Q&A with government professor Russell Muirhead

by Alexandra Steinberg | 9/29/16 1:00am

Growing up in “the shadow” of Manchester’s industrial mills, government professor and political theorist Russell Muirhead first learned about work, alongside the ethics of work. Muirhead went on to pursue an A.B. in government from Harvard University, as well as a second bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Balliol College at Oxford University. In 1987, he was named a Rhodes Scholar. In 1996, after completing a Ph.D. in government from Harvard, Muirhead then taught at multiple institutions including Williams College, Harvard and the University of Texas at Austin before coming to Dartmouth in 2009. Since joining the College’s faculty, Muirhead has produced multiple papers on topics including political parties, meaningful work in politics and finding the center on the political spectrum. This term, Muirhead is teaching government courses on political ideas, American political thought and ethics. The Dartmouth sat down with Muirhead to discuss political theories, “Harry Potter” and the current election cycle.

As a political theorist, why do you believe political theory is relevant to this election and to today’s society, and why should students care?

RM: Well, politics is about power — it’s about getting power and keeping power. It turns out that there is no way to get power and there’s no way to keep power without giving some account that explains why you should have it. That account is a kind of argument, an argument about political ideas, so there is no politics without political theory. Political theory is at the very core of getting power, keeping power, using power well. Whether you should care about it or not, I can’t say, maybe you’re interested in chemistry instead of politics, or music instead of politics, and I wouldn’t necessarily say that every single student has to care about political theory because there are lots of things that are interesting in this college, and there’s lots of interesting things to study, and you only have 35 classes to choose out of the 1700 or 1800 that are offered.

You came to Dartmouth in 2009 as the Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics. What brought you here?

RM: The skiing was probably the biggest thing. I’m addicted to skiing. I like to go skiing every day, and I found that more difficult in Austin, Texas than it has proved to be in Hanover.

What have you enjoyed most about your time here thus far, aside from skiing?

RM: I think I’ve probably enjoyed working with some friends of mine in the economics department on the Political Economy Project, of all the things I’ve done.

If you could design a new class to teach in the next few terms, what topics would it cover, and why do you think it would be an important class to teach?

RM: I have designed a new class in the last couple years called the “Morality of Capitalism,” and I suppose it’d be fun to develop that class and co-teach it with an economist […] Another class that I could imagine putting together that I’ve played with a little bit, but I’m not sure I ever will, would be called “The Political Theory of ‘Harry Potter’” because you are the “Harry Potter” generation, and there is a political theory in “Harry Potter.” The problem is I just don’t see how we’d read all of the “Harry Potter” books in one term as we would need to in order to have that class. It would be thousands of pages of “Harry Potter.”

I’ve never thought of the political theory in the books.

RM: Well, there is a regime, there’s a polity and there’s a political organization to the magic community. There’s a Ministry of Magic, which is absolutely central to the story, and there’s another leadership position, which is also quite influential — the head of Hogwarts and Dumbledore. And at times, Dumbledore is competing with the Ministry in order to have power over the future of the regime. There are all sorts of questions of justice that arise in the relationship between Muggles and magic people and between magic people and the elves, which is the question that stirs Hermione, in particular. So there’s a lot of politics in “Harry Potter.” In fact, I think “Harry Potter” has, more than any other purpose, a political purpose, a political and a moral purpose. It’s meant to make you think certain things about morality and politics, and the entertainment, I think, is just the thing that persuades you to submit yourself to the teaching.

And what would you say the core lesson is?

RM: Well, I’m going to leave that open for now, that’s why we have to have the class.

In looking at your page on the Dartmouth government department’s website, amid your expertise in various forms of politics and government, you also listed auto repair as a specialty. Can you elaborate on your experience with this and why you thought it important to list?

RM: Well, I think it’s kind of funny that everyone has a specialty and I don’t really even agree with the sub-sub-sub specialties that dominate the academy. So really I think it should just be enough to say, “I teach politics,” but we have to say specialties so I’m mocking it a little bit. But, on the other hand, I do like working on cars and I think it’s a kind of welcome counter-point between the kind of work that I do with books and writing and teaching.

Are there any intersections between politics and auto repair?

RM: I think there are many metaphorical connections one might make between a well-tuned engine and a well-ordered state.

What do you think about the campaigning process for the presidential election thus far? What can we learn from this election?

RM: Well, the campaign no doubt has been riveting, and in some sense that’s good, but part of the reason it’s been riveting is because the norms of civility that ordinarily make campaign speech somewhat boring have been completely and so straight-forwardly violated by Trump, in particular. And that, I think, as most people do, is a cause of real worry. People have learned from this campaign that it’s not unusual to hear a candidate allude to or celebrate violence, to hear a candidate suggest that American citizens who have a particular religious identity might leave the country and find themselves not be allowed back in. To talk about this kind of discrimination or violence so openly is a new thing and perhaps a profoundly corrosive thing. There are many more things that are maybe less auspicious that the campaign also suggests. One is that conservatism might be dead as a public philosophy. Donald Trump is not a conservative. He has some conservative positions, he has some liberal positions and he also has some positions that are neither liberal nor conservative. For a long time people have been saying in this country that what we need is the revival of centrism and in a way I think Donald Trump is showing the Republican party what centrism might look like.

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