APS News

Inside the Beltway

Caught in a Vise

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

When I read Gus Tyler’s obituary in The New York Times on June 12, it reminded me how easily political passions can poison the well of sensible dialog. Gus, a socialist, had devoted much of his 99 years to labor issues and was as uncompromising in his commitment to the cause as he was pugnacious.

I met him more than four decades ago, when he was vice president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and I was in my fifth year of graduate work at Yale. We were at an elegant dinner party in Kings Point, a posh suburb of New York City, and during cocktails I found myself standing next to Gus and his wife, Marie.

We got on famously until I casually mentioned that I had done fieldwork for New York Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller in his 1966 campaign and was then working as a policy advisor to New York Senator Jacob Javits. Gus’s eyes narrowed, his face turning crimson as he spat out the words, “The only good Republican is a dead one.” And with that he grabbed Marie’s elbow, and swiftly guided her away as they sought out more politically acceptable guests.

Scientists may not be union rabble-rousers in the mold of Gus Tyler, but many of them harbor the same instinctive distaste for Republicans, based upon my anecdotal experience. And a Pew Foundation poll carried out two years ago backs that up. It found that only six percent of scientists identified themselves as Republicans, while fifty-five percent called themselves Democrats.  Nine percent said they were conservative, while sixty-six percent said they were liberal or very liberal. Among the general public, I should note, conservatives outnumber liberals by a three to two margin.

Less than a month ago, a young physicist, who clearly matched the Pew profile, was sitting in my Washington office, gleeful over the recent upset Democrat Kathy Hochul had scored in a special election in New York’s 26th congressional district, a conservative bastion. “We only need to win 24 more seats in 2012 to reclaim control of the House,” he observed.

He paused and then quickly added, “That election will really help science.”

“Not so fast,” I said. “Democrats believe they won that election because Hochul’s Republican opponent, Jane Corwin, endorsed Paul Ryan’s House budget plan, including the Medicare cuts it contains. What Democrats are carrying away from Hochul’s win in the 26th is a 2012 road to electoral success based on fencing off Medicare in any deficit reduction plans.”

My new young acquaintance was a quick study. “So what you’re saying is Democrats will oppose cuts to Medicare and, of course, Social Security, and Republicans will oppose tax increases and serious reductions in defense spending.”

“That about sums it up,” I said.  “It leaves science caught in the vise of a reduced domestic discretionary budget and having to compete with all of the other popular programs it contains, many of them holding much higher priorities for Democrats and Republicans alike.”

As my visitor left, I could only hope he would recalibrate his political thinking. Polling has shown the public loves science, but the public also wants the federal government to begin to balance its books.

For Democrats, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid represent the legacy of the era of enlightened public policy. For Republicans, reducing taxes, cutting spending and downsizing government represent an overdue return to Reaganism.

It’s hard to see either party ceding ground. Both have lost substantial numbers who comprised the center of the political spectrum.

The Blue Dogs, a coalition of conservative House Democrats, who counted 54 members before the 2010 election, total only 26 today.

And moderates, who represented at least a quarter of the Republican conference in the House two decades ago, have all but vanished. As Joe Scarborough, the conservative co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” recently observed, there are two blocs of Republicans in the House of Representatives today: those who are followers of presidential candidate and House Tea Party Caucus leader, Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and those who are scared she will work to defeat them.

In this polarized climate it is stunning to me that so many scientists still remain disengaged from the public discourse. Both parties need to hear from the community and pronto.

This is what former House speaker, and now minority leader, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)–a big science booster–told me a few weeks ago in Washington: “I’m concerned the science community is resting on its laurels. It needs to get active now. Otherwise, I’m afraid great damage will be done.”



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