Is political science needed now more than ever?

Ezra Klein noted earlier this week that my discipline, at least in the subfields that study U.S. politics, has moved into the mainstream of political journalism, and perhaps the mainstream of U.S. politics. That’s certainly true. At the American Political Science Association meeting in Washington last week, I spent most of my time blogging in the lobby of the hotel, that is, when I wasn’t being interrupted by — or was myself interrupting — Brendan Nyhan (who blogs for the New York Times), Dan Drezner (Washington Post), John Sides (Washington Post), Seth Masket (Pacific Standard) and other highly visible political scientists. As Ezra notes, reporters and practitioners alike read the Monkey Cage, Mischiefs of Faction, and other political science sites.

It’s nothing like the old days, when most reporters would call political scientists mainly to get someone authoritative to say for them what they intended to write in the first place. Some reporters were better than that, but not many. I certainly ran into my share of the bad version in the days before I started blogging.

Anyway, what interests me is Ezra’s structural explanation for the change (as Jonathan Ladd notes, by supplying a structural explanation for the success of political science he is using our own methods to downgrade our personal responsibility for our success).

Ezra argues that it’s demand-sided: politics is changing, and what used to worked for journalists doesn’t work anymore. Reporters who used to be able to call the Senate Finance Committee chairman to find out what was going on have discovered that they’re apt to be misled because the things the chairman knows aren’t as important as they used to be.

I’m extremely skeptical of that explanation. Sure, political scientists can (help) explain partisan polarization, but plenty of Hill staffers knew all about it 20 or 30 years ago. More generally, political scientists may be relatively more useful than insiders just after times of great change (during change, I’m not so sure), but I’m not sure we’re at any special point of change right now.

No, the structural explanation isn’t change in political science or in politics, but change in the media. Specifically, the blogosphere. Bloggers, by nature, learn things by reading, not by making phone calls (they also do interviews, but I’ll bet they’re far more likely to rely on reading than old-style reporters were). Bloggers — not just Ezra, but Andrew Sullivan, Matt Yglesias, Greg Sargent or Kevin Drum — were extremely welcoming to political-scientist bloggers because there wasn’t a huge gap between their worlds.

As Ezra and other bloggers moved up the media food chain, they brought with them methods that made them better at what they did, whether that meant continuing to link to political scientists or downloading and reading academic articles when they wanted to know stuff. People trained in journalism schools, or by working the courthouse beat at local newspapers, wouldn’t have thought to do those things.

All that is mostly structural, but some of it was contingent — it just so happened that Ezra was especially interested in supporting political science (as he was when he invited me to guest blog for him), and that Andrew Sullivan is unusually supportive of new voices, and that they and others promoted norms among political bloggers that encouraged open discussion, inclusiveness and reciprocity. Had bloggers decided 10 years ago to link “up” (to more famous establishment folks) rather than “down” (to voices that weren’t known to the general public), the outcome would have been very different.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.