By Meimei Xu

Fifteen Questions: Taeku Lee on Political Science, Civic Engagement, and His Stint as a Premed

The Government professor sat down to discuss his decision to pursue political science in graduate school and the development of ethnic studies at Harvard. “I keenly felt like there was something fundamentally misguided about my pursuit of thinking about politics and political science without understanding at a very fundamental level the history of racial politics in the United States,” he says.
By Meimei Xu

Taeku Lee is the inaugural Bae Family Professor of Government at Harvard University and one of three faculty members recently brought in as part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’s ethnic studies cluster hire initiative. He previously served as a professor of political science and law at University of California, Berkeley. He currently serves on the National Advisory Committee for the U.S. Census Bureau. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: Were you politically active as an undergrad at the University of Michigan, and if so, what were you involved in?

TL: In my college years I was supposed to be attending a lot of medical school classes, but I found myself actually very drawn to a lot of political causes that were activating and mobilizing students in my time.

The mid-1980s were a time where the United States and then-Soviet Union looked as though they were poised down this inexorable path toward nuclear warfare. My involvement in that issue then got me interested in a lot of other kinds of geopolitical issues. So I organized around U.S. foreign policy in Central America and the U.S.’s relationship to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa at the time. I did a good bit of work around hunger and famine particularly in what was then Ethiopia, now Ethiopia and Eritrea. Also, in Ann Arbor itself there are a lot of problems with hunger and homelessness.

FM: How did you finally make the plunge and decide to pursue political science research, and did you ever find yourself wavering between political science and other fields or running for office or being in an NGO?

TL: I drew a mentor who was actually a medical school professor at Michigan but who had also been an activist through most of his life, especially in the ’60s and ’70s. I was explaining a struggle I was having at the time where I was organizing close to 100 medical students to engage in an act of civil disobedience at the Nevada nuclear test site. But I was telling him that I actually had not reached that point in my own political views about civil disobedience that I thought I was willing to cross the line to be arrested for this cause.

So my mentor at the time, Dr. Arthur Vander, just looked at me with a wry smile on his face and he said, “You know, Taeku, you have to realize that some people are really good at doing and some people are really good at thinking about doing, and I think you might be the latter kind of person, even though your views on politics are obviously very heartfelt.”

That actually took me down a road of being a lot more interested in political philosophy. Eventually, from that, I made what was a very hard decision, especially for an immigrant and maybe also for an immigrant from an Asian American family — to choose to leave medical school to pursue a PhD which at the time was going to either be in philosophy or in political science.

FM: Much of your research has focused on Asian American political participation and public political participation at large. How did you become interested in this topic as an academic endeavor?

TL: A key turning point for me was 1992, with the LA uprising where I keenly felt the paradox of being in a PhD program at the time in political science, reading the works of different political philosophers, while [people in] Los Angeles — which is a city where a lot of my extended family was living, including an uncle and an aunt who ran a small mom-and-pop shop that was at risk of being burnt down — were just defending their lives and their livelihoods. I keenly felt like there was something fundamentally misguided about my pursuit of thinking about politics and political science without understanding at a very fundamental level the history of racial politics in the United States, and in particular, the history of anti-Black racism in the United States. And so I took a 180-degree turn away from what I was interested in at that time, which was a combination of game theory and Marxist theory, and then just dove into a lot of history and sociology courses about the Black experience in the United States. It wasn’t until I was further along in my career that I was able to really focus on Asian Americans.

FM: You serve as one of the principal investigators of the National Asian American Survey and have been involved with the survey since its first report in 2008. How did the survey and your involvement with it start?

TL: In terms of the ability to have an infrastructure for doctoral students in political science to be able to do dissertations on Asian American politics, you need access to data, and you need access to human capital, which means faculty who have given some thought and done some research on Asian Americans.

So I got together with a few fellow political scientists who had all just recently been tenured. None of us had been tenured based solely on our interest in Asian American politics, and we decided that since we now have a certain amount of job security, we’re going to take a risk, apply for grants that we had no right to expect to be funded, and then try to build that infrastructure. And we were lucky to be able to convince several foundations, and then the National Science Foundation, to help fund the first major political survey of how Asian Americans think and what they actually do in the realm of politics. And that was sufficiently successful that we were then able to do two more National Asian American surveys after that in 2012 and 2016.

