We cannot even choose a side

10 08 2017

After the election of the current occupant of the White House, I considered pitching The Atlantic on a story about the unpreparedness of Americanist political scientists for the new regime.

Like with so (too) many things, I never got around to it, but, today, reading Anthony McElligott’s Rethinking the Weimar Republic, I circled back around to this idea.

Political science, as taught in the US, is often divided into 4 fields: American politics, comparative politics, international relations, and political theory. Sometimes comp & IR are combined, and in some of the larger departments, there may be slots given over to methods/quantitative analysis; theory (my field) is almost always the smallest portion of a pol sci dept.

Anyway, one of the big issues in analyzing the rise and fall of the early German republic is the role of institutions: the attempt of the republic to create new, representative ones, and the role of reactionary institutions (namely, the judiciary and the army) in either not supporting or weakening the republic.

And that’s what brought me back to a consideration of Americanists, and their general lack of consideration of institutions qua institutions.

Let me explain. Here’s [my sense of] how the different fields break down, in terms of what’s studied:

  • American
    • Institutions (govt-specif)
    • Policy (general and specif)
    • Parties
    • State politics
    • Interest groups (oft in conjunction with policy and/or institutions)
    • Political psychology (attitudes & behavior, incl voting behavior)
    • Elections (oft crossed with pol psych, parties, state politics, interest groups)
  • Comparative
    • Institutions (qua institutions)
    • Specific countries/regions
    • Human rights
    • Political culture
    • International law/institutions
    • Political economy
    • Non-governmental organizations
  • IR
    • Diplomacy
    • War
    • Militaries
    • International law/institutions
    • NGOs
    • Political economy
  • Theory
    • History of pol thought
    • Ideologies
    • Specific theorists
    • Specific traditions (e.g., critical theory)

(Again, this is simply my impressionistic take; were I writing a paid piece, I’d test this against something more solid.)

As a general matter, all fields except theory rely on quantitative methods, Americanists probably most of all; Americanists and comparativists may also use qualitative methods. IR, comparative, and theory are variously broadly and narrowly historical, while Americanists are usually only narrowly historical.

What do I mean by “narrowly historical”? They might consider the history of the use of executive power, say, or of the evolution of various House or Senate procedures—that is, they’ll look at the history of a policy or institution in terms of that policy or institution, not any wider trends.

And by “institutions, specific”, I mean, the institutions of government and the various procedures therein; they are generally not considered within a larger context of the institutionalization (“qua institutions”) of the American federal republic or American political culture. A while back I asked someone (Daniel Nexon?) on Twitter—or maybe it was Nexon at Lawyers, Guns & Money—whether there were Americanists who studied institutions in terms of institutionalization, and Stephen Skowronek was the only name he could come up with.

And American political culture? There’s plenty of stuff out there, but little of it done by Americanist; for that, you need to hit up the historians.

Think I’m kidding? Type “American political culture” into Google Scholar and see what pops up: historians and comparativists, some sociologists, and yes, a few political scientists (however narrowly focused).

But not a lot.

This is not a criticism of any particular Americanist. I follow Sarah Binder and Amy Fried, both grad school colleagues, on Twitter, and Sarah’s my go-to scholar for Congressional procedure. And it’s not as if Americanists won’t talk perceptively about what the hell is going on in our country on a conversational level. But bringing scholarly weight to bear on these matters? Not so much.

Okay, it’s getting late, so I won’t stretch my speculations any further. Let’s just say I think Americanists need to—perhaps they already have or are doing so!—broaden their focus and deepen their (historical) analysis if there considerable knowledge is to be of any use in making sense of our current, disintegrating, era.

And theorists? Have I mentioned it’s late. . . ?

What’s going on?

6 11 2014

Another wailing? Why oh why oh why oh why?!

No, that won’t do.

A stream-of-consciousness blather of all of the possible variables involved in electoral politics? Bad candidates, bad campaigns, tribalism, voter turnout, voter suppression, running from liberal accomplishments, the president’s party tends to lose midterms, . . .

