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Looking forward to the 2007 ASA Annual Meeting in New York…

Prospects for Change in American Politics

by Bonnie Thornton Dill, University of Maryland

With the campaign season leading up to the 2008 U.S. presidential election already in full swing, the appearance of Barbara Ehrenreich and John Conyers at an evening plenary promises to provide timely and provocative commentary on the theme of this year’s meetings: Is Another World Possible?

The plenary session, titled “The Future of American Politics,” on Monday, August 13, 2007, from 8:00–9:30 Pm features a dialogue on the next steps in American politics. This wide-ranging plenary features a lively pair of presentations by John Conyers, veteran member of Congress, stalwart and courageous progressive, and now Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Barbara Ehrenreich, pundit and humorist, and author of the best-seller Nickle and Dimed, and the much praised Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. The speakers will explore the impact of a range of contemporary social, political, and economic phenomena on U.S. politics and provide a perspective on the potential for progressive social change both in the United States and the world.

Representative John Conyers, Jr., Democrat from Detroit, MI, was reelected to his 21st term in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the 14th Congressional District in November 2006. Having entered the House of Representatives in 1964, Conyers is the second most senior member of that chamber. After serving as Chair of the House Committee on Government Operations (now renamed Government Reform) from 1989–1994, Congressman Conyers was elected by his congressional colleagues to Chair the pivotal House Committee on the Judiciary. As Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Conyers has introduced and endorsed legislation to advance civil liberties, ensure equal protection and access to the voting booth, and combat violence against women. Since September 11, 2001, he has worked to strike a balance between keeping our country safe from terrorism and protecting the civil liberties of our citizens.

Rep. Conyers has spent his entire career fighting for social justice, in his state, in the nation, and internationally. Congressman Conyers is one of the 13 founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and is considered the Dean of that group. In his 40 plus years in Congress, some of his major accomplishments include: The Violence Against Women Act of 1994, the Motor Voter Bill of 1993, the Martin Luther King Holiday Act of 1983, the Alcohol Warning Label Act of 1988, and the Jazz Preservation Act of 1987. He was also the driving force behind the Help America Vote Act of 2002. In a world currently dominated by globalization, ethnic conflicts, and terrorism, Rep. Conyers is committed to promoting peace and understanding. He has worked diligently to turn back the war effort against Iraq. In 2002, he voted against Joint House Resolution 114, which gave the President the authority to invade Iraq.

American writer, columnist, feminist, and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America (2001), Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (co-edited with Arlie Hochschild, 2003), Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (2005), and most recently Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (2007). She joins the discussion with the goals of stimulating a better understanding of our future in American politics.

Ehrenreich studied physics at Reed College, graduating in 1963. Her senior thesis was titled Electrochemical Oscillations of the Silicon Anode. In 1968, she received a PhD in cell biology from Rockefeller University. Citing her interest in social change she opted for political activism instead of pursuing a scientific career. In 2006, Ehrenreich founded United Professionals, an organization described as “a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization for white-collar workers, regardless of profession or employment status. We reach out to all unemployed, underemployed, and anxiously employed workers—people who bought the American dream that education and credentials could lead to a secure middle class life, but now find their lives disrupted by forces beyond their control” She is currently an honorary co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.

For sociologists, a first step toward understanding the future of American politics is to make visible the processes that obscure and dispute sociological perspectives in contemporary society. Conyers and Ehrenreich have never retreated from an opportunity to expose abuses of power or the profiteers of inequality. Organized by ASA President Frances Fox Piven and presided over by Peter Dreier, this plenary will prompt a discussion of critical perspectives on American politics by exploring how political conflicts, institutions, and processes are influenced by deep inequalities generated by the country’s political economy.