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The obligations of a political scientist during a political crisis

A protester interrupts as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at the I-X Center March 12, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio.
A protester interrupts as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at the I-X Center March 12, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

The 2016 presidential election cycle has made fools of many of us. Among the many, many incorrect things I have stated about Donald Trump's candidacy, probably the most wrong was my claim that we would learn nothing from it. He would lose, I predicted, just as wealthy non-politicians without substantial insider support always do.

But of course we have learned a great deal from his campaign so far, about the role of authoritarianism in politics, internal party rifts, the persistence of racial voting patterns, the role of the mediaeconomic voting patterns, the limited power of ideology, and the permeability of parties, just to name a few areas.

It may well be that Trump is such a unique character that these lessons won't export well to other campaigns, but on the general topic, Hans Noel was right and I was wrong. We've learned a lot.

But do political scholars — specifically, Americanists — have an obligation at this point to go beyond just learning about a phenomenon and updating their theories? Are we facing a national emergency that requires us to actually seek to influence the political world? While I do think we're staring at an unfolding crisis, the ability of political scientists to influence events is rather paltry, as is the utility of having them try. Nonetheless, we can play an important role in explaining these events and affecting how they're understood.

Brendan Nyhan sounded a note of urgent concern in a recent Twitter thread. As he lamented, "I honestly thought our institutions were more robust to a Trump-like figure & that others in public life were more committed to dem. norms. ... Someone could capture a major party nom who endorses violence & few seem alarmed."

But what can we do? This is a legitimate source of anguish for many of us. We train as social scientists. The rules aren't explicit, but there's a general norm against trying to influence and study something at the same time. (This was not always the case.) We're generally far better at, say, discussing the effects of racist appeals in elections than arguing why racist appeals shouldn't be used in elections.

Of course, many of us, quite understandably, are deeply interested in politics, and some of us participate in campaigns, donate to candidates and parties, and, well, vote. But generally we try to keep explicit advocacy separate from our professional lives. Our publications are largely devoid of normative statements about current political figures, and teaching students that one candidate is actually worse than others is generally considered out of bounds.

I am generally not disposed toward the notion that Americanists have some unique professional obligation to protect American political institutions. Such a mission would mitigate against our reputation as scientists, a reputation we have worked very hard to foster in recent decades.

And even if we saw the Trump campaign's successes as a true threat to the Republic, there are limits to what we could hope to do to stop it. A great many people with considerably more political power than we have are already heavily criticizing Trump in op-eds and on blogs. And our attacks could even have a perverse effect — they could contribute to the impression that a vote for Trump is a vote against intellectual elites.

At the very least, though, we can be contributing positively to the national discussion by pointing out some of the following in our discussions with students, reporters, and others with an interest in politics:

  • This is not politics as usual. Trump's campaign is not the standard rough and tumble of a contested primary season. His advocacy of violence against protesters, his overt racial appeals, and his stunning lack of policy specifics are atypical and deserving of a great deal of scrutiny.
  • That said, his combination of populism and nativism is not without precedent in American history and around the world. We should be pointing out the parallels between this campaign and others.
  • Trump is not a typical politician. News journalists are clearly struggling with how to cover him. Critical coverage does not seem to hurt his campaign, and there's a legitimate debate going on over whether discussing his extreme stances just helps advertise them. What's more, from the media's perspective Trump is obviously good for business.
  • Just because our modern political system has been relatively stable and unmarred by violent revolutions does not mean that this will always be the case. American political institutions can be just as fragile as those of other nations. Parties can die, and party alignments can shift — such events are often marked by tumult and violence. The Republican Party is facing its most severe existential crisis since 1964, and possibly ever.
  • Distinctions should be drawn between those who couldn't have prevented Trump's rise if they'd tried, those who let his rise happen, and those who abetted it. To be sure, there's a great deal of culpability to go around, but some are more culpable than others.
  • This is not just a crisis for the Republican Party. Trump would gain a great many voters as his party's nominee, and even if he appears to be trailing in hypothetical matchups with Democratic candidates right now, odd things can happen in general elections.
  • We have no idea what policies he would champion as president or what success he would have in carrying them out. We have not seen a presidency like this.

I certainly welcome a discussion about the proper role of political scientists in a moment like this one. And if we are going to act in one fashion or another, the time to do so is now. But I tend to think we're far better suited to examine, interpret, and contextualize the events unfolding today than we are to influence them.