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Klein, Kristof, and how political science 'conquered Washington'

Journalists are taking a second look at how political scientists view American politics. One reason: the data on national elections and congressional votes is rich and accessible.

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    Members of congress climb the steps of the House of Representatives in Washington, before final votes on July 31, 2014. Voting records on Capitol Hill give political scientists an exceptionally rich data base for research.
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One of my lasting memories of graduate school is hearing Professor Mo Fiorina, tongue only partly in cheek, tell a gathering of first-year government (political science to most of you) doctoral students that the study of American politics was the most scientifically advanced among the discipline’s four major subfields. At the time, I thought Mo’s statement was absurd, mostly because, as former cub reporter covering local Massachusetts politics, I was pretty sure there was nothing that could be scientific about studying American politics at any level. Politics was about people, in all their bewildering complexity, operating under contingent and unpredictable conditions. You might as well create a science to explain variation in cloud shapes.

As the years have passed since I first heard Fiorina’s declaration, I have been amazed by how much smarter he has become. In fact, as my Middlebury College students can attest, I’m not ashamed to admit that I now repeat Fiorina’s assertion in orientation meetings with political science majors (not to mention in gatherings with my colleagues who study International Relations and Comparative politics, which pleases them no end. The theorists just seem bewildered that anyone would want to create a science of politics.)

I thought of Fiorina’s remark yesterday when I read this curious Ezra Klein column claiming that political science had, in effect, “conquered Washington.” Klein, the founder of the Vox website, observes that a decade ago, “knowing political science wasn’t a legitimate form of knowing about politics, or at least it wasn’t presented as one to young journalists like me.” Since then, however, “the single best thing that’s happened to political journalism … is the rise of political science”. This rise is exemplified in part by the increased visibility of blogs presenting political science research.

Somewhat dubiously, Klein suggests that one reason for the increased prominence of political science is that elected officials and other members of the political elite can no longer be trusted to explain what is happening in the political realm: “Washington is listening to political scientists, in large part because it’s stopped trusting itself.” This is in part, Klein argues, because “Politicians are losing power and political parties are gaining it." Never mind that parties are led by politicians – Klein believes the flow of power from politicians to parties means that “these structural explanations for American politics have become more important.”

What is one to make of Klein’s assertion? I confess that, probably more than most of my political scientist colleagues, I’ve been more willing to take Klein to task for oversimplifying political science research in order to drive his preferred narrative, particularly when he flat out gets the research wrong. Unfortunately, this column, beginning with the claim that structural explanations are becoming more important for understanding American politics, is ripe for the same type of critique. However, lest I be accused of hating on Ezra once too often for his tendency to boil down complex subjects into two-minute declarative statements (after all, that is the explicit mission of his Vox website), let me instead this time praise him for his willingness to engage with political science research to a much greater degree than do many of his fellow journalists. True, the examples he cites in this article aren’t all equally effective at demonstrating what political scientists think they know. (For example, as Fiorina has shown, Klein’s assertion that political science has demonstrated that independents are closet partisans is far from settled – indeed, it is probably wrong.) Still, it would be curmudgeonly of me to criticize Klein for praising my field of study.

So I will let Klein’s fellow journalist Nick Kristof do it for me. Readers will remember that in this column Kristof lamented the unwillingness of political scientists to engage in debate about the most pressing political issues of the day. Rather than the increasingly important players Klein describes, Kristof sees political scientists as smart, but largely isolated from real world discussions: “Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates. The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: ‘That’s academic.’ In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.” This is why, Kristof believes, “t]here are … fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.”

Significantly, Kristof puts the blame squarely on political scientists’ search for the “structural explanations” that Klein praises as helping scholars “conquer” Washington. Rather than advancing our understanding of politics, Kristof laments how “Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” Instead of engaging in debate about topics of relevance in order to advance policy prescriptions, political scientists “seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.” The result of this pretense toward “science” is a decline in area studies and in real-world prescriptions.

How do we reconcile these contrasting views? At the risk of offending my peers in other subfields, I think, in part, it is a function of the difference in their respective topical focus. Klein is most familiar with research in American politics, while Kristof seems far more interested in studies in the fields of international relations and comparative politics. Here is where Fiorina’s partly tongue-in-cheek observation may in fact have some explanatory bite. No, I am not arguing that those who study American politics are smarter or better researchers. The explanation for Fiorina’s (undoubtedly deliberately provocative) observation – assuming it has any validity today – is far more complex than that (and I am certainly, through my own ignorance of other subfields, not doing full justice to the progress made outside the American politics realm). But one reason for Klein’s greater optimism, I think, is that as my colleague Professor Amy Yuen – an IR scholar whose research into third-party intervention into conflicts and on weapons of mass destruction is as topical, and as rigorous, as one can hope – suggests, students of American politics often have much greater access to relevant data than do their counterparts in other subfields. In this vein, it is not surprising that the research Klein cites as particularly noteworthy – such as the study of U.S. national elections or voting in Congress – are particularly data-rich topics. In these areas, a combination of accessible data and simple theory has produced at least a modicum of scientific progress, (although perhaps not as much as some of us Americanists like to think.)

Fiorina had it right, I think, all those years ago. The explanation for why Klein thinks political science has conquered Washington, while Kristof laments its irrelevance, is that Klein has trained his sights on the most scientifically advanced subfield within the discipline: the study of American politics. I think most Americanists secretly recognize the truth of that observation, even if they won’t publicly admit it. Most comparative and IR scholars, in contrast, likely think I’m full of sh*t. If so, I understand their sentiment. But they shouldn’t blame me. I’m just the messenger. Listen instead to Ezra, as he cites in particular the many election forecast models developed by Americanists: “Young political journalists I talk to know a lot more about political science and how to use it to inform their reporting than they did when I came to town. And readers are better for it.”

But it’s not just Klein’s readers who benefit from these advances. Next week we start classes here, just in time for me to pass on Fiorina’s message to a new generation of budding young scholars eager to delve into the brave new world of political science. To them I say, “Study American politics. It doesn’t get any better!”

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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