I considered this, but then realized that would be more indulgent than enlightening—and while I’m all about the indulgent and have my own issues with the enlightening, it does seem that some thoughts from the folks who study American politics for a livin’ are in order:

First up, Hans Noel:


Nov. 5, 2014: “Republicans win! Democrats are doomed! Obama failed! It’s Red America!”
Nov. 7, 2012: “Democrats win! Republicans are doomed! Romney’s 47 percent misstep! Latino voters!”
Nov. 3, 2010: “Republicans win! Democrats are doomed! Obama overreached! Tea Party!”
Nov. 5, 2008: “Democrats win! Republicans are doomed! Palin was a joke! Realignment!”
Nov. 8, 2006: “Democrats win! Republicans are doomed! Bush finally pays for failure in Iraq!”
Nov. 3, 2004: “Republicans win! Democrats are doomed! Kerry never should have let himself be videotaped windsurfing! Values voters!”
Nov. 6, 2002: “Republicans win! Democrats are doomed! Voters back Bush’s tough stand on Iraq!”

Political scientists: 

Presidents tend to win re-election (2004, 2012), but they are more likely to lose the longer their party has been in power (1992, 1952, 1948). Presidents’ parties tend to lose seats in midterm elections (2006, 2010, 2014).

Seth Masket:

Here are some very tentative election results compared with their averages in midterm elections between 1950 and 2010:

  • The president’s party lost roughly 12 House seats. The average is 25.
  • The president’s party lost roughly 8 Senate seats. The average is 3.
  • The president’s party lost roughly 8 state legislative chambers. The average is 10.

How do we interpret, say, the Republican gain of a dozen House seats? Obviously, that’s good for Republicans, giving them the largest majority they’ve had in almost a century, but it’s also a pretty paltry gain by midterm election standards. Between 1950 and 2010, the president’s party has lost an average of 25 seats in midterms. Now, given that Republicans already had a healthy majority in the House, it was harder for them to win that many more, so surely this is an impressive gain. But how impressive?

He goes on to offer some very nice charts & diagrams for comparative perspective.

Matthew Dickinson considers the midterms, then makes the turn toward 2016:

So, what are we to make of these results? To begin, it’s important to resist the inevitable tendency for pundits to overreach in their effort to discern “the message” the voters send yesterday. Already I am reading that the results indicate 1) a rejection of Obama,  2) a rejection of Democrats’ “war on women”  3) a rejection of Democratic liberal governance or maybe some combination of all of these. Some Democrats, not surprisingly, are suggesting that Republicans “bought” the elections due to backing from Superpacs.

The reality is that while this was a good night for Republicans, the results were driven by midterm election dynamics that political scientists have long documented. In this respect last night’s results were not unusual – nor were they even unexpected, at least based on fundamentals-driven forecasts. The most important point to remember is that the electorate in a midterm is different than what we see in a presidential election year, a point I made repeatedly last night. I haven’t seen turnout figures, but I’m guessing turnout was about 40%, down about 18% from 2012’s presidential election. More important than the size of the turnout, however, is its composition: yesterday it skewed older, whiter and more affluent than the electorate of 2012, and these are all attributes associated with a greater propensity to vote Republican.

He gives credit to the Republicans for their solid performance, noting they did well in building on an already-large majority in the House, but also that the gains themselves were not outside of historical norms.

And Jonathan Ladd looks ahead to 2016 as well, arguing that:

1) These results tell us essentially nothing about how the 2016 election will turn out. If any analyst tries to explain the significance of this for 2016, you can stop reading/listing right there. The president’s party almost always does poorly in the midterms in the sixth year of a presidency. The 2016 election will be determined by economic performance in 2016, how long the Democrats have held the presidency, and whether Obama gets involved in a costly overseas war. The only possible effect this could have is if newly elected Republicans in some way affect economic performance in 2016.

