We met with Rutgers University’s Professor of Political Science, Dr. Alexander J. Motyl to talk about the messy 2020 American election, the proliferation of knowledge and so much more. Enjoy!
"One camp thinks Putin is a grandmaster at chess, and that he is powerful, strong and his regime is stable. The other side happens to think he is an amateur at checkers, and that his regime is weak and brittle."” – Dr. Alexander Motyl
Influential political scientist Dr. Alexander J. Motyl discusses the fall of the Soviet Union, weakness in modern Russia, the messy 2020 American election, the proliferation of knowledge, painting professionally, writing fiction, and how academics’ interests and careers may take a circuitous route. Professor of political science at Rutgers University, Dr. Motyl talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
See additional leaders in political science in our article
Top Influential Political Scientists Today
(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at AcademicInfluence.com and Wake Forest University. And today, we have the wonderful privilege of having another guest on our show, Professor Alexander Motyl, and he’s gonna tell us a little bit about how he got started in his career. So thank you, Professor, for being here. Go ahead.
Alexander Motyl: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real honour and I’m sure it’s going to be a pleasure as well. You had asked me about the beginnings. Let me... I’ll try to be as brief as I can... Well, not... Well, being somewhat long-winded, after all that’s expected of a professor. But to start with high school, in my junior and senior years in high school, I was absolutely fascinated by math. I took advanced calculus, I did the AP exam, and I was determined to be a mathematician. I then went to college and was very disillusioned with the mathematics I studied the first year. May have been because the teacher in high school was just very charismatic, and the one in college was not, may have been that the subject matter wasn’t as enticing. Who knows. But in any case, while in college, this is at Columbia, I became fascinated by their required core course called Contemporary Civilization, which required that one read everybody from Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and many other great books. And they simply blew me away. And that began tilting me away from mathematics and towards the social sciences and the humanities. But what really did the trick was that in the summer, after my first year in college, I read Leo Tolstoy ’s War and Peace.
Jed: The whole thing?
Alexander: And I was blown away by War and Peace. I had lots of time at that time, so I think I read it in about three weeks. So I read War and Peace. And the final chapter in War and Peace is about 80 pages, and it’s this very extensive disquisition by Tolstoy of his philosophy of history, which was a very determinist philosophy. But the point is, this was my first encounter with the philosophy of history, and that was a turning point. I dumped math and I became a history major.
That said [chuckle], the perturbations and the zigs and zags in my career continued. I mean, it’s not as if I then embarked on history and then ended up with political science. By my third year in college, I became disillusioned with history and decided I wanted to be a painter, so I took two years of very intensive art courses while completing a major in history, but I did a minor in painting.
Then I went to Europe, totally confused about what I wanted to do with my life. And because of that, I applied to the School of International Affairs at Columbia, which seemed like the sort of thing that one would do when one doesn’t know what one wants to do because it kind of trained you as a generalist in a whole bunch of stuff relating to international things. And at that point, I decided... Thus having spent half a year traipsing through Europe, I decided I wanted to be a foreign correspondent [chuckle], in Paris, no less.
Jed: Of course, where else?
Alexander: Of course, where else? [chuckle] And then after... And I did well. I did a minor in journalism at the School of International Affairs. I did quite well, but much to my chagrin, I discovered that to be a journalist in Paris, you first had to get a job in Albany, on the local desk, and that simply wasn’t for me. It was either a Paris correspondent or nothing at all [chuckle].
Anyway, that led to a... I finished the School of International Affairs, I got my Master’s, I still didn’t know what to do. And at that point, perhaps, fortunately, I took a one-year leave of absence and lived in Vienna, where I was then getting to know my wife-to-be. So I spent a year in Vienna and I wrote a certificate essay because I had also majored in something called the Institute for East-Central Europe. And I wrote this essay based on a lot of original research at the University of Vienna Library. And after coming back to the US, I managed to publish it as my first book. This was at the ripe young age of about 23 or 24.
Alexander: At that point, I was married, I had a book and I still didn’t know what to do with my life. So...
Jed: You were an academic, but you just didn’t know it.
Alexander: In my fourth year in college, I remember walking through the stacks at Columbia University, the library stacks, and there were rows and rows of dust-covered books, and I remember saying to myself... I remember this moment still, I said to myself, "I will never contribute to these dust-covered books." My famous last words. I’ve written some... Written and edited some 30 books. [chuckle] So I’ve contributed to the collection of dust very assiduously as well.
Jed: Oh, gosh.