In this case, I think there was such a dearth of interest in surveying the opinions of Asian Americans that we discovered some people wanted to stay on the phone and just keep talking to our interviewers. Some of our interviews went on for 50, 60, 70 minutes, and we had to start retraining the interviewers to break off on the interviewer end as opposed to on the respondent end. I think that’s a good example of what a gap there was between the lived experiences of Asian Americans and the trained social scientists who had the resources and the training to be able to go out there and study those lived experiences.

FM: In one of your recently published papers, you describe how belief in fake news, which you define as “the willingness of mass publics to believe that news that is verifiably true or that meets journalistic standards of facticity is instead a fiction,” becomes associated with Trump after he became president. Now that midterms and 2024 election are on the horizon, are you still seeing that belief in fake news is still associated with the sector of the Republican party that are supportive of Trump?

TL: I think what we’re learning at least since 2016, and maybe well before then, is the idea that democracy should be founded on institutions that mediate what is true, what is not true, what is evidence, what is not evidence. It’s one of the most foundational aspects of any working government, whether it’s a democracy or not a democracy. And today, there is this dire looming threat against what I think of as the epistemic institutions of democracy. So it’s not just mainstream media and the trust that the public has in what they are getting as news, but there’s a threat to universities and colleges that is growing. There’s a threat to government agencies whose basic job is to take evidence about what those social problems are and try to find solutions to them — everything from the FDA and the CDC to even the Securities and Exchange Commission.

There’s all sorts of fundamental threats to institutions that basically have to adjudicate truth every day as part of their work. I think the fact that those are being so deeply challenged today is a really understated part of this overall threat to democracy that we’re facing, and I think it has a lot of impact on what we see on the surface, which are things like the January 6 insurrection. Those things are fed by deep beliefs about what is actually happening in American society and what the government is and isn’t doing about that. And if we don't have any way to communicate about what actually is happening or what is not happening, then I think we’re going to see more incidents like that in our future.

FM: How do you suggest people navigate news and media in order to make informed political decisions?

TL: One of the foundations behind the fake news phenomenon and this threat to epistemic institutions is a fundamental erosion of trust in public institutions, whether it’s government or universities or what have you. It’s very hard to regain trust once it’s lost.

We probably need something like a Marshall Plan in terms of a reinvestment in institutions that can rebuild that public trust. Specific to elections, I think a starting point would be something like public funding of elections, so that you take the money out of a lot of the motive of different vested parties who have their own private interests to circulate news that they know is not true or evidence-based. You take that profit motive out, and I think you’re much likelier to have exposure to information that is evidence-based, that is tested, has facticity, and that is a foundation on which you can start to rebuild that trust.

FM: What is your advice to students who are interested in promoting informed civic engagement?

TL: Choose what your gateway drug is. Start somewhere. When you start somewhere and start working with other people, I think there’s much greater rewards to trying to make change and make change with other people in concert, whether it’s hugely successful or just somewhat successful. Just the process of doing politics with other people is rewarding.

FM: I understand that you’re working on a textbook for undergraduates to be published soon with the Cambridge University Press. What do you hope to accomplish, and what gaps in the existing literature do you hope the textbook fills?

TL: This is written as a textbook both for college classes about racial and ethnic politics in the United States, and for an introductory course to U.S. politics, because in my view, and in the view of my co-authors, those two are not dissociable. So in a way, if you think about the current debate over what has been framed as critical race theory, in some ways we take a firm position on that — which is that it’s difficult, if not impossible to teach a course on American politics without at the same time teaching a course on the role that race plays in American politics, both historically and in the present day.

Now, what differentiates us from at least some versions of critical race theory is we don’t take it as an assumption that that’s the case. A lot of the textbook is a very careful vetting of the best available research and evidence that we have across a whole range of issues and across a whole range of institutions — from the courts, to the criminal justice system, to Congress, to state and local politics. And the evidence fully supports our views that wherever you think an issue is really about partisanship, or ideological differences, or class differences, or any other kinds of differences, there’s always a role that racial differences and racial divisions play in helping to explain what those politics really are.

FM: When can we expect to see it come out?

TL: We’re probably going to have some version of it that is ready by next spring, and it’ll be fully ready by next fall.

FM: Can we look forward to another potential book in the future? If so, could you give our readers a brief description of its topic and the questions it seeks to answer?

