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On the "desk": Sunstein on group polarization (1)

In addition to my “nightstand” reading, I am constantly looking for material for my classes and relevant to my research. There are certain “go to” writers who often provide interesting books or articles that I immediately give a “look see.” Two of the most notable on my list are Richard Posner and Cass Sunstein. Both are highly regarded “public intellectuals” as well as legal scholars with substantial identities in other fields: Posner (who happens to be a judge on the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals) is well known among economists, and Sunstein (who currently works at the White House for his former colleague) has an established reputation among political scientists and philosophers.

I have been reading Posner’s A Failure of Capitalism (more on that at some point in the future), but yesterday I received copies of Sunstein’s latest — among them Going to Extremes in which he offers his take on the propensity of group dynamics to generate extreme forms of behavior. What Sunstein accomplishes here is to put in readable form an empircially-based thesis about the a phenomenon (group polarization) that has some real world implications.

In the first chapter he reviews examples drawn from studies that he had participated in, and immediately I was taken by his ability to explain the logic and methodology of the research without having that overwhelm the topic — which already makes this a candidate for adoption in a number of class where such details are often a “turn-off” and distraction for students. But even as important, the range of applications — to US political, to judicial decisionmaking, to market behavior, to genocide (he happens to be married to Samantha Power of “Hillary is a monster” fame, an authority on genocide to whom the book is dedicated), to internet behavior, etc. — is impressive.

More thoughts to follow as I explore another couple of Sunstein’s latest titles….

August 26th, 2009 Posted by | books, political science | no comments

Sunstein for Attorney General…and/or Justice of Supreme Court

The CEO model of the US presidency implied in the unitary executive theory has become so ingrained in our governance psyche that it clearly shapes the  rhetoric of campaigns such as the one we have just been through. I cringe whenever I hear the cliche of choosing between the lesser of two evils, but often that is the case when it comes to the presidency. Both candidates tend to play to the biggest base of them all: a public that is blindly committed to the idea that we have (and should have) a White House-centered system.

I suspect I am far from the typical “liberal” in my commitment to an “anti-unitary” theory of executive power — and a view of the American constitutional system as Article I (Congress) centered. Whatever might be owed to the heroic ideal fostered by the Roosevelt (TR as well as FDR) presidencies, the past 8 years demonstrate the wisdom of a more “conservative” notion of US governance. (Damn the labels!)

[Interestingly, the individual perhaps most responsible for pushing the unitary theory in practice, David Addington (he of the soon-to-be-history Dick Cheney regime) claims to “not know” what it is — unless you ask him the right way. See]

For all the rhetoric of the Obama platform and campaign that implies a belief and commitment to the CEO model, I found flashes of a real understanding in some of his comments during the race that give me some hope of a commitment to bring some sanity and balance back into the separation of powers. His most direct response to issues raised in this regard are found in December 2007 interview: (Also see

The other indication that Obama may bring the practice of executive power back in line is his (alleged) close relationship with Cass Sunstein — an brilliant scholar/lawyer who has (along with Lawrence Lessig, of “Code” fame) provided us with the clearest analysis of the theory and its problematics (see for Sunstein blog post on issue).

Which makes me think that Cass Sunstein would make one hell of an Attorney General — if not a great Supreme Court Justice.

November 5th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | one comment