Saturday, January 9, 2010

Hatin' on poli sci

Marc Ambinder:
Political scientists aren't going to like this book, because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press, which is to say -- a messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition between flawed human beings -- a universe away from numbers and probabilities and theories.
That's from Ambinder's review of Heilemann and Halperin's Game Change, a new book filled with juicy revelations from the 2008 presidential campaign.  Jonathan Bernstein has already posted an excellent rejoinder to this diss, but I thought I'd add a few points of my own.

Political scientists are social scientists, which means that we are engaged in the study of an aspect of human behavior.  Yes, we care deeply about the behavior of "flawed human beings."  There are many ways to approach this study, of course.  Some of us do this by talking to candidates, party officials, donors, officeholders, journalists, and others who are deeply involved in the "messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition" Ambinder describes.  I spend a rather lengthy chapter of my book doing exactly that, recognizing that there are aspects of the political process (in my case, party nominations) that do not lend themselves easily to quantitative study (especially when the politicians involved are trying to keep their actions from being recorded).

And in this respect, I am far from unique.  My colleague Nancy Wadsworth is engaged in a fascinating study about the racial reconciliation movement in evangelical churches, trying to understand the motivations of the white and black pastors who are organizing it.  Greg Koger has a wonderful book on the filibuster coming out, in which he not only quantitatively analyzes the use of legislative delaying tactics over time but also gets into the details of specific filibusters and the motivations and physical conditions of their perpetrators.  David Mayhew's and Richard Fenno's studies of members of Congress contain some of the most revealing interviews with politicians I've ever seen.  I could list far, far more, but I just wanted to give a little taste.

Of course, while we can learn a lot by studying a single election, studying hundreds or thousands of them makes it far less likely that we'll be led astray by an atypical case or by a conversation with a dominant personality and far more likely that we'll uncover the basic dynamics that govern elections.  That's why we sometimes try to quantify things.  Without this sort of larger-scale perspective, it's possible for an observer to believe, as in the example Bernstein mentions, that only Ronald Reagan's humorous quip about his age prevented Walter Mondale from becoming the 41st president.  The best sorts of political science usually involve both approaches, balancing a study of individual human political behavior with a quantitative perspective that ensures that what we have found is representative of the political world.

While I think Ambinder's quote is misguided and incorrect, I should note that political scientists are not journalists.  For one thing, we have the luxury of a longer publication cycle -- a typical peer-reviewed article probably takes about a year or two from the genesis of an idea to its appearance in print, and some take much, much longer.  Investigative political journalists often have only a few months or weeks to do this job -- sometimes a few hours, depending on what's being examined.  Journalists often have better access to key sources and are often better at leveraging that access into revealing information.  To some extent, we're involved in the same business.  But we approach it with different tools, and we serve different masters.

As for Ambinder's statement that political scientists wouldn't like this book, well, I won't know until I read it.  But Ambinder might keep in mind that the reason most of us became political scientists and that we endured nearly a decade of low-wage, low-status graduate student status in the process is because politics interests us.  We use numbers and probabilities and theories to help us understand politics.  If we only cared about numbers and probabilities and theories, we'd have become mathematicians.

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