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On the Irrelevance of Political Science

- March 31, 2010

Ryan Sager:

bq. And, so, my theory of why no one in politics likes to think about political science: because it renders them powerless. How do you do your job as a political consultant when the truth is that 90% of the success or failure of what you do will be determined by the unemployment rate? If you’re a political journalist, how do you write a story every day for a year (or three years, given our current presidential election system) saying, essentially, “Well, the fundamentals still make it exceedingly likely the president will be reelected.” If you’re a politician… well, then you’re a sociopath anyway, so perhaps it’s not worth getting into this scenario too deeply.

bq. The point is, we need to believe we’re in control. Political science tells everyone in politics the opposite: You’re not in control. The economy rules your fate — the rest is just pissing in the wind.

bq. No wonder they prefer to keep their eyes closed and their fingers in their ears.

Ezra Klein:

bq. As it is, politicians hire economists to do policy and campaign consultants to do politics. Keeping a couple of political scientists around to convey insights the discipline offers for both pursuits would seem like an easy way to get a leg up on some of your competitors, but no one seems to do it.

I don’t have a very articulate response to either point — although, as always, I appreciate such defenses of the discipline. But here are a handful of thoughts.

First, I can think of instances where politicians have had political scientists around — e.g., Daron Shaw’s work for the Bush campaign (see his book) and Terry Sullivan’s involvement in presidential transitions. I can think of a few political scientists working in the government in areas related to national security — e.g., Michael McFaul, Jeremy Weinstein, Colin Kahl. But these may be exceptions to the rule.

Second, I agree with Sager that political science does downplay the agency of political actors in some domains, e.g., elections. And perhaps that lesson would be powerful if some political scientist were on the White House’s payroll. But I don’t think that taking political science seriously means that journalists can’t do their jobs. If I were a political reporter, I would use the fact that “the fundamentals matter” to inform the kinds of questions I ask political candidates as well as my response to their campaign tactics and their inevitable spin. In fact, I think this would play well into the mindset journalists bring to campaigns, which is to view the spin with skepticism. Ultimately, if some people thought that political science made their job unnecessary, I would say that they aren’t thinking creatively enough.

Finally, it’s worth noting that while the thrust of Sager’s post focuses on American politics and especially campaigns and elections — as does a lot of content this blog — plenty of political science research doesn’t. Selling it to policymakers might be even easier. To illustrate, I just pulled the most recent issue of the _American Political Science Review_ off the shelf and noted the following:

* Counter-insurgency forces who share the same ethnic identity as insurgents are more effective (see here or here).

* People’s don’t form opinions about immigration based on the sorts of rational calculations that economic models predict (here or here).

* “Hostile political reactions to neighboring immigrants are most likely when communities undergo sudden influxes of immigrants and when salient national rhetoric reinforces the threat” (here).

The relevance of all three seems obvious, given the current policy agenda, and doesn’t necessarily suggest the powerlessness of politicians, political consultants, etc.

UPDATE: See Sager’s response here. He is not so sure about my vision of political journalism informed by political science:

bq. But you’ve read Politico, right? People tend to follow politics for one of two reasons: 1) for a horse race, and 2) to root for their favorite horse (and have their biases stroked, generally — conservatives watch Fox, liberals MSNBC, no one CNN, etc.). I’m not saying political science ought not inform a good political journalist…It would make for much better coverage. But better, more serious coverage ain’t what sells ads.

And he may be right!