TL: The next book that I’m committed to working on is on a project with a colleague of mine at Oxford University looking at public opinion about banks and financial regulation. For us, that’s a fascinating topic because a lot of political scientists talk, almost casually, about this idea of business power: the idea that even in democratic societies, the interests of business elite, the one percent, will always be taken into account by elected representatives who in democracies are supposed to represent the interests of the majority. In fact, in most democracies, it is the case that if you work your way backwards from policies regulating banks, it certainly seems to be the case that they always represent the interests of banking elites. So we’re curious to know, what are the circumstances in which that’s not likely to be the case? Or, in short, what are the circumstances in which voters can be made to get angry, get outraged and turn towards specific kinds of regulations that would curb some of the unfettered greed of a lot of banks in democratic societies.

FM: You’re joining us from UC Berkeley, but you’ve previously served as an assistant professor at the Kennedy School. How does it feel to be back?

TL: Spatially, I think the university is quite different. Culturally, I think the university is different in the degree to which assistant professors are more fully part of the intellectual community and given every chance to have a career here at Harvard. I think culturally, also, the student body is much more active and activist than they used to be. Students have always been and will always be very active, but I think there’s a degree to which the events of the last few years are going to fundamentally change how young adults see themselves in their roles in a society that is facing lots of very urgent, serious issues. I would be appalled if students weren't more active, and they certainly seem to be quite active.

FM: What gap in our current faculty do you hope to fill, whether that be in the Government department or in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences as a whole?

TL: One of the things that’s really changing in the real world today is the degree to which identity-based politics is posing deep threats to what have for a very long period of time been very stable democracies. The politics of identity is playing a role that is inextricable from the rise of lots of populist movements, nativist movements in a lot of different societies, and that is an area that I think political scientists need to focus more on. So I don’t want to just say, “Harvard and other universities need to hire more people that are doing what I do,” since that is part of what I do, but I do think that this is an area where there are some profound changes going on in our society, and the more brainpower universities like Harvard could put to it, the better.

FM: This fall and spring, you’re teaching a research workshop class for graduate students. What other classes do you hope to teach in the future?

TL: Next year, I’m very eager to start teaching undergraduate courses. I think I’ll probably offer a course on Asian American politics, and I may also offer a broader course on racial and ethnic politics using this textbook that we’re just completing.

FM: You joined Harvard as one of three scholars hired as part of the FAS’s ethnic studies cluster hire initiative. What is your hope for the future of ethnic studies at Harvard?

TL: I think we are not quite at square one, because we now have three of us who’ve agreed to be part and to hopefully take the lead in this effort to build something. But we’re still very much in the early stages, and this is an exciting stage where anything could be possible. We don’t quite know where all the barriers are, but I do know that this has been the most recent culmination of a 50-year effort to hire faculty in this area and to try to build some programs. So I’m not going to assume that we will be able to figure out the secret sauce to building a successful program overnight, but I’m also excited to see what we’re able to build.

FM: Some scholars and activists are adamantly supportive of establishing ethnic studies departments in universities across the United States. Others push back against the concept of an “ethnic studies” department, arguing it lumps together unique areas and cultural studies that should be departments or programs in their own right. What is your take on this discussion? Would you hope that the FAS establish an ethnic studies department sometime in the future?

TL: Fundamental to a university is the organization of inquiry into not only different topical areas, but also different disciplinary perspectives. So one issue that has always been a challenge throughout the history of building ethnic studies programs has been a deep skepticism, often on the part of other disciplines or on the part of senior administration at a university, that there is a unifying discipline around ethnic studies. And I think that has to be one of the foundational challenges that Professor Lee, Hoffnung-Garskof, and I and whoever else that we’re able to hire or persuade to join our group — a lot of very open discussions about what we think this unifying perspective on inquiry into ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration would be at Harvard.

They’re different if you look across different universities. Some universities center the study of race and the way that they think about an intellectual hub like this one. Others center the experience of diaspora, some center the tension between diaspora and indigeneity. There are a lot of different kinds of ways to foreground what that unique perspective might be, but I think we need to have one. If you don’t have one, it’s always going to be difficult – firstly, to persuade Central Campus, if you will, that there is a basis, a foundation for a separate department. And if you don’t have that, even if you are able to persuade somebody, it will be hard to sustain that effort.

— Associate Magazine Editor Meimei Xu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.

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