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Area pundit angry at political science for proving him wrong

No, not that kind of political science.
No, not that kind of political science.
Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images

Salon columnist Thomas Frank does not like political science, and he particularly dislikes my column arguing that political science is improving political journalism. In riposte, he's written an article demonstrating the need for political journalists to ground their ideas in political science.

It's best to begin with where Frank and I agree. "The powerful in Powertown love to take refuge in bewildering professional jargon," he writes, and indeed they do. "They routinely ignore or suppress challenging ideas, just as academics often ignore ideas that come from outside their professional in-group," he says, and he's absolutely correct. "Worst of all, Washingtonians seem to know nothing about the lives of people who aren't part of the professional-managerial class," he continues, and I fully agree (as do political scientists).

The question, then, is whether political science (and other academic disciplines) helps curb these tendencies, or whether it makes Powertown more jargony, close-minded, and out-of-touch.

Frank thinks the latter. "The characteristic failing of D.C. isn't that it ignores these herds of experts, it's that it attends to them with a gaping credulity that they do not deserve," he writes. Later, he blames the return of the same foreign-policy class that brought us the Iraq War on "the way Washington worships expertise." He even throws in a reference to David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest for good measure.

As it happens, Frank and I have some common ground here, too: Washington is a cesspool of faux-experts who do bad research (or no research) but retain their standing by dint of affiliations, connections, or charisma. Washington is also a place where people seek authorities willing to confirm what they already believe —  a trait it shares with, well, every other place. But I see political science research  —  which is different, by the way, from individual political scientists, and different from Frank's amorphous idea of "expertise"  —  as a way of cutting through the bullshit.

The real problem with political science

Bill Clinton pointing

Your fault. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Take Frank as an example. He's a gifted writer and a smart guy. But his biggest problem with political science seems to be that it stubbornly refuses to confirm his opinions. The example he gives in his article of bad political science is Nate Cohn (who is not a political scientist, for the record) arguing that the Democrats' disadvantage in the House comes less from gerrymandering than urban clustering. This is a debatable point (see Dave Weigel for a contrary take), but Frank actually doesn't debate it. He simply dislikes the implications Cohn draws from it:

[T]hese House Republicans are really, truly awful. Isn't there a way for Democrats to beat them regardless of the geographic hurdles? According to Cohn, not really. Either Democrats have to appeal to lost voters (like "the conservative Democrats of the South and Appalachia") by moving rightward, or they will have to "wait for demographic and generational change" to win the seats for them. And maybe that makes sense, given the assumptions of the lame school of political science that D.C. types always gravitate to - the kind in which there are but two poles in political life and politicians of the left party can only win if they move rightward.

It is this kind of strikingly unoriginal thinking, which I am sure is shared by the blue team's high command, that explains why the Democratic Party looks to be headed for another disaster this fall.

Allow me to drop a single, disturbing data point on this march of science. You might recall that Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from the early 1930s until 1994 with only two brief Republican interludes. What ended all that was not an ill-advised swerve to the left, but the opposite: A long succession of moves toward what is called the "center," culminating in the administration of New Democrat Bill Clinton, who (among other things) signed the Republicans' NAFTA treaty into law. Taking economic matters off the table was thought to be the path of wisdom among expert-worshipping Washingtonians, but it had the unforeseen consequence of making culture that much more important for a large part of the population. Democrats were eventually swamped by all the crazy grievance campaigns of the right, which has splashed back and forth in the mud of the culture wars ever since.

So Frank is angry at political science because someone who isn't a political scientist has offered a political opinion he disagrees with.

Like much of what passes for political analysis in Washington, this is a convincing rant if you already agree with Thomas Frank. Frank, after all, is an "expert": he's a guy who writes bestselling books and has a column at Salon. He's charismatic, and his piece is well-written, and it includes a few lines that look like evidence if you back up ten paces and squint.

But none of it holds up. For one thing, political science doesn't say what Frank seems to think it says. Political scientists don't simply argue that politicians have to move leftward or rightward to capture some mythical center. Indeed, one of the interesting findings from John Sides and Lynn Vavreck's poli-sci take on the 2012 election is that voters thought themselves closer ideologically to Mitt Romney  —  but they voted for Barack Obama anyway.

romney obamas ideology

(John Sides and Lynn Vavreck/Wonkblog)

That's consistent with what the best research in political science right now, which holds that most voters don't pay close attention to candidates' policy positions, so politicians actually have to tune their platforms to appeal to the intense policy demanders who dominate primaries. Oh, and those "moderate voters" aren't moderates at all; their political opinions are often more extreme, but more scattered, than the hardcore partisans.

As for Frank's "data point," this is exactly where political science research is useful. It is interesting that Democrats controlled the House of Representatives almost without interruption from 1935 to 1994. It's particularly interesting because, though Frank doesn't mention this, Republicans controlled the White House from 1953 to 1961. And then from 1969 to 1976. And then from 1981 to 1992. So it's clear that Democratic control of the House doesn't simply show a monolithically liberal electorate betrayed by Bill Clinton. But what does it show?

What political science research is good for

Strom Thurmond

The late Strom Thurmond used to be a Democrat — as well as one of the Senate's most conservative members. (George Tames/New York Times Co./Getty Images)

Political scientists have answered this question. The Democratic House majority that dominated through much of the 20th Century wasn't the Democratic Party as we think of it at all.

Instead, it combined liberal and moderate Democrats with a conservative southern bloc that was, for reasons of congressional seniority and tribal history, Democratic, but which voted to the right of many Republicans. The peculiar rules of Congress made it worthwhile for Southern Democrats to stick with a party they disagreed with in order to protect Jim Crow.

But once the Democratic Party broke with its southern bloc on race, the Southern Democrats died out. You can watch those conservative Democrats disappear on this visualization produced by the DW-NOMINATE measure, which political scientists use to measure party polarization in Congress. Notice how, in the period Frank mentions, you have lots of Ds further to the right than the Rs. Republicans retake the House as that anomaly ends.

Watching congressional Democrats who were more conservative than Republicans become Republicans is not a story that tracks very well with Frank's story of a populist electorate being turned off by Clinton's triangulations. Indeed, Clinton was much more liberal than many of the congressional Democrats who lost their seats in 1994. But Frank wants to see the Democratic Party move leftward, and so this isn't an analysis of the period that he finds very helpful.

The reason I rely on political science research is because politics, in my experience, is thick with the "allow me to drop a single, disturbing data point" approach to analysis. Skilled writers can make anything sound convincing in 24 column inches — particularly when they're writing to an audience that wants to be convinced. Political science has its problems, but the discipline is more than capable of weeding out this kind of nonsense. It forces a much higher evidentiary standard than, say, op-ed pages, where "factlike recollections," in Jonathan Chait's wonderful phrase, are often enough.

The biggest problem any of us face trying to learn about American politics is the natural tendency to believe arguments we like and dismiss the ones we don't. Poli-sci research is, for me, a helpful check on the things I want to believe. I used to love to write about the speech the president should give next, but presidential speeches don't much matter. It's fun to pretend that Washington is ruled by good-faith debates over policy, but the evidence suggests people mostly end up supporting whatever they wanted to support in the first place. It's popular to demand the president lead, but the reality is presidential leadership is often counterproductive. It's exciting to cover elections as if anything can happen, but the truth is that they're pretty predictable. I don't like any of this — but that's why I need to ground my political commentary in something beyond my own opinions. Political science research isn't perfect or infallible, but it's a start.

So yes, Frank is right: politics is full of experts who don't deserve the trust they're given and retain prominence even after their theories are shredded. The problem is he's one of them.