Alexander: Anyway, and then I got married, I did a whole bunch of odd jobs, I worked a bit, I translated a lot, I edited a bit. None of this was going anywhere, and I realized that I needed to get serious. And I figured, well, I actually had a book. I was interested in the Soviet Union for a variety of reasons, part of them having to do with my ethnic background as a Ukrainian, and I thought, "Well, it makes sense to study Soviet studies," and that meant political science, and the book I had would presumably help me get into the programme. So I did, and that then got me onto the straight and narrow. Once I was on the PhD program, I finished my coursework in a couple of years, I did my dissertation in about a year. And then, in the October of 1984, I defended, got my PhD, and then, after that, began working in a variety of capacities at Columbia, and then eventually at Rutgers, where I am at the moment.
Jed: Well, we just got off with...
Alexander: Anyway, my career pattern is anything but linear.
Jed: Well, I tried to interrupt, I don’t know if you heard me say, but you, as an early person, were an academic, you just didn’t realise that you were an academic, and so you went off and got your PhD and... What school did you get your PhD at?
Alexander: At Columbia as well. I went to Columbia from beginning to end.
Jed: Oh, so you did everything... So why are you at Rutgers?
Alexander: Well, I also... I was also employed at Columbia for a while. I was... And for a number of years, I was on soft money in the political science department, this was in the 1980s. And then, starting in 1988 or ’89, through ’92, I was the director of something called this program, Soviet Nationality and Siberian Studies Program at the Harriman Institute. That’s the Institute that dealt with the... Well, Russia, originally, and then eventually with the entire Soviet Union.
So I did that for four years, which was a very exciting time to be involved with Soviet nationalities because that was the breakup of the Soviet Union. And I’d written my dissertation on this, so I actually knew a thing or two. And it was a field of study that was pretty much ignored by everybody, including Sovietologists, no one did nationalities, until the place started falling apart, and then suddenly, there I was, in the middle of the limelight, with the New York Times calling me for commentary. It was a bizarre moment.
Jed: Oh, that’s great. That is awesome. We just...
Alexander: By the way, [08:43] ____.
Jed: We just got off the phone with Henry Brady, at UC Berkeley, and he was just telling us about his own experience in the late 80s and 1991. He was at the Kremlin when it all came crashing down. So my mind is thinking about the things that you’re talking about right now, it’s fascinating. So that is... 1992 is when you moved to Rutgers then? Is that... They offered you a tenure track position?
Alexander: No, then I stayed on... Not quite. Not quite. I stayed on. After the four years as the director of this nationalities program, the money for that ran out, it was Mellon Foundation money, and I then got a job as the assistant director of the institute itself, and I stayed there from ’92 through January of ’99, excuse me, when I then got the position at Rutgers, as a tenured professor in their political science department.
Jed: So, at Columbia, you were never on a tenured track. You were always just a director of this institute or working at the institute?
Alexander: After I defended in ’84, I was on soft money from ’84 through about ’88, and then I actually had a real salary once the... Once this institute was set up, and then, of course, an even realer salary, so to speak, once I became associate director.
Jed: So what made you wanna leave Columbia? You’d been there for your entire academic career, and you were making real money, so what was the attraction of going to Rutgers?
Alexander: Well, two things. One is the salary Rutgers offered was significantly larger.
Jed: Okay. Well, that helps.
Alexander: But the kicker was that Rutgers offered me tenure.
Jed: Okay. So you couldn’t lose your job...
Alexander: They offered me a tenured position. Yeah, and Columbia, I was... From ’92 through ’99, I was an administrator, and it was pretty... I could probably have stayed there until retirement, but that said, a tenured position is a tenured position, and it obviously gave me an opportunity not just to cater to the wishes of my colleagues, but to express my own wishes.
Jed: Well, I think that’s a good place to turn the interview away from your career, starting from when you were in high school ’til today, and talk about exactly what do you do. You talk about how now you don’t have to just cater to the wishes of your colleagues, you can express your own views.
What are your views? What kinds of things are you talking about these days?
Alexander: Well, the courses... You mean in terms of courses, or more generally?
Jed: No, you just got finished saying that now that you’re a tenured professor, you don’t have to cater to people’s wishes, you can express your own desires. What kinds of things do you like expressing?
Alexander: Well, amongst other things, let me start at... One of the things that I’ve been able to do, or two of the things that I’ve been able to do since moving to Rutgers is to pursue two other passions, because I do have this academic dimension and I’ve continued to be active within that, both writing books and articles and blogs and commentary, and all sorts of things along those lines, and again, primarily about the former Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine, sometimes Poland, Belarus, and places like that, but essentially, I focus on that part of the world, but in addition to that, I’ve been able to develop my interest in painting.
