The First Word: Jeff VanDenBerg

Jeff VanDenBerg is chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography

Those of us who study politics sometimes envy our colleagues in the physical sciences because of their ability to conduct research in controlled settings. Political scientists don’t have the equivalent of particle accelerators in physics and we can’t manipulate our subjects like adding catalysts in a chemistry experiment. Our topics include power, political behavior and values. And our “laboratory” is the same messy, constantly changing political world in which we live. But these same limitations are also why studying politics is so exciting.

This past semester, I had the good fortune to teach at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia on a Fulbright fellowship. My experiences living and working there were like dropping into a real world political science laboratory. Slovenia only emerged as an independent state in 1991 as part of the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia. Unlike its neighbors to the south (Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina), Slovenia’s independence was gained without much violence, and it quickly set about building a democratic republic. This meant writing a new constitution, establishing an electoral system, developing rule of law, and defining rights and liberties — all, more or less, from scratch.

Twenty years later, Slovenia is still in the midst of this grand experiment. Democracy is firmly rooted, but what made working there so interesting were the ongoing debates about basic political questions. With only two million people, there is an immediacy and personal connection to politics in Slovenia. On average, about 70 percent of Slovenes vote in national elections. In fact, I found that talking politics in the countless cafés lining the picturesque Ljubljanica River is as much of a national pastime as alpine skiing.

I also found this same degree of engagement in the university classroom. Students in my Contemporary International Issues course were animated by topics ranging from the civil war in Syria to the European currency crisis. Just like at Drury, the Slovenian students explored the relevance of politics to their own lives. And, also like Drury students, the Slovenian students understood that these classroom discussions were a place to try out ideas, debate policy options, and develop the skills necessary to improve their communities after college.

Perhaps because it is a new democracy, I saw in Slovenia a willingness to reflect on aspects of its political system that might offer some lessons for us in the U.S. We are living at a time when only 10 percent of Americans approve of our most representative national institution — the Congress (socialism and Paris Hilton were more popular than Congress in one “ABC News” poll this year). We are a participatory democracy, but typically just over half of eligible voters cast their ballots in presidential elections and far fewer in non-presidential years. There are no easy answers to these troubling trends, but they might at least point to the need for a renewed conversation about our own grand experiment of democracy.

Maybe it is time for us to get back to the political science laboratory. What better place is there to start than on the third floor of Burnham Hall?