Bill Clinton, You’re No Hans Noel

There’s a lot to disagree with in Tyler Cowen’s latest post responding to Hans Noel’s piece about the nature of political science scholarship. Basically, Hans was objecting to Nicholas Kristof’s complaint that most political scientists would object to Bill Clinton being hired with a “tenured professorship” in their department. Hans said that of course Clinton should not be hired into such a position, since that’s a scholarly job, and Clinton, for all his intelligence and experience, does not produce scholarship. Cowen responds thusly:

I recently read Noel’s book on political polarization and enjoyed it, especially his discussion of how intellectual elites have led the process of polarization. Still, I would trade in having read that book for a five minute chat with Bill Clinton.

I assume others will weigh in on various aspects of Cowen’s post, but I wanted to particularly comment on the above quote with the somewhat unique perspective of one who’s known (sort of) both Clinton and Noel. (I used to work for Clinton (with many buffers in between us), and Hans and I have written papers together and are currently collaborating on a textbook.) Here goes:

You will learn far more about American politics from reading Hans Noel’s book, even a chapter from it, than you will from a five-minute chat with Bill Clinton.

Hans explores more than a century of political debates in the nation’s newspapers and magazines to discover how ideologies are forged and how they control parties and politicians for decades thereafter. He not only draws out the arc of American partisan development, but also gives us new insight into the nature of ideology, one of the most important but least well understood concepts in political science.

You will not get anything like that out of Clinton. He will tell you some great stories and will quite possibly offer an insight or two about American politics that you hadn’t considered. He’ll flatter you with attention and demonstrate how bright and charming he is. It will be a great five minutes. But the main thing that you’ll get out of the experience is a photo for your wall and a chance to tell your grandchildren that you had a five minute conversation with Bill Clinton. To think that you’ll get as much from that brief conversation as you will out of reading Hans’ book is to reveal that you care more about celebrity than knowledge.

I say this not to denigrate Clinton, who is really quite brilliant and I imagine would have made an outstanding scholar had he chosen that line of work. But he didn’t.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.