Prof. Suzanne Mettler Ph.D. ’94, the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions in the Department of Government — and a leading scholar in American political institutions — was among 167 scholars, artists and scientists awarded a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation on April 16.
The Guggenheim Fellowship program is intended to help scholars work with as much creative freedom as possible. This year roughly 3,000 people applied. It provides grants to selected individuals for six to twelve months of time, which they can spend in any matter they deem necessary to their research. Since its establishment in 1925 to 2018, the fellowship has awarded $360 million to 18,000 individuals.
Since the 2016 presidential election, Mettler has been conducting research to evaluate the current state of American democracy. In 2017, she initiated the American Democracy Collaborative, a group of scholars aiming to evaluate the current state of American democracy from comparative and historical perspectives.
“There are certain conditions that can make democracy more vulnerable to backsliding. [Those include] high rates of political polarization, high economic inequality, growing racism or nativism and the rise of executive power,” Mettler summarized their recent findings.
Building on this research, Mettler is working on a book about earlier crises in American democracy with Prof. Robert Lieberman, political science at the John Hopkins University. She expects to use the Guggenheim Fellowship to finish this book.
The book will address earlier crises in American democracy from five historical periods — 1790s, 1850s, 1890s, 1930s and Watergate — and will use these periods to evaluate the current state of American democracy. From their most recent findings, Mettler has already found some troubling trends.
“[In the book] we find that various combinations of [the conditions for backsliding] have been present in earlier crisis of democracy in the United States,” Mettler told the Sun. “But we have never had all four of them together at the same time, as we do now.”
Other than her work regarding crises in democracy, Mettler also published a book last year called The Government-Citizen Disconnect, in which she examined the paradox of plummeting public trust of the government and growing dependency of Americans on the government.
“A major finding of the book is that nearly all Americans use government benefits … That’s true across income groups,” Mettler said.
Mettler studied both direct policies like Social Security and Medicare, as well as “invisible policies” that are subsidized through the tax code, like the home mortgage interest deduction.
Mettler found that people who benefitted from invisible policies were less likely to think the government did anything for them, she told The Sun. Additionally, she said that there were people who benefitted from visible policies but still disliked the government because they were resentful of programs they regarded as welfare.
To reinstate the connection between the government and citizens, Mettler believed that civic organizations could play a significant role in making people more aware of the policies they were using.
“Something like the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, is our best anti-poverty program today. And yet when people use it, they don’t think the government is doing anything for them,” said Mettler, “The policy can deliberately make it more apparent. [But] civic organizations can [also] communicate that as well.”
Moving forward, Mettler is also interested in analyzing the relationship between polarization and danger to democracy, as well as the growing rural-urban divide in the United States in a historical context.
“The best thing we [scholars] can do is to try to look at what we know from other countries and historical experiences to understand what level of crisis we are in, and also what are the ways people with some similar circumstances have tried to get out of them,” said Mettler.