Lana Stein | St. Louis Public Radio

Lana Stein

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.  She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.

voxefxtm | Flickr

As the calendar turns to 2015, the national political scene is already focusing on 2016. As politicians set up strategies and start to explore their options the baseline concerns are who will vote and how will they cast their ballots? To answer these questions, one must look at patterns. Generally speaking, the party that does not hold the presidency scores some gains. This time the gains were substantial enough to turn the Senate over to the Republicans and to keep that party dominant in statehouses across the country.

Screen shot from YouTube

Representative democracies are rarely models of gentility. Their elected officials, motivated by self-interest and a certain belief system, often see their views as right and proper and those of their opponents as wrong-headed and dangerous. The U.S. system, based on separation of powers and checks and balances at all levels, has necessitated a certain need for compromise and the importance of being able to govern. The result has usually been country above party -- although that did not eliminate some hyperbolic rhetoric or using the system for personal gain.

Eric Shinseki
Veterans Affairs photo | Wikipedia

Too often governmental scandals become couched in blaming an administrator for the problem. Critics seldom look at a bureaucratic organization for its failings or how bureaus channel the behavior of their employees. One element that should be examined is how success is judged.

In the case of the Veterans Administration and Gen. Eric Shinseki, we see staff at VA hospitals responding to how they would be evaluated. Such evaluations affect compensation and promotion and hence behavior. Employees also tend to go along to get along.

Shinseki sowed the seeds of his own demise.


Our world is never free of conflict. There are many “we” versus “they” imbroglios in which an exalted group lets pride lead to disdain, second-class status, or even violence against those outside the group. The lines of demarcation include race, ethnicity, religion or nationhood.

Woodrow Wilson
Harris & Ewing White House portrait

American governmental structure began to take on its present form during the Progressive Reform Era, 1900-1915. Progressives decried the waste and corruption in government at all levels and desired professional administration based on fixed principles.

Wikipedia | Santi di Tito

In common parlance, use of the adjective “Machiavellian” implies a ruthless practice of politics where ends justify means and maintenance of power is the ultimate goal. Yet, a careful reading of “The Prince” and “The Discourses” leads to a more nuanced view of this political philosopher.

He certainly reflected 15th century Italy, populated by city-states that competed with each other in many realms. Interestingly, Machiavelli’s ruminations on human nature and governance can help to illuminate the peculiar politics of early 21st century America, nationally and locally.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Too frequently those who examine public policy dwell on the creation of a law and then on results, usually quantifiable. How the law is implemented is overlooked. Yet, implementation may be key to policy success or failure.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - In recent years, various officials and civic denizens have debated changes to governmental organization in St. Louis. Beginning in 1949, there have been efforts to streamline the table of organization and end a weak mayor system. Major charter changes put before the voters all failed, save one. And we’ll get to that in a little bit. Other changes occurred because of state legislative action or referenda.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Recently Mayor Slay’s administration sought to implement a contract with Veolia to evaluate the city’s water department. After protest, in part for Veolia’s work on the West Bank for the Israeli government, the firm withdrew its bid to work for St. Louis. However, this disjuncture should not negate the role of evaluation in enhancing effectiveness in local government.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The deadlock in Washington, D.C., is the product of numerous factors. There is the irredentist Tea Party faction, Republican leaders fearful for their positions, and a president who has not emerged as a strong leader. One factor not considered at all by the press or the talk show pundits is the role of institutions in promoting gridlock and prohibiting bold action.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Politics has been passionate through most of our lifetimes. But those on different sides of issues have long been able to find a compromise or continue promoting their ideas until persuading a majority.

In the past few years, a portion of the electorate has made a radical turn. The tea party wing of the Republican Party seeks to limit government, and those it has elected would rather send government over the cliff than compromise with their fellow Republicans, let alone Democrats.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Politics changes less than we might think. Similar patterns reappear in U.S. history.

Today we have a tea party movement that has gained considerable leverage among Republicans. Its message is simplistic: less government, particularly at the federal level; no tax increases; pro-life; pro-gun.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The story of Detroit’s bankruptcy filing is likely to be a long-running saga. But how did it get there?

In 1950, Detroit was the nation’s 4th largest city and its industrial arsenal. The city’s stark decline may be unique but a look at its downward trajectory can provide lessons for other municipalities struggling with fiscal stress. Below are a number of factors that affected the Motor City.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: In accord with the behavioral tradition, fledgling social scientists are taught to distinguish between facts and values. Their scientific study is supposed to involve facts alone. Yet, this dichotomy may be neither real nor realistic.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Several months ago, James Gallagher of the Detroit Free Press visited St. Louis for two days. He attended a conference on “Saving the City,” hosted by the Saint Louis University Law School. Although Gallagher found some differences between St. Louis and Detroit, basically he called the Gateway City a mirror image of Motown.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: At a simpler place in time, a ruler could tell another sovereign not to move to troops to their river boundary or else. It would be understood that the ruler would respond with force and he would be able to clearly verify whether his diktat was not met.

