Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Why does Washington ignore political science?

Ryan Sager considers why practitioners of politics seems so allergic to the structural explanations favored by political scientists:

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.”

Reminds me of my post on the seven stories Politico fears. But it's also a bit weird. I write 15-20 stories a day and don't find myself unnecessarily hamstrung by the absence of wild swings in the unemployment rate. Indeed, I find it useful to be able to look at things differently than most of my colleagues. Market differentiation and all that.

You'd think that advantage would be even more pronounced in government itself. 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.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 31, 2010; 9:04 AM ET
Categories:  Political Science  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: ObamaCare vs. Mitt Romney
Next: Why it's hard to eat local


I think this is rather similar to the phenomenon described by Michael Lewis in "Moneyball." Indeed, years after the book became a sensation, most baseball insiders, commentators, etc, have still refused to acknowledge any of the insights of sabremetricians and mockingly dismiss "Moneyball" as an insult to the craft of baseball.

Posted by: cinephile | March 31, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

---I write 15-20 stories a day [...]---

The sum of them underwrite the shallowness of your character, Klein. Think about it, in the five seconds before you plunge into your next in-depth gloss of the liberal stream of consciousness.

Posted by: msoja | March 31, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

I certainly understand why the political media ignores political science -- it robs them of minute-to-minute drama. I understand why political consultants ignore political science -- self-preservation. But I don't understand why actual politicians ignore political science. I understand that some 10% or so of the knowledge only comes through practical experience and intangibles that make up the "remainders" or "error" in political science models, but why not also consult with people who can tell you about the other 90% as a matter of empirical fact?

Posted by: vvf2 | March 31, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

If politicians hired political scientists, they would have to face their glaring hypocrisy on many issues and the mindless pandering that most pols regularly engage in. Any ethical political scientist would point out how, for example, republicans mindlessly oppose Obama, even when he suggests things that republicans thought of/championed. Why would any pol want a reality sandwich every day?

Posted by: srw3 | March 31, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

Explanations that hinge on Group X being stupid should be eliminated from consideration. Therefore, the explanation that politicians don't hire political scientists because politicians are stupid is ridiculous. A better answer is that political scientists don't offer enough bang for the buck.

Posted by: ostap666 | March 31, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Ezra's point is focused on PoliSci but I would like to offer that we are essentially powerless to make much difference regardless of the discipline under consideration. What we can do is enable or resist progress but as individuals we make little difference. Considered broadly, almost everything is a progrossion that advances according to "nature". We, as humans did not choose to evolve into what we have become; rather the "system" did it. As far as the things we accomplish, we can't help ourselves as it is in our nature. The natural system will judge what we do as "correct" when it can be sustained in support of progress.

Posted by: BertEisenstein | March 31, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

The term "political science" makes my skin crawl....I know there's something to it, but its a term that just offends my sort of reverence and admiration for actual scientific achievement!

As to Ezra's argument here, I think as in all things political, its a question of how one sees the world. Most people believe, for better or worse in the Great Man theory of things. That events are driven by the will of men, and so if Barack Obama wins the 2008 election it isnt because the country wanted to elect a Democrat all along after Bush and said so in any possible poll that you read, and once he proved competent to do the job he was pretty much a lock....thats boring!

We like to believe in the active voice in everything, when its mostly an illusion. We want to report romantic stories about "the age of Obama" or whoever. I enjoy it as a sort of quasi-fiction, personally.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | March 31, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Political science isn't very sexy. And, in the end, their input is probably not very useful. It may be true that statistics are more relevant than issues when it comes to winning elections, but that doesn't do candidates, or the news media, any good. "I stand an 83% chance of getting elected, because I am the opposition candidate in a significantly down economy," is, frankly, just not the kind of campaign politicians are going to want to run.

Even if politicians spent a lot of time consulting political scientists, how would that make it into their campaigns? How would that make it into their policy? What would it actually change?

If anything, the political science might make things look very bad for a given politician or party, so they decide to try a hail Mary approach and do everything people hate about politicians (yet respond to), only more and worse.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 31, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

The answer to why you're able to find things to write about is in your tagline -- you write about policy.

Posted by: AaronSVeenstra | March 31, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

"Even if politicians spent a lot of time consulting political scientists, how would that make it into their campaigns? How would that make it into their policy? What would it actually change?"

It depends on the research literature, but stuff on campaigning might help - the superiority of face-to-face canvassing over direct mail, for instance, has an immediate applicability to campaigns. Even in the context of general macroeconomic trends pushing election results, you can still make a difference on the margins (moving from 49 to 51 or 51 to 54 percent).

Posted by: y2josh_us | March 31, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

It may be that it's like the gap between lawyers and law professors, in that the academic side's work just doesn't generate much that's useful in day-to-day practice.

Posted by: tomtildrum | March 31, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

"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?"


Tell them that even if a policy is unpopular now due to Republican disinformation you're still a lot better off passing it if it will, in fact, make the economy, and peoples lives much better in future elections. And think beyond just the next election. You want to win not just in 2010, but in 2012, 2014, 2016 and beyond. And something like the healthcare bill will make peoples lives a lot better in 2012, 2014, 2016, and beyond, and that will create a lot of gratitude and confidence in the Democrats and doubt in the Republicans -- just as happened with the New Deal, which lead to generations of Democratic dominance, and moved the country far to the left.

It shows that good policy really counts in the long run, even if it's not very popular in the present due to Republican disinformation.

Posted by: Richard722 | March 31, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

The above post was by RichardHSerlin. I'll have to iron that out.

Posted by: Richard722 | March 31, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Political science has much in common with psychiatry and sociology. It isn't a science, but it gives excuse for a whole load of gibbering. The downside is that a lot of the gibbering ends up infringing on people's freedoms and making whole nations miserable.

Posted by: msoja | March 31, 2010 10:09 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company