Remember, I did minor in painting. I took four semesters of very intensive artwork when I was an undergraduate at Columbia, and I was able to return to painting in the mid 90s, so that was still when I was at Columbia, but I began to pursue that with a passion, increasingly, in the 90s. And then, after coming to Rutgers, I was able to pursue that even more. And I’ve been able to pursue that not just as a hobby, but in a semi-professional capacity. I have an agent, I’ve had exhibits, I occasionally even sell things. I could never live off this, of course, but nevertheless, it’s more than just a Sunday kind of hobby. Somewhere between... Is more than a hobby, but not quite professional, obviously. So it’s been that. And at the same time, I’ve been able, since the mid to late 1990s, to pursue another passion, and that is to engage in fiction writing.
Jed: Oh, wow.
Alexander: And at this point, yes, I have nine novels that I’ve written and published, with small presses, to be sure, but nevertheless, I published them. I have four more in the works. Since three years ago, I even have an agent who’s based in London, and she’s trying to place these novels with real presses, as opposed to small presses, with varying degrees of success thus far, but nevertheless.
So, I have these three parallel careers, if you like. I do the fiction writing, I do the research and academic writing, and then I do painting, and things like that, and all three of them are pretty much equally important to my sense of self, to put it in those terms.
Jed: Well, we had a lovely conversation with Arthur Kleinman this morning, and one of the three things he advised us was not to limit yourself and not to let people tell you, "Oh well, you can’t do both of those things, or you can’t do with all three of those things." He was of the opinion that you can, if it brings you joy, do whatever... However many things you want to do, and you’re living proof that that works pretty well.
"We've become all enamored of interdisciplinary studies, and every administration, every university talks about the importance of interdisciplinarity. And the more they talk… the less people do it."” – …
Alexander: It works, and it’s not just the fact that it gives you joy, and it obviously does. It gives you joy, pleasure, satisfaction, and everything else, it doesn’t give you any money, by the way, but it certainly does all those other things, but what’s important about it is that it also... It helps you understand what a discipline is. We’ve become all enamored of interdisciplinary studies, and every administration, every university talks about the importance of interdisciplinarity. And the more they talk, this at least is my impression, the less people do it. And I think part of the reason is that it’s really very hard to merge, for instance, physics, as in your case, with political science, and make it into some kind of synthetic version. Obviously, I can read your works and you can read mine, and we might occasionally be inspired or interested, but you would still do physics and I would still do political science. And I think there’s a rationale behind the existence of disciplines and the disciplinary boundaries. And you see that very, very clearly when you engage in something like narrative fiction writing, which sounds a bit like historical writing, except of course, it’s also extremely different.
"And in some sense, the process by means of which a painting is produced is really quite similar to the process by means of which an article or a book is produced, and yet, the disciplinary bounds are clear."” – Dr. Alexander Motyl
And in painting, you have to be very aware of composition, organisation. Paintings don’t have a beginning, middle, and an end, necessarily, but they are composed in such a way that the text, if you could refer to it as a text, has to hang together. And in some sense, the process by means of which a painting is produced is really quite similar to the process by means of which an article or a book is produced, and yet, the disciplinary bounds are clear. I don’t paint political science, I don’t even know what that would mean, nor is my political science work painterly, right?
Jed: Mm-hmm. No.
Alexander: So you get an appreciation for the overlaps, and at the same time for the distinctions, and it helps you clarify what your own discipline is and is not. When you encounter what it is not, you begin to appreciate better what it is or might be.
Jed: Fascinating. Well, a lot of people do talk about the silos in universities, and as you pointed out, presidents of universities and administrators at universities are often talking about, "We need more interdisciplinary work, we need more of that." But as you say, it does seem like it gets less and less interdisciplinary. University, the very name is about how we are sort of together universally.
So, can you talk about maybe why we’ve gotten away from the way university used to be in sort of this universal learning and we’ve gone to a more siloed learning?
Alexander: To be honest, I think that’s kind of... I don’t think it’s a Western plot, I don’t think it’s some sort of arbitrary power construction. One encounters those sorts of interpretations. I think it’s primarily a function of the fact that our knowledge of the world has grown exponentially and has been growing exponentially, well, certainly for 300, 400, possibly 500, 600 years. It was possibly... It was possible, back in Leonardo’s days, to pretty much know everything about the world, I mean, in principle, possible. You can’t do that anymore. It’s simply impossible to do that anymore.
I can read 10 physics books, if I had the time to read 10 physics books, and I wouldn’t know even half a percentage of what you know. And I think you could probably read 10 poli-sci books, and know more than I would know [18:49] ____ vis-à-vis physics, but be that as it may. The point being there’s just so much knowledge, and the knowledge requires expertise. It requires years of studying, years of preparation. It requires keeping up with developments. And the knowledge isn’t just confined to Europe or the United States, that alone would be daunting, but you have knowledge being produced in every country of every continent of the world.