In today’s world, the drawing of this type of red line is not wise. A U.S. president does not deal with Canada or Mexico. Rather, as a great power (the last one?), America tries to exert influence in many hemispheres for a wide variety of reasons.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Traditionally, we were taught to believe that those we elect to Congress either voted the views of their constituency or felt that the electorate selected them to choose the best alternatives for the polity. On some issues, voting one’s conscience might be an expected course of action.

More recently, scholars and pundits have posited other reasons for voting strategies. Self-interest becomes the key decider.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Sequestration is a draconian action designed to force federal budget cutting in the absence of agreement between the Congress and the president. Excepting the major entitlements, Social Security and Medicare, the sequester process takes 10 percent from the budgets of all departments, including defense.

These cuts, which began March 1, have been decried in many circles. Small airports are losing air traffic control; veterans will lose their student benefits. And that is only the beginning of the list.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Post-election analysis frequently addresses concepts that have been used in the past. Change is sometimes given short shrift. Before looking at the returns from the mayor’s race, a few points should be made about the campaign.

Certainly incumbent Francis Slay had a great deal more money than his challenger. That allowed him to put several warm and fuzzy ads on television and send out a number of mailers, some not so fuzzy. Yet, if money were always the determinant in a St. Louis race, Tom Villa would have been elected mayor in 1993.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 13, 2011 - In writing about human decision making, New York Times columnist David Brooks notes studies that demonstrate that people at times can be rational decision makers but are also influenced by emotion, memory and history. On a recent Hardball, Chris Matthews remarked that his father didn't vote his interests. A working man, he was a Republican. Some economists would purport that people choose who to vote for based on rational calculations of self-interest. Clearly, Matthews believed his father was an example to the contrary.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 4, 2011 -  Herman Cain is the latest example of someone in public life to be accused of sexual harassment. Details of his tribulations are growing but many still may have questions about what sexual harassment is and why is it significant.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 26, 2011 - The theme that the United States is an exceptional nation has reverberated in our culture -- and echoes on the campaign trail -- but what constitutes that exceptionalism is still open to question. To President Reagan, we are that "city on a hill," bringing liberty to the world.

Commentary: Too simple

Aug 14, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 14, 2011 - As a graduate student, I learned the fallacy of ascribing a single cause to a political phenomenon. Multiple factors interact to produce such things as presidential popularity or adoption of a particular law. Yet, many elected officials and a large group of citizenry are taken with simple explanations of very complex phenomena.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1, 2011 - In his examination of the nature of scientific inquiry, Thomas Kuhn postulated that research was always marked by a dominant paradigm that shapes the hypotheses tested and the methodology used to test them. The social sciences also work with dominant paradigms. For example, behavioralism has been the dominant mode in studying American politics and international relations since World War II. Political scientists have relied on large data sets and econometric techniques to explain political behavior.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 2, 2011 - Recently, drama critic Hilton Als wrote about Chekhov in The New Yorker. Als noted Chekhov's "subtle understanding of how unlikely people are to truly change, even when history dictates that they must."

Chekhov wrote of individuals and families but his understanding can also apply to institutions, elected officials and governments. Bureaucracies are loathe to shift their operating paradigms. The debate in Washington over the budget and the debt limit shows us two political parties, each wed to an ideology. Republicans refuse to consider tax increases; Democrats protect entitlements and social programs.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 15, 2011 - For centuries, philosophers have debated the nature of human beings and the form of governance best suited to ensure the general good. Today, in the United States, a chasm has developed between those on the left of the political spectrum and those on the right. That chasm is deepening. Language can be far from civil, and opponents' patriotism is subject to question.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 16, 2010 - Many Americans view the United States as an exceptional country, destined to spread freedom throughout the world, "the greatest country on God's green earth," in the words of a local DJ. Secondary school texts and countless officials and commentators delight in our unique institutions and unique opportunities.

Commentary: Fear itself

Oct 21, 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 21, 2010 - Many reporters and commentators who analyze the 2010 elections have remarked on an angry electorate. Those who adhere to one or another of the Tea Party factions are considered angry. So are independents who voted for Obama in 2008 but now look to the Republicans, and liberals who believe the president has not done enough. Anger is a powerful emotion, but I would vouchsafe that the electoral mood is also characterized by fear.

Under the separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution, activities not enumerated fall to the purview of the states. Such it has been with the jurisdiction of family law. Each state has enacted laws governing marriage, adoption, and sexual activity.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 29, 2008 - As Election Day 2008 came to a close, one thing Republicans and Democrats could rejoice in was an end to the relentless stream of negative political ads. As candidates at the national and state level vied for power, these TV and/or Internet spots illustrated Hobbes' dictum that life is nasty and brutish – if not, in this case, short.