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Obama, Clinton, and Contingency in Political Science

- February 16, 2008

The bloggers of “The Monkey Cage” have invited me to be a guest post-er, and I’m delighted to accept – though I find this a curiously intimidating medium, unlike other types of writing that I am more used to. In any case, I plan to write a few posts over the next two weeks, and I look forward to your comments.

Almost any scholar of American politics (or almost any political scientist) ought to have an observation about the United States’ current fascinating Democratic Party primary, so that seems a good place to start. My observation is a question: what does the Obama-Clinton contest tell us, if anything, about the significance of contingency in explaining political processes or outcomes. As political scientists – and therefore as would-be scientists – most of us seek to account for important outcomes through orderly causal explanations that rest on a few basic premises (“People behave as though they are acting in their own interests”) or a few basic variables (“A presidential election is largely determined by the condition of the economy, the partisanship of the past several presidents, and one or two other things.”) In short, as institutionalists or as behavioralists, we aim for systematic explanations that can be generalized or transferred to other situations as well the one we are directly analyzing. We are uncomfortable with explanations that rest on serendipity, leadership style, charisma – never mind physical appearance or unusual incidents in childhood. So how do we make sense of the contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?

I too look for underlying causes and deep dynamics in my writing and try to elucidate them in my teaching. And yet, and yet… Does the fact that Hillary Clinton is a serious contender for the presidency reflect or create a change in American gender relations? Does the fact that Barack Obama is a serious contender for the presidency reflect or create a change in American race relations? Most importantly, is it the coincidence that both are running at the same time, against each other, that makes each a serious contender? And does their joint candidacy signal the disintegration of the age-old political dominance of affluent white men? That is, are the structures of the American racial and gender order being overturned by the forcefulness and effectiveness of these two impressive campaigners?

Well, probably not; I don’t want to be hopelessly naïve in my first appearance in The Monkey Cage. There are ways of partially explaining away the presence of both candidates: Hillary is riding on Bill’s coattails; Obama isn’t really an African American… And there are ways in which it is clear that neither is revolutionizing all of the United States’ racial and gender institutions: inner city schools will remain terrible even if Obama is elected, and women will still face sexual harassment on the job even if Clinton is elected. And yet, and yet…

Perhaps there really is an element of radical contingency in politics that political scientists must take into account. A particular individual emerging at a particular place and time might really change outcomes in ways that defy the predictions of our best institutional and behavioral models, and even defy our careful cynicism. A deus ex machina is sometimes necessary to end a Shakespeare play or Mozart opera, and it might just be operating right now to close down the old regime of American partisan politics. May you live in interesting times…