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A political science call to action

A politically neutral academic discipline is perfectly poised to pass judgment on uncertain political times, but will it?

Professor lecturing to students.
Professor lecturing to students.

EDITORIAL: It's time for political science to update its disciplinary norms about public engagement. We can value neutrality, science, and objectivity while passing judgment against actions and proposals that jeopardize democratic institutions. These are not in conflict if we agree on basic values.

About a week before the election, several hundred political scientists signed a petition, I among them, that expressed concern over Donald Trump's actions and proposed actions that violate the most basic values of American democracy. This was a nonpartisan action taken in the interest of preserving the republic. The petition expressed judgment over shared values for the institutions that have most fundamentally contributed to the perseverance of our form of government.

For example, threats to lock up a political opponent violate the due process clause in the Fifth and 14th amendments; encouraging voter suppression and intimidation violates the democratic standard of universal suffrage; questioning the independence of the judiciary threatens the legitimacy of separation of powers and checks and balances; intimidating journalists violates the free speech and free press provisions of the First Amendment; calling for the proliferation of nuclear weapons threatens national security and our position in international treaties.

It's fair to say that a public petition of this sort strays from the norms of our discipline. Political science is based on applying the scientific method to questions and puzzles of politics. We seek evidence to falsify existing ideas, theories, and hypotheses. We use logic and evidence to make discoveries and progress. It is essential for this process that the scientist or observer is neutral, objective, and detached. In the academic discipline, these standards have appropriately translated into strong norms against political position taking of any kind.

And I find these norms to be proper. As a teacher and a scholar, I strive to be politically neutral and as objective as possible in my writing and speaking engagements. To show bias for a candidate, party, or ideology is equivalent to rejecting the objectivity that is the hallmark of scientific examination of questions.

However, it is possible to adhere to the scientific method while simultaneously expressing bias or judgment over particular matters. For example, is it biased for a nutritionist to show that malnutrition is bad? Is it biased for an economist to show that hyperinflation has negative consequences? Is it biased for a doctor to show that high blood pressure and high cholesterol lead to increased risk of heart disease? Perhaps so. Such statements express bias and a preference for a particular outcome.

When nutritionists, economists, or medical doctors express a normative judgment, they do so based on common values for human growth, broad economic health, and individual health. Political scientists may also have common values on which we can agree. It would be appropriate to make observations and express judgment when it appears political actors or institutions are violating those values.

There may not be widespread agreement about which policies to adopt in order to maintain civil liberties, civil rights, rule of law, national security, or economic prosperity.  But I suspect most political scientists agree that constitutional, republican democracy in America is valuable. And if we agree that preservation of this form of government is a common value, then it is also appropriate to speak, write, and vocally object to actions or proposed actions that jeopardize the integrity of the institutions that support our favored form of government.

It is nonpartisan to judge actions, real and proposed, that would result in violations of the Constitution and the rule of law. To be fair, these judgments are not always straightforward. As Dara Lind explains, even a proposed registry of Muslims can be implemented in ways that may not violate the current rule of law or Constitution, despite the headline policy sounding rather totalitarian.

Unfortunately, the political actors in our current politics who have made proposals that threaten democratic norms and institutions are primarily in one political party. Therefore, voicing objection to radical policies may make many political scientists feel uncomfortable because it appears to be a partisan act. However, it behooves us to make the observation that policies, such as internment camps, are violations of the Constitution (in the form of denying due process).

It may show a lack of neutrality to publicly express opposition to proposed policies that violate the Constitution, and the disciplinary norms in favor of neutrality may seem in conflict with such public opposition; however, if we agree on common values associated with the preservation of democracy, then we can also agree that it is appropriate to be vocal about violations of the institutions that have contributed to the preservation of democracy.

Furthermore, it is our responsibility to do so. For we are the scholars who most lucidly understand the relationships between institutions, behaviors, and policy outcomes, and who can most clearly articulate how threats to disruptions in existing institutions may threaten the persistence of democracy.

So how do we maintain our credibility as a scientific discipline while engaging in the public sphere in a way that shows normative judgment? I have some advice:

A political scientist's guide to responsible public action:

  • When you observe or learn about proposals or actions that represent threats to democratic institutions or that violate the Constitution, point it out in public.
  • Write, speak, and post in a variety of venues in a way that uses the research and literature in our field to demonstrate the consequences of proposals that threaten basic institutions.
  • Be specific and matter-of-fact about how actions or proposals may weaken or violate basic American values and democratic norms.
  • Focus on the agreed upon values of American democracy (e.g., civil liberties, civil rights, due process, respect for the rule of law) rather than on partisan or ideological components of actions and proposals.
  • Engage with the media, public, and one another, on these matters; seek venues that provide broad exposure rather than speaking to a disciplinary audience, as is typical.
  • Focus on evidence-based and theoretically rigorous findings that shed light on, or provide appropriate context to, current events.

By being objective and scientific, we remain neutral, while showing how actions and proposals violate or threaten basic democratic institutions. Articulating and elucidating the public on these points is not only consistent with our academic mission; it is our responsibility.