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Q&A with Michael Munger

- January 22, 2009

Michael Munger is a political scientist at Duke and was the Libertarian candidate for governor in my home state of North Carolina in 2008. With Kevin Grier (a.k.a. Angus), he blogs as Mungowitz at Kids Prefer Cheese — a blog far funnier than ours. (Note to self: find a way to create a “pimpin’” category.)

I mentioned his campaign in an early post, but have been remiss about following up. See the election results here. Professor Munger graciously agreed to answer some questions via email. The exchange is below the jump. Click to read more about his leftist-for-North-Carolina politics, his cat-sitter theory of voting behavior, his colonoscopy, and his man-crush on Dan Drezner.

JMS: As a political scientist, you know that third-party candidates are seriously disadvantaged in our electoral system. So why did you decide to run?

MM: Third parties have a hard time WINNING. But third parties can often influence the debate, and can even influence policy. It has happened many times, in documented political science research. Ideally, if our government would just do the right thing, LOTS of us would rather look at other things. It is only because government is so dysfunctional that it occupies so much of our time.

JMS: A related question: the literature on third-party candidates identifies a range of motives for such candidacies, most of which are not about winning office. Did you have other motives, such as policy-related motives?

MM: Of course. And just being there, in the televised debates, meant that I got a voice I couldn’t have had in any other way. Hundreds of thousands of people heard a different point of view. At the end of the final, big debate, televised statewide, I got to make the closing argument. And I said, “Look, I’m the only candidate on this platform who is FOR gay marriage, AGAINST capital punishment, and FOR treating immigrants like human beings. What’s wrong with our political system, when those are third party positions?” Remember, this was a state race. And there is NO political left in NC. I was the leftist. I took far more Democratic votes than Republican votes, according to exit polls. The left needs a voice, to remind people of their consciences.

JMS: Did being a political scientist give you any useful insights into campaigning? Is it possible to apply political science models and insights in the “real world”?

MM: Political scientists tend to think elections are “about” issues. I think elections are about cats. Specifically: would I let this [candidate] watch my cat for a week? Would I give him the key to my house? Would I trust her to feed ol’ Tabby, and change his litterbox? Issues are secondary. People vote for the person that they think they can trust.

JMS: What did you enjoy about campaigning? What did you not enjoy? Do you plan to write about the experience?

MM: I am going to write a book about the experience. The best part and the worst were the same: the travel. Fun to see all the different parts of the state. (We put nearly 20,000 miles on cars, over the two years of the campaign.) But hard to be away from home so much, with such a disrupted schedule. I did enjoy meeting so many new people.

JMS: You ran as a Libertarian. How do you view the future of the Libertarian Party and of libertarian ideas? I am thinking of Ron Paul’s candidacy as one context for answering that question. Another context is the rapidly expanding government intervention in the economy, which seems to have eclipsed any libertarian “moment” in terms of policy. If you want to address anything I said in my posts about libertarians, feel free.

MM: Will Rogers famously said, “I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Libertarians are no different. People are Libertarians for many different reasons, and with many different primary issues in mind. Ron Paul ran as a Republican. I’m a recovering Republican myself; I’m afraid I don’t see much hope in that direction. With the war, the increase in spending, increased regulation, and increased intrusiveness into the private lives of citizens, the Republicans have betrayed their roots. But I don’t see a connection between Ron Paul and Libertarian politics, I’m afraid.

The rapidly expanding government intervention in the economy is going to do more harm than good. I’m not saying that the Bush administration’s pandering to big business was a good thing, but this wild “regulate and bail out!” fervor is no better. We need to worry about the deficit. Bush ran the country into a bridge abutment, but I don’t see that paying huge sums of money to banks, when the banks won’t even say what they did with it, is making things much better.

I don’t see the Libertarian “moment” so much in terms of the economy. I see Libertarians trying to end the war, turn back government spying on privacy, and ending the insane war on drugs. Lots of Americans are with us on those things. And I hope that the new President moves us in that direction. But I am not very optimistic. The forces in favor of government controlling gay marriage and abusing immigrants are just too strong.

JMS: Whom did you support for President? Why? You can ignore this question if you’d rather not say.

MM: I’m happy to say so! I voted for Bob Barr, and nothing that has happened since the election has made me rethink that.

JMS: Do you plan to run for office again?

MM: Absolutely.

JMS: You’ve been blogging for a long time — almost 5 years, I think. In fact, I can’t think of any political scientist who’s been blogging for longer. (Maybe Dan Drezner? Or our own Henry Farrell.) Why do you do it?

MM: Drezner and Farrell, certainly. Probably some others. Drezner and I argued about this a bit, years ago.

I do it because it’s fun. I like to write about things I think are funny, and there is no way to do that in scholarly writing. I have a great time laughing. For example, most recently I decided that the best way to “celebrate” the inauguration was to have a colonoscopy. No way I could write like that in a journal article! [Ed. – See this post for an unfortunate update on the aborted colonoscopy.]

JMS: One reason we started The Monkey Cage is because we perceived a dearth of political science bloggers. Do you see political scientists as slow to warm to blogging? If so, why? Do you think there’s value in getting more political science into the blogosphere? Do you think the proliferation of economics blogs has been helpful for economics and/or economists?

MM: To be fair, my blog is almost an economics blog, rather than a poli sci blog. I don’t know if there are too few poli sci blogs. Most political scientologists are boring and even (gasp!) a little too self-involved to be good bloggers.

Drezner, on the other hand, has the perfect mindset. He is just serious enough, and has a heterodox moderate-right-libertarian political viewpoint that makes almost EVERYONE angry, and certainly makes everyone think. To my mind, Drezner is the best poli sci blogger, and always will be. A good poli sci blog has to focus on world affairs and trade, not just the U.S. (Yes, I am just saying this make Farrell mad. You’re cute, too, Henry. Really. Everybody says so).

JMS: Henry really is cute. Many thanks!