Ladd, Masket, and Noel all blog at Mischiefs of Faction, while Dickinson has his own thing going on at Presidential Powe.

Anyway, these are among the folks you should be reading if want to get beyond the wailing (or dancing, as is your wont) and actually make sense—or begin to make sense—of what’s goin’ on in these united states.

She blinded me with science

17 02 2014

When to let go and when to hang on?

This is one of the conundrums ways I’ve come to interpret various situations in life big and small. I don’t know that there is ever a correct decision (tho’ I’ll probably make the wrong one), but one chooses, nonetheless.

Which is to say: I choose to hang on to the “science” in political science.

I didn’t always feel this way, and years ago used to emphasize that I was a political theorist, not a political scientist. This was partly due to honesty—I am trained in political theory—and partly to snobbery: I thought political theorists were somehow better than political scientists, what with their grubbing after data and trying to hide their “brute empiricism” behind incomprehensible statistical models.

Physics envy, I sniffed.

After awhile the sniffiness faded, and as I drifted into bioethics, the intradisciplinary disputes faded as well. And as I drifted away from academia, it didn’t much matter anymore.

So why does it matter now?

Dmf dropped this comment after a recent post—

well “science” without repeatable results, falsifiability, and some ability to predict is what, social? lot’s of other good way to experiment/interact with the world other than science…

—and my first reaction was NO!

As I’ve previously mentioned, I don’t trust my first reactions precisely because they are so reactive, but in this case, with second thought, I’ma stick with it.

What dmf offers is the basic Popperian understanding of science, rooted in falsifiability and prediction, and requiring some sort of nomological deductivism. It is widespread in physics, and hewed to more or less in the other natural and biological sciences.

It’s a great model, powerful for understanding the regularities of non-quantum physics and, properly adjusted, for the biosciences, as well.

But do you see the problem?

What dmf describes is a method, one of a set of interpretations within the overall practice of science. It is not science itself.

There is a bit of risk in stating this, insofar as young-earth creationists, intelligent designers, and sundry other woo-sters like to claim the mantle of science as well. If I loose science from its most powerful method, aren’t I setting it up to be overrun by cranks and supernaturalists?


The key to dealing with them is to point out what they’re doing is bad science, which deserves neither respect in general nor class-time in particular. Let them aspire to be scientists; until they actually produce a knowledge which is recognizable as such by those in the field, let them be called failures.

Doing so allows one to get past the no-good-Scotsman problem (as, say, with the Utah chemists who insisted they produced cold fusion in a test tube: not not-scientists, but bad scientists), as well as to recognize that there is a history to science, and that what was good science in one time and place is not good in another.

That might create too much wriggle room for those who hold to Platonic notions of science, and, again, to those who worry that this could be used to argue for an “alternative” physics or chemistry or whatever. But arguing that x science is a practice with a history allows the practitioners of that science to state that those alternatives are bunk.

But back to me (always back to me. . . ).

I hold to the old notion of science as a particular kind of search for knowledge, and as knowledge itself. Because of that, I’m not willing to give up “science” to the natural scientists because those of us in the social sciences are also engaged in a particular kind of search for knowledge. That it is not the same kind of search for the same kind of knowledge does not make it not-knowledge, or not-science.

I can’t remember if it was Peter Winch or Roger Trigg who pointed out that the key to good science was to match the method to the subject: what works best in physics won’t necessarily work best in politics. The problem we in the social sciences have had is that our methods are neither as unified nor as powerful as those in the natural sciences, and that, yes, physics envy has meant that we’ve tried to import methods and ends  which can be unsuitable for learning about our subjects.

So, yes, dmf, there are more ways of interacting with the world than with science. But there are also more ways of practicing science itself.

We just have to figure that out.

Love me, love me, say that you love me

2 12 2012

Not everything that can be measured matters; not everything that matters can be measured.

