Ezra Klein Gives Political Scientists Some of Their Own Medicine

This is not ironic. But Alanis was never a stickler for definitions.
In recent years, political scientist have gained more influence over how journalists cover national politics. One of the central differences between political scientists and old fashioned political journalists is that political scientists are much more likely to attribute political events to the structure or environment in which political conflict takes place, not the actions of individual politicians. For instance, political scientists say election outcomes are mostly determined by the state of the economy and how long the president’s party has been in office, rather than campaign tactics and charismatic candidates. The president’s legislative success is determined by the preferences of members of Congress, not the president’s speech-making ability. Members of Congress are more extreme and uncompromising not because there aren’t any reasonable people left in America, but because members that do compromise are now very likely to lose in primaries.

In Vox today, Ezra Klein has a very nice item describing how political scientists’ way of looking at the world has become much more influential in the past 9 years. But to what does he credit this new intellectual dominance? Was it because of the amazing work of John Sides and his team at The Monkey Cage blog? Was it the founders of our humble blog? Was it the political scientists who wrote books that were both accessible and extremely illuminating? Or was it maybe even the rise of intellectually curious young journalists like Ezra?

No. While Klein acknowledges these variables, he credits most of the increasing importance of political science in Washington journalism to… wait for it… structural factors! It is not all the hard work done by political scientist and journalists, but rather the increase in polarization itself that has led journalists to embrace political science. Klein argues that when politicians’ ideologies were less extreme and the parties less ideologically sorted, it was more plausible to believe that the skills of a specific politician might make a difference. But in the modern polarized era, it is much more obvious to journalists that political outcomes are beyond one man or woman’s control.

So congratulations, political scientists trying to improve journalism! You have been hoisted by your own petard!

[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]