Jed: And we have access to them.
Alexander: In principle, I should be reading political science papers in Spanish. Well, I can’t, so I read them in Russian, German, Polish, Ukrainian, the languages that I know. So that’s already a lot, but I’m still short of everything that’s being produced. I have never read a Chinese political science article, and I’m sure they’re producing great things.
Anyway, you could do that because, of course, you have the universal language of mathematics, but even that’s daunting. How does one keep up with all of the developments in physics or chemistry, or any other field. And then to imagine, even if it were possible to transcend the boundaries between political science and physics, that would mean my having to spend as much time as you’ve spent on physics as I’ve spent on political science. I only have one life to live. It would be very, very hard. It becomes extremely... Very, very difficult. And then there’s another point. I do this experiment with my students, I arrange the disciplines along a spectrum, and I place the arts on one end, and physics, as the quintessential hard science, at the other end.
Jed: Thank you.
Alexander: There you go. And then I say, "Well, where would you put political science?" And they usually put it someplace in the middle. And then I ask them... And then I introduce them to three big words, ontology, epistemology, and methodology, and I bring... I ask them, "Well, what’s the ontology of physics? And what’s the methodology? And what’s the epistemology? And then what’s the same three words as applied to political science? And then the same three words as applied to the arts?" And they begin to realise that the ontologies are different. What counts for reality isn’t quite the same thing for you as for Picasso. Same is true for epistemology, you claim to know things. Artists, I’m not sure if they know anything other than the fact that they’ve written poetry, perhaps.
And then of course, the sciences employ something called the scientific method. There is no scientific method in poetry. And there’s only a hint of a scientific method in political science, or at least it’s a kind of watered-down scientific method.
Anyway, so you begin to appreciate that the disciplines are not just... It’s not just that they encompass enormous amounts of knowledge, which is difficult to access, but they really are different. They represent different ways of looking at the world, and that’s okay, that’s fine. We need poets and we need political scientists, and we need physicists, and there’s no reason why they should all be doing the same thing.
Jed: Wow. Well, this is really fascinating. You truly are a rare bird when it comes to academics. We’ve never interviewed somebody who is as diverse in their interests as you are.
Do you ever get to teach art, or teach fiction writing, historical narrative writing, or do you only get to teach political science?
Alexander: I only... I’m in the POLIS Political Science Department, so I am... For better or for worse, that’s what I do, but what I have done in some of my courses, again, it depends on the format, the students, I used to teach a... I still teach a course called Research Methods, and when I used to offer it to my graduate students, I haven’t done this for a number of years, I would have them write a... They’d have to pick a topic of some kind, and they would have to write three or four different papers. One was a political science treatment of the topic, two was a journalistic account of the topic, and the third was a short story, a fiction version of the topic. And the whole point, again, was to introduce them to different genres, different disciplines, different approaches.
Jed: That’s great.
Alexander: And it was interesting. It was actually a very interesting experiment. I think they learned quite a lot, both about political science but moreso about the boundaries and the occasional ability to transgress boundaries. It’s not like we live in... Completely in silos, and yet we do. We live in neighbourhoods. Maybe silos isn’t quite the right word.
Jed: Well, great. Well, as we close out the interview, I wanna know a little bit about your thoughts about Russia today. So we just finished interviewing Professor Brady, who’s the dean over there in Berkeley, and we asked him about Putin and what might be happening in the future because of Putin’s view that what happened in 1990s, which you studied and were quoted in the New York Times as being an expert in, was the greatest geopolitical disaster that has happened in recent past. And Putin wants to correct that by bringing home the Russians that were sort of cut off from the motherland, and bringing them home by annexing parts of the world.
So what do you think is gonna happen there?
Alexander: Okay, I can actually give you a straight answer to that, but before I do, generally-speaking, people who study Russia fall into two camps. Those are the ones who think that... I’m oversimplifying, but bear with me. One camp thinks Putin is a grandmaster at chess and that he is powerful, strong and his regime is stable. The other side happens to think he is an amateur at checkers and that his regime is weak and brittle. I’ve been in the latter camp for about 15 years. I think he is a bad leader, I think he’s been very lucky, I don’t think he’s pulled off any major successes and I do believe very strongly that the regime that he’s constructed is, for a whole bunch of reasons, very weak, very brittle and very vulnerable. I’ve been predicting his collapse for 10 years [chuckle] Sooner or later, I firmly believe I will be right.
