Frustration and Polarization Among Political Scientists

Jonathan Bernstein had some good clean fun with colleagues the other day by posting some thoughts (and beginning a hashtag) on things political scientists believe to be true but cannot convince the rest of the world to accept. He mentioned the non-importance of money in presidential general elections; the “secret partisanship” of a sizable majority of self-identified independents; the relative insignificance of gerrymandering in causing partisan polarization; and probably the biggest issue, the marginal nature of campaign “events” in determining elections.

At Ten Miles Square today, in a gloss on Bernstein’s experiment, Marquette University’s Julia Azari argues that it’s important to understand these gaps between academic and general “knowledge” about politics aren’t just a function of poor communications by political scientists, but rather some pretty fundamental differences of opinion about basic matters like causation and human nature. In other words, shouting and stamping one’s feet at Mark Halperin won’t necessarily convince him to change his mind, or convince his employers and readers he’s peddling nonsense.

As a non-political scientist who is respectful of that tribe but not inclined to genuflect in their direction, I’d add another problematic issue: the tendency of academic folk to self-polarize a bit in order to counter what they regard as the bogus folk wisdom of journalists and operatives. Frustrated that pols won’t accept fundamentals-driven models of electoral behavior? Hell, why not have a model that reduces everything to just one fundamental like GDP growth? Convinced that journalists over-emphasize “issues” and “ideology” instead of simple partisanship? Then you might spend much of a book, as the impressively compelling John Sides and Lynn Vavreck did in The Gamble, trying to prove that the whole Mitt-Romney-Driven-to-the-Right-by-Primaries interpretation of 2012 most of us accepted to one degree or another, is a complete crock. Think The Party Decides resolved once and for all time that party elites play an overriding role in presdential nominations? Then you might tend to argue against any significant role for actual rank-and-file voters and the polls that measure their views and preferences.

As Azari notes, some of these arguments have to do with differences of opinion on human nature–but I’d suggest they extend to the human nature of political scientists as well, who sometimes over-compensate for being insufficiently listened to by doing exactly what frustrated people often do: exaggerating.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.