This is one of those tropes that I periodically repeat to my students. (It’s possible that I came up with this wording, but given that the sentiment has been around a lot longer than I have, I’d guess that I swiped the line from someone else. [Pause while I search.] Ah, stolen: A variation on Einstein.)

Anyway, it’s a good line, although a bit dangerous for the classroom: My students are already disinclined to take statistics (despite my admonitions to do so), so suggesting that measurement has its limits might lead them to translate this to mean measurement is bunk.

Measurement is not bunk, but there are some phenomenon which cannot be captured by a nifty formula. Money, money can be easily measured, but why it matters beyond its utility is a question which requires knowledge beyond that of currency itself. It’s not that you can’t get responses to the question, but that those responses are so embedded within history and culture and politics and psychology that in order to elicit good responses, the questions must be informed by history and culture and whatnot.

Then there are some phenomenon which are damned near impossible to capture with any precision, in large part because they lack clear definition.

Love is one of those things. The best you can do is to try to identify the elements which you’d want to include in the corral, but even then some of those bits may flee over the fence while others might tunnel in and by gum it’s worse than herding wet angry cats in the presence of puppies and raccoons.

Still, the damned-near-impossibility of drawing any kind of definitive line around love does not mean it does not exist. I admit to my own agita regarding its role (or lack thereof) in my life, but that I can’t see it for myself does not mean it is not a real thing for other people.

Not only is it a real thing, it’s a real and powerful thing, and it drives people in all kinds of directions, including ’round the bend and over the cliff and up a wall. It matters, in other words.

Deidre McCloskey also thinks it matters, and, furthermore, that it ought to matter to economists that they have no good way of comprehending love or incorporating it into their theories.

I am, of course, not an economist, and I get just a bit too much pleasure bashing (in particular freshwater) economists for their oft-ridiculous assumptions regarding rationality and the maximization of utility. Nonetheless, McCloskey has peeled back a lid my fellow political scientists would also prefer kept securely in place:

The great Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, for example, thinks in this fashion, as do his numerous followers. He realizes that love — or as he usually styles it, with embarrassed male scare quotes, “love” — entails more than “caring” in his restricted sense: “If M cares about F, M’s utility would depend on the commodity consumption of F as well as on his own.

” But treating others as “inputs into a self’s utility function,” as Becker puts it, is to treat the others as means, not as ends. Immanuel Kant said two centuries ago in effect that your mother, if she is truly and fully loving, loves you as an end, for your own sweet sake. You may be a rotten kid, an ax-murderer on death row in Texas. You’re not even a high-school graduate. You give her “nothing but grief,” as we say. In all the indirect, derivative ways you are a catastrophe. And yet she goes on loving you, and stands wailing in front of the prison on the night of your execution. Economists need to understand what everyone else already understands, and what the economists themselves understood before they went to graduate school, that such love is of course commonplace. [emph added]

Political scientists don’t do love or humor—that’s another line I toss at my students—which is particularly unfortunate because politics is full of love and humor and every other kind of emotion. To the extent that we ignore the role of love in politics, we miss something crucial about the subject which we, for some reason or another, have decided to study.


One last bit: I was (and to some extent, still am) like Becker in that I put “love” and “caring” in those scary quotes, but Joan Tronto’s Moral Boundaries forced me to reckon with an “ethic of care” as a morally serious (as opposed to frivolous) concept. I’d borrowed the book about a decade ago on a recommendation from a friend, but recently managed to snag a used copy. I’ll write about it when I re-read it.

She’s now at the University of Minnesota. I wonder if I would have been smart enough to have engaged with her when I was there. As McCloskey notes, we unlearn so many things while in grad school.

(h/t: Andrew Sullivan, Daily Dish)

Mayan campaign mashup 2012: Links!

25 08 2012

Just a quick note: I put links to  the various sites that anyone who cares about intelligent commenting on this election should read all in my blogroll.

Under the heading Mayan Campaign Mashup 2012, natch.

