Any other week, the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas—which killed 14 people, injured 200, and flattened 50 houses all in a town of under 3,000 people—would have dominated the news for days, with the explosion playing over and over again. Instead, most of us wound up watching the whole thing through YouTube videos. Just days earlier, bombs planted at the Boston Marathon had left the country on alert for terrorist attacks. The ensuing manhunt for the perpetrators ensured that a deadly explosion in the middle of Texas wouldn’t start the 10 o’clock news or lead Sunday talk-show coverage.
In March of 2012, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell was in trouble. The Republican-dominated state legislature had passed a measure that would require women seeking abortions in the early stages of pregnancy to have a transvaginal sonogram—a procedure in which a wand is inserted into the vagina. Pro-choice activists jumped on the bill, calling it “state-sanctioned rape.” The outrage went national, and the conservative governor with aspirations to higher office backed off. A version of the sonogram bill did make it into law, but it does not specifically require transvaginal sonograms, just the better-known “jelly on the belly” type.
When the financial crisis struck in 2008, nearly every state legislature was left contending with massive revenue shortfalls. Every state legislature, that is, except North Dakota’s. In 2009, while other states were slashing budgets, North Dakota enjoyed its largest surplus. All through the Great Recession, as credit dried up and middle-class Americans lost their homes, the conservative, rural state chugged along with a low foreclosure rate and abundant credit for entrepreneurs looking for loans.
Anyone who still saw the marijuana-reform movement as a hopeless collection of hippies and slackers got a reality check last November, when advocates successfully passed three major initiatives. Massachusetts became the 18th state to allow for medical marijuana and, most notably, Washington and Colorado became the first two states in the country to legalize recreational use of the drug. Now, less than five months later, a slew of pro-marijuana measures has been introduced in legislatures across the country. At least six have a good chance of passing. Seventeen states have bills to allow medical marijuana. Nine others would make the punishment for possession a fine rather than jail time.
This week, ten years after swearing to destroy Saddam Hussein and build democracy in Iraq, the United States took a step toward dismantling its investment in studying how democracy works. For more than 15 years, congressional Republicans have been trying to do away with federal funding for political-science research. Every time until now, political scientists successfully fought back. One reason they could: The pot designated for political science in the National Science Foundation was a tiny percentage of overall research money—about $10 million out of a $7 billion budget. That's less than two-tenths of a percent. But it's also the majority of total grant funding for political-science research. The field provides us with much of what we know about how democracies, including our own, function (and don't function). Political scientists study how and why opinions change on key issues, what motivates people to vote, and how public opinion influences elected officials. For a relatively small sum, the nation that loves to tout its democratic ideals has been funding projects to investigate how that democracy works (and doesn't).