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How political science conquered Washington

Bill Ingalls/NASA

Perhaps the single best thing that's happened to political journalism in the time I've been doing it is the rise of political science.

In 2005, when I came to Washington, knowing political science wasn't a legitimate form of knowing about politics, or at least it wasn't presented as one to young journalists like me. There were a few reporters who kept up with the profession — the late, great David Broder was known for attending the American Political Science Association's annual convention, for instance — but, on the whole, political journalism dealt with political science episodically and condescendingly.

But that's changed. Last week, the American Political Science Association held its annual convention in Washington, D.C. It was an appropriate choice. Washington is listening to political scientists, in large part because it's stopped trusting itself.

Political journalists always had an advantage over political scientists: politicians would talk to them. A PhD was nice, but if you couldn't get the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee on the phone, what did you really know about what was going on in Congress? Political journalists admired the technical skills of economists and the inside knowledge of Hill staffers. But political journalists had better sources of information than political scientists, who were trying to learn about the messy work of people in Washington by screwing around with data sets in their office in Illinois.

But over the last decade, the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee became an unreliable narrator. So did pretty much everyone else working in American politics. If you spent 2008 and 2009 talking to (then) Sen. Max Baucus you would have believed that health reform would be a bipartisan bill. You would have believed that because he believed that. And he believed that because he had been close friends with his Republican counterpart, Sen. Chuck Grassley, for years. They would work this out.

They didn't. I remember interviewing then-Sen. Kent Conrad, the then-chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and a member of Baucus's failed "Gang of Six." I asked him why the Gang hadn't come to a compromise. I'll never forget his response. "I honestly don't know," he replied. And he really didn't.

American politics is changing. Politicians are losing power and political parties are gaining it. A politician's relationships might once have been a good guide to her votes. Today, the "D" or "R" after a politician's name tells you almost everything you need to know.

Part of the rise of political science is the result of the blogosphere. Crooked Timber, the Monkey Cage, the Mischiefs of Faction and other poli-sci blogs have let political scientists speak for themselves. But that's only benefitted political science because what they've said has been worth listening to.

Political scientists traffic in structural explanations for American politics. They can't tell you what an individual senator thinks, or what message the president's campaign will try out next. But they can tell you, in general, how polarized the Senate is by party, and whether independent voters are just partisans in disguise, and how predictable elections generally are. They can tell you when American politics is breaking its old patterns (like with the stunning rise of the filibuster) or when people are counting on patterns that never existed in the first place (like Washington's continued faith in the power of presidential speeches).

As politicians lose power and parties gain power, these structural explanations for American politics have become more important. That's what I've found, certainly. Talking to members of Congress and campaign operatives is useful, but not terribly reliable. Politicians are endlessly optimistic — in their line of work, they almost have to be — and they want to believe that they and their colleagues can rise above party and ignore special interests. But they usually can't. They begin every legislative project hoping that that this time will be different. But it usually isn't. An understanding of the individual dynamics in Congress or in the White House can be actively misleading if it's not tempered by a sense of the structural forces that drive outcomes in American politics.

And so the more that political journalists heard from political scientists, the more they began to listen. Today the Monkey Cage sits at the Washington Post. Political scientists like Brendan Nyhan and Lynn Vavreck write for the Upshot at the New York Times. There are a half-dozen forecasting models trying to predict the 2014 election — all of which owe a lot to work done by political scientists, and a few of which are actually built and maintained by political scientists. Young political journalists I talk to know a lot more about political science and how to use it to inform their reporting than they did when I came to town. And readers are better for it.