Mayan campaign mashup 2012: All hail the king!

11 08 2012

Update in the middle and below

So it’s Paul Ryan, 7-term member of Congress, chair of the House Budget Committee, author of budget plan written in fairy dust, and former prom king.


I got nothin’.

Is it a good pick? Bad? Bold? Foolish? I tend to be among those who thinks the veep pick won’t do much to help, although—as the pick of La Palin (or, further back, Thomas Eagleton) demonstrated—can hurt. Ryan is clearly more qualified than the former guv (of Alaska, people, of Alaska!) and is comfortable with the national attention, so he’s unlikely to do Romney any damage. He’s good-looking, which can’t hurt, and young, which is probably good.

After skimming a few pundit commentaries (rubbish), I think I’ll stick with the political scientists. Jonathan Bernstein, who writes a plain blog about politics, put up a late-night/early-morning post at WaPo on Ryan that should be read by everyone who comments on the veepstakes:

Now, beyond that, three points. First, I would downplay to some extent the idea that picking Ryan will establish the “narrative” of the rest of the campaign in any particular way. For the last few months, the veepstakes have been the biggest game in town; if Ryan does reasonably well, he’ll tend to disappear after the convention. That’s what running mates do. . . .

Second, Ryan will almost certainly be seen over the next week or three to have “energized” the party. That, too, is almost certainly overstated. Most of that “energizing” effect is structural, and would have happened regardless as long as Romney chose a “solid conservative”.

Third, I don’t think it will doom the campaign or anything like that, but it is worth noting that this is a shockingly inexperienced ticket, especially when it comes to national security and foreign policy. . . . The only ticket I can think of that was similarly lacking in foreign policy credentials would be Carter-Mondale in 1976, but at least both of them had military service in their backgrounds.

The bottom line about virtually all vice-presidential picks is that they seem far more important to the campaign when they’re made than they turn out to be. That’s probably true for this one, too. But if it does end up having a significant effect in November, it’s almost certainly going to be on the downside, and that’s more likely with Ryan than it would have been with most of the other reported finalists.

As an Obama supporter, I hope he’s right about the downside effect, but whether Ryan is an asset or a drag will depend on how he performs, how Romney makes use of or buries his budget ideas, and how the Obama/Biden campaign responds to the blue-eyed cheddarhead.

(Now, I was going to toss in some wisdom from the folks at The Monkey Cage, but I’m having a devil of a time getting in; I hope this means that journalists are overloading their circuits trying to get some real information—but that may be too much to hope for. I’ll try again later and plug ’em in then.)

*UPDATE* Okay, Larry Bartels at TMC has a post up; unlike Bernstein, he focuses less on the tactical than on the policy implications of choosing a man who

has spent much of his career warning America of “a crushing burden of debt” that “will soon eclipse our economy and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead.” . . .

YouGov asked 1000 prospective voters “how the outcome of this fall’s presidential election will affect America over the next four years. Regardless of which candidate you personally support, what effect do you think the election outcome will have on the federal budget deficit?” The response options were “much higher if Obama is reelected” (selected by 35% of the sample), “somewhat higher if Obama is reelected” (11%), “no difference” (36%), “somewhat higher if Romney is elected” (5%), and “much higher if Romney is elected” (12%).

The distribution of responses to this question is a testament to the political effectiveness of Republicans like Ryan and Tea Party activists, who have been loudly bewailing the escalation of the federal debt since Barack Obama became president. Democrats’ counterargument that recent outsized budget deficits reflect fallout from the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, the Bush tax cuts, and the Iraq War seems to have been much less persuasive. Nor have they made much headway, at least so far, in convincing the public that the Republican budget plan authored by Ryan and endorsed by Romney would actually exacerbate the deficit by slashing the taxes of top income earners.

