There is Fear of a Convention:
Ø  An Unlimited Convention/no restrictions on the convention. Once convened, the argument goes, the delegates are without limit and might eliminate the good along with the bad.  Enviornmental groups, labor unions, and advocates for the needy are among the opposition groups who fear favorable provisions might be revised or excised.
Ø  The “same old politics” and political insiders will dominate the convention.
Ø  The convention will be costly. And  (as happened in 1967), proposed changes might get rejected in the end anyway.

There is a General Lack of Public Awareness:
Ø  For many New Yorkers, the state constitutional convention may not appear to be a viable path to reform simply because they do not know enough about the process.
Ø  Thus far, the State legislature has devoted few resources to educating the citizens about the upcoming ballot choice.  Most of the outside money that is being spent, is in opposition.
Ø  In past ballot votes, the plurality of voters declined to vote on the ballot question. 

Dr. Hank Dullea provided information on the Convention and Delegate Selection Process. He is the author of  Charter Revision in the Empire State: The Politics of New York's 1967 Constitutional Convention.

The presenters collectively provided a wealth of factual information and counter-arguments which would allow voters to make an informed choice come November.  Many of the anti-convention fears, they explained, are unfounded and reflect a misunderstanding of the rich history of the convention process:

Ø  There is, they remind us, much in the New York Constitution that is good – and most of which was added through the work of constitutional conventions.
Ø  Even in cases of “failed” conventions, as in 1967 when the voters rejected the proposed revisions, many of the conventions recommendations later made their way into the constitution through the legislative amendment process. 
Ø  What conventions offer is a unique opportunity for systematic study and recommendation – it is different than politics “as usual” because the particpants are broader, the mission is directed, and the work ultimately is subject to popular ratification.
Ø  The work of the convention will depend on the delegates selected – and this is process that is open to direct democratic participation. 
Ø  The costs of the convention will be offset by the potential benefits – for example, a consolidation of the judiciary and court systems alone could produce considerable savings.

A member of the audience, Dr. Michael Armato made the insightful observation that the outcome of the convention ballot question is likely to turn on the narrative and framing of the debate.  Dr. Galie described the eternal paradox for all reformers: if people believe that the “same old” of politics is bad, and reform is framed as the “same old” politics, then there is seemingly no solution: We are left to dwell on the dysfunction without ever turning the corner toward productive engagement and change. 

Dr. Sharon Murphy, the 2017 NYSPSA Program Chair, welcomes the audience to the Conference.  Dr. Murphy is a Professor of Political Science at Nazareth College, where the Conference was held. She is also a Daemen College alumna (BA, History and Government, 1980). 

How to Learn More    

The constitutional convention question is a unique opportunity for voters to compel study and review of the foundation of New York State's governance. The best way to make an informed decision on the ballot vote is to learn everything one can about the process. Sienna College's statewide polling has found that, although 69% of New York voters support calling a convention, more than two-thirds of them have not seen or read information on the upcoming vote.

The League of Women Voters, the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the Hugh I. Carey Institute for Governmental Reform, and the New York State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse are a few good places to start if you want to learn more.  On these sites you will find details on the history and work of New York's past constitutional conventions, as well as information, and links to editorials and news coverage of the upcoming “Con-Con” vote. 

You may also contact me directly at
Dr. Lisa Parshall
Chairperson, State and Local Politics, New York State Political Science Association

Daemen College Students:
State and Local Politics (PSC 114) will be offered in Fall 2017 (Thursday 4-6:45).  Dr. Parshall is the Section Chair for State and Local Politics for the New York State Political Science Association (NYPSA) and a Key Votes Advisor (New York State) for Project Vote Smart.  Her research interests include New York State constitutional history and local government consolidation/reform.  She has presented her research on village government consolidation at multiple conferences.  For more information on the course, please contact

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Farida Jalalzai: Why are there so few women in political leadership postitions?

Dr. Farida Jalalzai, the featured speaker for Women’s History Month, presented her research on women, gender, and politics in a March 28th event in the History & Politics Event Series. In her guest blog post below, Brianna Zichettella (junior, PSC), discusses Dr. Jalalzai’s presentation, “The Global Dimensions of Women’s Executive Leadership,” which examined the relationship between gender and political leadership in the international setting.

 Dr. Farida Jalalzai
By Brianna Zichettella (guest blogger)

In the wake of an American presidential election where a woman won the popular vote for the first time in American history, Farida Jalalzai’s research is especially relevant to both domestic and global politics. Her work focuses on the women who occupy and run for executive leadership positions such as prime minister or president. Despite significant increases in female leadership over the last sixty years, gender representation in executive positions is far from equal. According to Jalalzai’s statistics, there have been 144 female executive leaders between 1960, when the first female prime minister was elected, and 2017. Women are more likely to be prime ministers than presidents, but there are still 61% of countries have never had a female leader. Additionally, in 2017, only 6% of executive leaders are women.

There are many different factors that can influence a woman’s chances of becoming an executive leader. Jalalzai cites increased elite control, multi-party political systems, and liberal-leaning government as a few of the factors that tend to result in more female leadership. Regardless of the existence of these structures, many claim that more women do not hold executive leadership positions because women do not run.

Jalalzai disagrees. Her argument is that women run for executive office, but because many voters associate masculine traits with those positions, women are not often elected. For example, it is possible that more women tend to be prime ministers because the position emphasizes cooperation over the top-down hierarchical power structure of a presidency, and the role of a prime minister corresponds more closely with societal expectations for women’s’ behavior.

In addition to this, Jalalzai demonstrated that people tend to support the idea of a qualified female candidate from their party, but if pressed, those same people are more critical of women’s capabilities. Therefore, another reason for why more women are prime ministers could stem from the biases that people bring into the voting booth. Jalalzai’s research indicates that women are more successful in systems that do not choose executives through direct public input, such as prime minister positions that are chosen by a party rather than the voters.

Jalalzai argues that women candidates are often more qualified than their male counterparts. Despite this, they are held to higher standards and face more criticism about their appearance, speaking styles, and whether or not they smile. All three types of judgment can be seen in a lot of the criticism of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

For the American political system, Jalalzai argues that a shift in social opinion will need to occur for a woman to become president. She states that continuing political activism, such as the Women’s March on Washington, is central to illuminating the social, political, and economic inequality faced by women in America today.

Members of the History & Political Science Department faculty pose with guest speaker Farida Jalazai. L-R: Drs Jay Wendland, Aakriti Tandon, Lisa Parshall, Farida Jalazai, Penny Messinger, Elizabeth Campbell, & Andrew Wise. Missing from photo: Joseph Sankoh