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Academics, journalists and hot-button issues

- September 8, 2008

“Simon Jackman”:http://jackman.stanford.edu/blog/?p=853 has an interesting post on Larry Bartels and political science’s relationship with broader public debates.

bq. I think it is true that the end of political science focusing on American politics has dropped the ball somewhat, substantively and normatively. A political science colleague who shall remain nameless caricatures this type of political science (and the political scientists doing it) with a good imitation of a 1950s sci-fi robot going “Congress, congress…”, the idea being that the professional, academic study of American politics is largely dominated by a bunch of geeks doing technical analyses of “inside baseball” stuff that might not matter to anyone other than those doing it (and by the way, a good deal of my own work would probably fall under that characterization).

bq. Larry’s book might be a little “academic” for the non-academic reader. He uses data (gasp) and statistical analyses to test propositions. But frankly, I welcome the jab in the ribs Larry is (implicitly?) giving to some of us in the political science profession, reflected in the tone of the review I quoted above: “there’s an awful lot of politics going on out there” (paraphrasing my colleague Josh Cohen).

bq. Maybe this is more about my insecurities with my professional identity (and btw, Larry was my PhD adviser), but I see one of the big takeaways from the book as this: there are big topics like inequality to go take on under the heading of “American politics”, and we can and perhaps ought to risk normative neutrality, without giving up analytical rigor.

Jackman’s argument suggests both that many mainstream Americanist political scientists have been socialized to avoid writing about certain topics because they are ‘too political’ and that this is a rather odd thing in a discipline which is supposed to be about politics. I think that things are getting better, but I also think that there’s some truth to this claim (my co-bloggers may disagree). More precisely (and this may be more me than Jackman) – there is a space for political science that reaches sound empirical conclusions on questions that are hotly debated between partisans – but that this space is often unoccupied because talking about topics of partisan controversy makes political scientists nervous (as an aside, there is a real distinction between the kind of political science that could be conducted on partisan hot-button topics and partisan commentary of the sort that, say, I, sometimes indulge myself in the latter on the other blog that I contribute to).

I suspect that Matt Yglesias is pointing to a “similar mechanism”:http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2008/09/original_mavericks.php, which shapes the conscious decision of elite political commentators like Marc Ambinder to steer clear of persistently calling politicians on their lies, when they _have_ in fact lied. One would presume that political commentators don’t like politicians to tell blatant lies and get away with it, but it may be easier for them not to criticize politicians for doing this, because they don’t want to become part of the controversy themselves. Both groups – political scientists and political commentators – have constructed professional identities which place them outside the partisan fray. In neither case is this a bad thing in itself – we want to have people who aren’t beholden to some group or another providing commentary on politics. But – and this is Jackman’s challenge as I understand it – this understandable desire not to become part of that which they study and comment on, may lead political scientists (and commentators) to fall down on the job of providing the complete understanding of politics that they are supposed to, by avoiding certain topics, not singling out certain kinds of bad behaviour &c&c..