Despite the question wording encouraging respondents to put aside their own candidate preferences, expectations regarding future budget deficits are strongly skewed by partisan predispositions (as measured in a “baseline” survey of the same respondents in late 2011). Most Democrats think deficits will be larger if Romney is elected, while most Republicans (and independents) expect bigger deficits under Obama. As is often the case with politically charged beliefs, this partisan gap is especially large among people who are especially knowledgeable about politics.

Bartels goes on to discuss the poll results in some detail, leaving off anything more about the choice of Ryan. He does note at the top that expectations about the debt and deficit mattered a great deal to prospective voters, but the evidence for that is unclear.

Ah, and while I was writing up the Bartels post, here comes John Sides and Lynn Vavreck with a post on the polling of the pick. Most haven’t heard about him, and of those who have, most don’t know exactly who he is.

And what do the people who know Ryan think of him?  In these surveys, about 28% reported having a favorable view and 29% reported having a unfavorable view.  Those who had strongly unfavorable views outnumbered those with strongly favorable views—suggesting that unfavorable opinions are more intensely held at this point in time.  These ratings are affected by party, of course: on average about 54% of Republicans have a favorable impression of Ryan compared to only 10% of Democrats.

What about independents and undecided voters? Their opinions tend to be unfavorable.  About 26% of independents have an unfavorable impression of Ryan, while 21% of independents have a favorable impression.  A majority (52%) of independents did not have any impression of Ryan.

Among undecided voters, the same things holds: 57% had no opinion, but unfavorable opinions tended to outnumber favorable opinions (25% vs. 18%).

The upshot, as sides and Vavrek observe, is that his relative obscurity gives him a chance to introduce himself on his own terms, although the

tendency [toward a negative view] among independents and undecided voters is potentially troubling for the Romney-Ryan ticket.

Can Ryan change the impressions of those who have them?  Probably not.  Can he shape the impressions of those who don’t have them, and shape them in a favorable way?  That’s the big question.

Even if Ryan is great, he’ll hardly be the main factor in the election: the economy, gas prices, job numbers, the Eurozone, and those pesky unknown unknowns (especially on the foreign affairs field) and how they are handled by the candidates at the top of the ticket matter much more than Ryan.

Romney is, after all, the one “running for president, for pete’s sake”.


Okay, further updates down here.

Update2: I mentioned skimming rubbish punditry earlier, but I do want to highlight James Fallows’s take, not least because Fallows is never rubbish.

He focuses on the substance—or, I should say, the lack thereof—of the Ryan Budget plan, and provides some good links to boot.

I think the choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate is a good one for the country. It makes the race “about” something, beyond just being a negative referendum on how the economy is going under Obama. And the Republican vision and program, if Romney and Ryan should win, immediately becomes something more specific than “the opposite of Obama’s.” This is how we think elections are supposed to work, and Romney’s decision will make plan-vs.-plan, vision-vs.-vision comparisons more likely — as opposed strictly to gaffe-vs.-gaffe. For those reasons, good choice, congratulations to Romney and Ryan, and let the real campaign begin.

One request: I hope that when reporters are writing or talking about Paul Ryan’s budget plans and his overall approach, they will rig up some electro-shock device to zap themselves each time they say that Ryan and his thoughts are unusually “serious” or “brave.” Clear-edged they are, and useful in defining the issues in the campaign. But they have no edge in “seriousness” over, say, proposals from Ryan’s VP counterpart Joe Biden.

How much substance (or the lack thereof. . .) matters in a presidential campaign is debatable, but yes, it would be nice if those writing about a policy would actually look at that policy.

Update3: Oh, god, I just realized: This pick means we’ll be hearing more about/from Bill Kristol, the hackiest of hacks and a man who is wrong about everything. He promoted Ryan in various media, which means (sigh) that he promoted himself as well.

Romney almost certainly—or, at least, I fervently hope—paid no attention to Kristol in deciding on Ryan, but do you think that will stop Kristol from trumpeting his powers of prognostication or other pundits from applauding his pull?

Ye gads.