The Absent Professor

Several years before his death in 2003, Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt offered an accurate, if understated, assessment of how his discipline was regarded in Washington. “The standing of our profession,” he told a group of fellow political scientists, “is not high.” Indeed not. For decades now, political scientists have bemoaned how little use those who practice politics have for those who study it. Among political professionalspoliticians, Capitol Hill staffers, journalists, pollsters, and campaign consultantseconomists are prized, but political scientists are spurned. “When you go to talk to policy makers,” says Jacob Hacker of Yale University, one of the few political scientists who can start a sentence in that way, “if there is someone else in the room who is a social scientist, 90 percent of the time she is an economist.”

The last two political books to generate serious Beltway buzz came from nonpolitical fields. First, there was George Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, whose book Moral Politics gave Democrats an F and Republicans an A for their storytelling abilities. Then this past summer, there was Emory University’s Drew Westen, a psychologist, touting the importance of emotion over reason in The Political Brain. But what about the release of that three-years-in-the-making report called Inequality and American Democracy: What We Know and What We Need to Learn, authored by fifteen of political science’s finest thinkers? Remember how it warned that America’s “ideals of equal citizenship and responsive government may be under growing threat”? Well, perhaps you missed it. So did Washington. As Hacker puts it, the report “fell into the water with a ripple, but not much else.”

How did the hapless political scientist fall so low? As a political science graduate student at the University of Chicago, I would certainly like to know myself. Things started off so well in my field. No less an eminence than Woodrow Wilson himself laid out a vision for a discipline in which the study of politics would support and guide government. For many years, that’s just what political science did. During the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt made extensive use of political scientists in his administration. Later, giants of the field such as Harold Lasswell, David Truman, and Gabriel Almond consulted with policy makers about World War II and the cold war. In subsequent decades, the field continued to produce stars such as Neustadt and James Q. Wilson (also of Harvard), men whose identity as political scientists was secondary to their identities as public intellectuals.

Forty years ago, though, that all began to change. Some policy makers (and journalists) began to complain that political science had become overly quantified, with mathematically inclined practitioners treating politicians like atomic particles instead of human beings. Others criticized political scientists for pursuing irrelevant and obscure research. The field was also derided for increasingly inaccessible jargon. Washington didn’t care for this rarefied brew, preferring more and more the stiffer drink of campaign consultants and pollsters.

Although many of these criticisms weren’t fairsince economists (like all academics) were likewise guilty of all the sins mentioned abovethere’s no doubt that economists, unlike political scientists, retained an appreciation for the art of self-promotion. (See Steven Levitt and Freakonomics for a prime example.) Political science, meanwhile, forgot how to elbow its way into the conversation and began to make a virtue of its remove. Today, an aspiring political scientist fears Washington’s approval almost as much as he or she covets it. “You are constantly aware of these two audiences and you don’t want to shoot your academic reputation by saying something dumb in the political arena,” explains Harvard’s Robert Putnam, a prominent political scientist and the author of the national best seller Bowling Alone. “You can have Hillary Clinton know your name and political science think you’re a dunce, or have political science know you and have Hillary Clinton never heard of you. Most political scientists would choose the latter.”

Once such a mind-set takes hold, it’s hard to overcome. The same applies to Washington’s view of the situation. Equilibriums are an important concept in social science, and reputations often settle into one of two states: high and low. When they collapse, they languish for years. Washington considers political science unhelpful today because it considered political science unhelpful five years ago.

Because of this, even political scientists who might speak beyond the academy find themselves stymied. Take Princeton’s Larry Bartels, an academic whose work probably makes him the closest to a potential Steven Levitt of political science. Bartels communicates easily with those outside his field. He has considerable technical and mathematical skills and still eschews complex equations as a means to derive universal explanations for political behavior. And he has shown an appetite for entertaining debate and dissent, such as when he took on author Thomas Frank for his thesis in the best-selling book What’s the Matter With Kansas? Despite these points in his favor, Bartels says his contact with Washington political professionals has been “very modest”an invitation to a White House dinner in 1996, a request from the White House in 2003 for a paper of his about public opinion on tax cuts (with no follow-up), and an appointment by the New Jersey State Supreme Court’s chief justice to serve on an apportionment commission in 2001.

Asked what sort of things political professionals could stand to hear from political scientists, Bartels cites a long list of examples of misconceptions that have become conventional wisdom: Americans are polarized. (False: Congress is polarized; the American public is not.) Voter turnout has declined over the past several decades. (False: It hasn’t declined since 1972.) Abortion is as hot an issue as ever. (False: It peaked in the 1990s.) Bill Clinton left a profound mark on the Democratic Party. (False: The former president has had almost no effect, good or bad, on the party’s “brand name” among most voters.) Karl Rove’s ability to mobilize the base in 2004 was unprecedented. (False: Rove mobilized fewer “strong Republicans” in 2000 and 2004 than his predecessors did in 1996.) Working-class voters care a lot about religion in their political choices. (False: Religion matters much more to middle- and upper-class voters than to working-class voterseven if they live in Kansas!) Bartels hasn’t shared his thoughts very widely. “For my part,” he wrote, “since I’m not going to be on the National Security Council or the Federal Reserve Board, I mostly just go about my academic business.”

Still, many political scientists think they’re finally experiencing a comeback, one in which campaign consultants have taken the lead. “‘Synergy’ is too trendy a word, but it’s not inaccurate here,” says Daron Shaw, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “[Consultants] will actually read books by [political scientists] and say, ‘That’s an interesting idea.'” Shaw, who had lunch with Rove occasionally, joined the Bush team in 1999 as director of election studies and worked as an Austin-based consultant for the Bush reelection effort and the Republican National Committee in 2004. Similarly, when Samuel Popkin at the University of California in San Diego released the book The Reasoning Voter, Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 paid close attention. Several years later, Karl Rove bought thirty copies and told everyone on the George Bush campaign they had to read it. “Rove decided they needed to do scientific studies of get-out-the-vote in 2000 to use in 2002 and 2004,” said Popkin. “He took it very seriously.”

So far, the politician with the greatest faith in political scientists may be Texas Governor Rick Perry. During his 2006 reelection campaign, Perry turned over control of his travel schedule and $2 million to Shaw and three others to test the added value of the two things that political consultants treasure most: advertisements and campaign appearances. Consultants will want to bury many of the study’s results. (Hint: advertising didn’t matter much.) However, Shaw was less successful at transferring his brand of experimentation to the White House, where he suggested that President Bush similarly test out the effect of targeted versus arbitrary campaign appearances around the country. “So what you want us to do is completely randomize the president’s travel?” Rove asked at one point. “That was the end of that conversation,” Shaw recalls.

Overall, though, if we political scientists are going to reach politicians and policy makers, we’re not going to be able to rely on consultants or academically inclined politicians, but rather on more trad-itional channels of Washington discourse: making friends, being relevant, and writing stuff that people can be bothered to read. To that end, some of us are trying out blogging, some are rediscovering the art of the narrative, and some are seeking to train our inner publicity hounds. It’s hard to say what works best. “I’ve spent time talking with presidential candidates before they became candidates,” says Putnam, whose list of conversation partners has included Barack Obama, both Clintons, Mike Huckabee, Al Gore, and George W. Bush. “How did they ever hear about me? I don’t have a clue.” For the sake of my profession, I hope we get one.

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