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Political Science A Politician Can Love

- September 11, 2010

Ezra Klein’s “new column”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/10/AR2010091002671.html is entitled “Poli Sci 101.” He pivots off last week’s APSA meetings to note that politicians don’t pay enough attention to political science, and that is a bad thing. He lists a few lessons they could learn, citing the work of George Edwards, David Canon, and Frank Baumgartner, Beth Leech, et al.

He quotes me in this passage::

bq. But if politicians took these findings to heart, it would free them to do their jobs better. “The fact that much of what cable news is talking about on any given day is not important probably is empowering,” Sides says. Particularly combined with the finding that what does matter, both for elections and for people’s lives, is how well the country is doing. Worrying less about tomorrow’s polls and news releases and more about the effect of today’s policies could make for better bills — and happier, more successful politicians.

I want to emphasize this. Political scientists are sometimes accused of denying that politicians can affect anything. For example, we say that election outcomes depend a lot on the economy, and somehow this means that all campaigning by politicians is superfluous.

In fact, Ezra’s point and my quote suggests quite the opposite: political science really does empower politicians. It tells them to ignore a lot of gossip and trivia. It tells them not to sweat every rhetorical turn of phrase. It tells them that as useful as Mike Allen’s “Playbook”:http://www.politico.com/playbook/ might be in some ways, it captures a conversation that the vast majority of American voters knows nothing about.

Freed from these concerns, politicians can, as Ezra suggests, focus on what they really can and do affect: the policy agenda and the content of legislation. Now that’s a simplification, because certainly members’ power to affect these things will depend on election outcomes — theirs and others’ — as well as their status as a majority or minority party member. So we would not expect members to put campaigning entirely out of their mind. Political science is more implying a reweighting of priorities.

I assume this would be sweet, sweet music to politicians, many of whom complain routinely about things like the media and the time they must spend fundraising for their campaign, and profess their true passion for crafting public policies big and small.

A lesson of political science is that the stuff they hate is not as important as they fear, and the stuff thy love is what they can spend more time doing.