My research focuses on political realism and early modern responses to religious enthusiasm and violence, the history of International Relations thought, and new methods of text analysis in political theory. I have three core projects, in addition to a number of stand-alone papers.
Project 1: Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times
My first project begins with an original observation. Three of history’s most important political realists—Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Hans Morgenthau—wrote during times in which powerful political actors thought that the world was ending. How did they respond to these apocalyptic expectations? How does their work look different when we read it in this context? What guidance might they offer for thinking about apocalyptic rhetoric in contemporary politics?
I address these questions in Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and two related articles, “Politics in Apocalyptic Times: Machiavelli’s Savonarolan Moment” (Journal of Politics, 2016) and “Salutary Fear: Hans Morgenthau and the Politics of Existential Crisis” (American Political Thought, 2017). I make three arguments. First, each thinker engaged in subtle and surprising strategies to respond to apocalypticism. Machiavelli and the early Morgenthau rejected apocalyptic thinking and insisted instead on a clear-eyed, tragic acceptance of the political condition. Hobbes and the later Morgenthau redirected apocalypticism, using its own rhetorical resources to combat its excesses.
Second, attending to the apocalyptic contexts in which these thinkers wrote casts their work in a new light. For instance, when we read Machiavelli alongside the Renaissance friar Girolamo Savonarola’s doomsday prophecies for Florence, the final chapter of The Prince starts to look less like an attempt to gain the favor of the Medici and more like an apocalyptic exhortation of despair and redemption. Finally, tracing these thinkers’ fears about the end of the world reveals the enduring appeal of apocalypticism, even for those most set on resisting it. Nonetheless, I argue that resisting it is often the best strategy. Apocalyptic thinking risks engendering political withdrawal, resignation, or zealotry.
Since its release in January, Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times has been reviewed very favorably in Political Theory, Contemporary Political Theory, Reading Religion (American Academy of Religion), and Perspectives on Politics (forthcoming).It has been the subject of a roundtable at the 2018 meeting of the American Political Science Association, and an online roundtable is planned for later this year at H-Diplo.The dissertation on which the book is based won the American Political Science Association’s Leo Strauss Award for the best dissertation in Political Philosophy.Adapted excerpts from the book have also appeared in Foreign Affairs (07/2016, 11/2016) and the New York Times and I have been interviewed about the book on National Public Radio.
Project 2: Political Realism
While my first project treats political realism historically and contextually, my second project approaches it conceptually and analytically. This project consists of three linked papers. First, in “The Case for Kinship: Political Realism and Classical Realism” (Politics Recovered, ed. Sleat, 2018), I show that political realists in contemporary political theory and classical realists in International Relations have the same core commitments. So, I argue that the former group ought to engage more deeply with the latter. There are important conceptual, analytic, and normative payoffs from such an engagement.
Second, in “Political Realism and the Realist Tradition” (Critical Review of Social and Political Philosophy, 2017; reprinted in Realism in Political Theory, eds. Rahul Sagar and Andrew Sabl, 2018), I make a methodological intervention in contemporary realist political theory. Contemporary political realists often appeal to a realist “tradition” stretching back to Thucydides in making the case for their approach. Yet there are methodological worries about such an appeal: almost none of the thinkers included in this “tradition” self-identified as realists, or sought to defend a realist doctrine. I argue that contemporary realists can (and should) accept these methodological worries about tradition-building and make more modest claims about their intellectual tradition.
“Political Realism and Moral Corruption” (European Journal of Political Theory, online 2016 and forthcoming in print) takes up a familiar criticism of political realism: that it is merely a rationalization of the status quo. I argue that this seemingly plausible criticism cannot stand. Many self-identified realists advocate progressive political projects and demonstrate a profound awareness of the problem of rationalization. For realists to become apologists for the status quo, they would need to take a more circuitous route. Drawing on empirical psychological research and classical realist thought, the paper maps one such route.
Project 3: Absolving God
My third project advances the work on religion in early modern political thought that I began in Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times. My second book, Absolving God: Thomas Hobbes’s Scriptural Politics (in progress), identifies and accounts for dramatic changes in Thomas Hobbes’s strategies of religious and scriptural argument across his three major political works—Elements of Law (1640), De Cive/On the Citizen (1642), and Leviathan (1651). While there is a growing literature on the importance of Hobbes’ religious arguments to his political and philosophical project, there has been virtually no work on the changes in the content and structure of these arguments over time.
This book accounts for three such changes—(1) Hobbes’s increasing focus on scriptural and religious questions, (2) his turn toward the Old Testament, and (3) his adoption of an increasingly multi-pronged argumentative strategy on religious questions. The paper “Mosaic Leviathan: Religion and Rhetoric in Hobbes’s Political Thought” (Hobbes on Politics and Religion, eds. Apeldoorn and Douglass, 2018) offers a succinct account for my argument about the second change. “Absolving God’s Laws: Thomas Hobbes’s Scriptural Strategies” (under review) sets out my argument about the third change. The paper “‘A Rhapsody of Heresies’: The Scriptural Politics of Hobbes’s On the Citizen” (for inclusion in Hobbes’s On the Citizen: A Critical Guide, eds. Douglass and Olsthoorn, under contract) addresses all three changes from Elements of Law to De Cive.
Absolving God makes three major contributions. First, it deepens our understanding of Hobbes by explaining the increasing centrality of his religious arguments for his political and philosophical project. Second, the book situates Hobbes within broader debates about appropriate responses to violent religious pluralism—debates that are as live today as they were in seventeenth-century England. Third, Absolving God innovates methodologically by using the tools of automated text analysis (e.g., topic modelling and meme tracking) to trace changes in the religious discourses of the popular pamphlets of seventeenth-century England. Except for some of my own collaborative work (see below), these tools have not been used systematically in the history of political thought.
In addition to my primary projects, I have three major stand-alone papers. First, in “Mirrors for Princes and Sultans: Advice on the Art of Governance in the Medieval Christian and Islamic Worlds” (Journal of Politics, forthcoming) Lisa Blaydes, Justin Grimmer, and I use automated text analysis to identify common themes in the medieval advice literature of Christian Europe and the Islamic world. We examine how emphases on these themes varies across the two regions and over time in ways that track political and ideational changes. To our knowledge, this is the first use of automated text analysis to isolate and track themes in the history of political thought. This work, along with one of the papers in Absolving God, was featured prominently in an Annual Review of Political Science piece on new methods in the history of political thought. The papers were singled out as part of an innovative emerging approach that takes traditional contextualist methods in “new, uncharted directions.”
Second, in “Tocqueville in Jacksonian Context: Expansionism and Discourses of American Indian Nomadism in Democracy in America” (Perspectives on Politics, 2017), Burke Hendrix and I challenge a conventional reading of Alexis de Tocqueville’s discussion of Native Americans. On this reading, Tocqueville thought that Native Americans were “doomed” to an inevitable extinction. We show that Tocqueville had a much more nuanced view of the politics of Indian Removal. Appreciating Tocqueville’s subtle analysis of “The Indian Question” gives us a better understanding of his text and of Jacksonian America.
Third, my paper “Wages of Fear? Toward Fearing Well about Climate Change” (Philosophy and Climate Change, eds. Budolfson, McPherson, and Plunkett, forthcoming) takes up a set of questions raised in the conclusion to my first book. Is cultivating fear about climate change morally acceptable? If so, how can we do this well? I argue that the climate change context is well-insulated from the standard concerns about a “politics of fear” and that Aristotle offers us a good model for how to cultivate fear responsibly.