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Punditry vs. Political Science

- August 25, 2008

A couple weeks ago, Andy had this response to a statement by Samantha Powers. She wrote:

bq. Since 1968, with the single exception of the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Americans have chosen Republican presidents in times of perceived danger and Democrats in times of relative calm.

And he wrote:

bq. So here’s the difference between qualitative and quantitative researchers. Samantha Power knows more about foreign policy and politics than I’ll ever know. But she could whip off the above sentence without pause. Whereas, when I see it, I think:

bq. – Why start in 1968? Is this just a convenient choice of endpoint? Eisenhower ran as a national security expert, no?

bq. – What evidence can you expect to get about public opinion from the essentially tied elections of 1968, 1976, and 2000?

bq. – Anyway, if you’re talking public opinion, it was Gore who won more votes in 2000–so it’s funny to be taking that as an exception at all!

bq. – How are “perceived danger” and “relative calm” defined? Was 1988, when George H. W. Bush floored Michael Dukakis, really such a time of “perceived danger”?

To me, this is more than just the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. This is the difference between how social scientists think and how journalists and pundits think.

The difference I’ll dwell on here concerns “conceptualization.” Social scientists must be careful about how they conceive of and define the phenomenon of interest. This imperative doesn’t hold in casual commentary. And it creates problems. As Andy points out, we really don’t know what “danger” and “calm” mean when Powers uses those terms.

Another case in point: Matt Bai’s essay in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

The title is “The Case for Cool.” The subtitle in the print magazine (although not on-line) is “What, exactly, is wrong with a celebrity candidate?” So, ostensibly the phenomenon under consideration is “coolness” or “celebrity.” Those two concepts are hardly synonymous, but let’s leave that aside for the moment. Bai’s point is that Obama is cool and McCain is not, and maybe he should try to be. But what’s “cool”? Here is a sampling of Bai:

bq. But in at least one critical aspect, the imagery surrounding each candidate, this year’s contest has been as one-sided as any in recent memory…

bq. …This dynamic represents an unlikely turnabout for both parties. For most of the last three decades, leaving aside the eight-year interregnum of the singularly talented Bill Clinton, Republicans have been the ones to base their campaigns on overarching narratives and imagery rather than on their positions or curricula vitae.

bq. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush campaigned, with almost irritating buoyancy, on themes of reform, strength and integrity.

bq. Their celebrity grew from a sense of easy confidence, even as they waved away questions about their gravitas…

bq. …Perhaps it’s more that Americans are weary of a political system that has all but ground to a halt, and every four years they search for the galvanizing personality who stands a chance of dislodging it. The infatuation with star quality reflects, on some level, the yearning for the next Roosevelt (Theodore or Franklin) or Kennedy (John or Robert), some reformer with the dynamism and charisma to renew dialogue at home and kinships around the world, to tell us the truths we need to hear without telegraphing defeat…

bq. …If McCain really wanted to blunt the force of Obama’s imagery, maybe he would step onstage at the Republican convention in St. Paul and follow his own reformist instincts, appealing once again to all those Americans who would sooner serve their country than either of its calcified parties. A speech like that might not win the same roars of approval that will no doubt echo through the Denver night. But it would be really, really cool.

From readings these passages, “cool” appears to be any one of a number of things:

* Compelling “imagery.”

* “Overarching narratives.”

* A lack of focus on policy positions or political experience.

* Particular campaign themes, especially “reform.”

* Personality traits like “dynamism” and “charisma.”

* A penchant for telling the truth.

All of these things may be interesting. Or relevant. Or empirically true as contrasts between McCain and Obama. But it’s hard to see what exactly “cool” is. Can you be cool by having good visuals? A good story? The right message? The right personality? Some of the above? All of the above? Bai doesn’t really define the term in any coherent way.

Ultimately, the concept of “coolness” is so diffuse that the argument becomes vaporous. McCain would be “cooler” if he were more like Obama, or Reagan, or Bush, or, well, like McCain of 8 years ago. We don’t really know what it is that Obama et al. have or had, nor do we know what McCain “needs.”