Jed: Okay. Well, that’s good to know. Do you think that the next... Are you predicting that the next regime will be a better leader for the people of Russia and for the world, or are you predicting it’s gonna go downhill?
Alexander: Given the patterns of Russian history, going back to the Tsars, right, going back to Ivan the Terrible , Peter the Great , and everybody else, then looking at Soviet history, which essentially is Russian history as well, every time there’s been in power a tyrant for some 20, 25 years, right, it’s usually been followed... Not always, but it’s usually been followed by individuals who try to place some kind of distance between themselves and the tyrant.
This is most apparent in the Soviet case, Stalin dies, Khrushchev comes to power, adopts a new course. Brezhnev dies, Gorbachev comes to power. So, my sense... And again, Stalin was in power for over 20 years, Brezhnev for under 20 years. Putin, as you know, has just passed the 20-year mark and may actually get to 36 years. So, he’s an endless president, at least in principle.
Anyway, my sense is that if and when he goes, and I think the question is really more... It’s about when, as opposed to if, there will be power struggles, there will be instability, there may be chaos in Russia, and that will give an opportunity for good guys or semi-good guys to come to power. Now, many people say it could also be the really, really bad guys, that’s true too.
I’d say that’s less likely than the semi-good guy coming to power. The individual who will want to establish himself, possibly herself, as someone who is different from Putin, better than Putin, you know, has a new vision of the new Russia that will fit into this scheme of the new civilization in the world, something along those lines, that’s what I’m betting on.
Jed: That’s incredible. Good.
Alexander: That’s also what I’m hoping for, but I think that’s actually a pretty decent chance of that happening.
Jed: Wow. Well, that’s great. And then one final thought and question which we’ve asked a lot of the political science influencers that we’ve interviewed, what about 2020? And what about COVID and the effects of COVID on the 2020 election? Maybe this is not your area of specialty, but you are a political scientist, so do you have some thoughts?
Alexander: Well, you mean on the election, per se?
Jed: Yeah, how it’s all going to go down.
Alexander: Well, I’m, frankly, worried because even in the best of circumstances, a significant portion of the electorate will not go to the urns. Those are, more likely than not, going to be people my age and older, you know, in their 70s, and so on. Whether they will be the Republicans or the Democrats or independents, who knows, but certainly a significant portion will not attend. We may have all these issues relating to mail-in ballots. Again, even assuming the best of wills on everybody’s part, there are likely to be logistical problems of one kind or other.
So my fear is that when you put all those things together, and then add to the mix the fact that at least some of the individuals involved in the elections may not... Make their ill will towards the process, then when you add that to the mixture...
Jed: Okay, we’re gonna go to Rich now, if... Yeah, we lost him. Can you troubleshoot this at all?
Alexander: Then it’s quite possible that we will have an extremely contentious election, one that will...
Alexander: Something has happened.
Jed: Okay. Okay. Hi, we had a little glitch there. Can you repeat what you were just saying? We got to the part about there’ll be a significant number of people that will not go to the polls, and you don’t know whether they’re Democrat, Republican, independent, and that’s where we lost you. Can you pick it up from there?
Alexander: So, in addition to the problem that many people may not go to the polls, there is, of course, the possibility that there will be a breakdown of sorts with the mail-in votes. Who knows what will happen in the various electoral districts. Will there be enough people to count the ballots, to man the institutions, to make sure that all these things are being done properly? ’Cause those are usually senior citizens and they’re unlikely to go to these places.
And then when you take all those, let’s call them objective problems, and you add to that the likelihood of subjective issues, ill will on the part of this party or that party, of this candidate, of that candidate, attempts by whomever to interfere in the electoral process, it’s quite possible that we’ll have an extremely messy election. And then the fear is that it may turn out to be extremely close. Regardless of who wins or loses, it’s almost certain that the other side will contest the results.
If it’s a landslide, then I suspect the opportunity for contestation will be significantly lower. It won’t be as persuasive. But if it’s a question of 10 or 20 or 30 electoral votes, this way or that way, who knows? And then I just don’t know what the effect... And the effect of that will be, and it begins to look more and more like a post-Soviet state in Central Asia, or, for that matter, Belarus, or, for that matter, Ukraine or possibly even Russia. I mean, it begins... The US begins to look like the real estate that I’ve been studying for 40 years, and that’s not a good thing.
Jed: No. Well, thank you so much for your time, Professor Motyl. We really appreciate you taking time with us today. It was so fascinating. Thank you.
Alexander: It was my pleasure. Thank you.
Stay informed! Get the latest Academic Influence news, information, and rankings with our upcoming newsletter.