Saturday, January 1, 2011

On Bernstein's "Joyous Cynicism"

Andrew Sprung has a thoughtful and fascinating critique of Jonathan Bernstein's blog, a blog which, loyal readers will note, I cite frequently. Sprung seems to be using Bernstein as an example of a certain perspective that seems common to Americanist political scientists -- what Sprung calls "joyous cynicism." I can certainly understand what Sprung is arguing, and I have been accused of holding this worldview myself, so I'd like to take a moment to defend it, or at least explain it.

While bloggers like Bernstein and John Sides and I might have a great deal in common with bloggers like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias and Sprung, we have vastly different motivations and training.  Political scientist bloggers, in my experience, are far more interested in explanation of political phenomena and far less interested in advocacy. (I had a minor argument on this subject last spring with a journalist who didn't understand my reticence to express my feelings about political parties.) For example, when Bernstein sought to explain Republican obstructionism on the New Start Treaty during the recent lame duck session, Sprung interpreted that as contrarianism, and questioned why we should accept crass political calculation by our elected officials:
Where Bernstein (judging from his blog's Comments section) does disturb many readers -- me included -- is in his suggestion that it is politicians' right, indeed their duty, to be guided entirely by such calculations. He argues, in effect, that the law of political survival is a necessary, natural, sufficient and therefore desirable prime mover of politicians' words and actions.
I don't want to speak for Jon here (I'm sure he'll have a good post along these lines up shortly), but my response to this is as follows: I don't celebrate this system. But to complain that politicians will be guided by political calculation is like complaining that businesspeople will be guided by profit maximization or that athletes are too obsessed with winning. It's not a character flaw; it's their line of work. Indeed, hoping for politicians who are untethered from political calculations is not only naïve, but sometimes quite dangerous.

I think you can learn much about Bernstein's viewpoint from his post on one of my favorite films, "Gangs of New York."  Note this bit on the film's portrayal of competing interests:
[I]ts idea of politics entirely lacks Mr. Smithism. Politics, in this movie, is serious business indeed -- and there's no way that Leo's Amersterdam is going to save the day by giving a dramatic speech. Nor is it the case that Bill is corrupt while Amsterdam is pure; Leo's character, I think, is one we can eventually feel okay about rooting for, but only eventually, when his blood feud broadens into something a little less personal and vindictive. At least, perhaps that's the case. And even then, he's certainly no Mr. Smith; he's no Progressive out for some abstract common good, but a partisan fighting for his group with whatever means he can find. Accepting democracy as a politics in which interests are legitimate is rare in the movies, and I think that's what Scorsese gives us here.
As individuals, we certainly have our preferences as to which policies should be enacted and which candidates and parties should be elected. But as political scientists, we are not interested in advancing one policy or party or candidate over another, and we do not believe that we can get to a better society by removing politics from the world. We accept that politics will exist wherever two or more people are trying to make a collective decision, and we view it as our job to explain how this works.