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On the importance of political science blogging

Happy fifth birthday, Mischiefs of Faction.

Freelance writing
“Will write for food” artistic photograph.

Five years ago, I agreed to team up with Seth Masket, Gregory Koger, and Hans Noel to start a parties-focused blog. We wanted to focus on political parties as key institutions that help us understand the mysteries of American politics. We drew the name of the blog from the famous way James Madison referred to parties in his essay “Federalist No. 10.” As the Mischiefs of Faction grew to include more regular writers (Julia Azari, John Patty, Jonathan Ladd, and Richard Skinner) and moved to a larger platform at Vox, we improved the quality and variety of what we offered, and the magnitude of our reach.

On one hand, our adventure in political science public engagement may seem odd. All of us have professional day jobs as political science professors, which is demanding enough. None of us is paid to write for Mischiefs of Faction, and our blog posts don’t count as peer-reviewed publications — the primary metric by which research academics are evaluated for promotion.

However, we’ve been motivated by a common drive to do for a broad audience what we do in our classrooms: apply political science theories and evidence to explain contemporary politics. When we started the blog in 2012, there were not that many people doing what we set out to do. Many political journalists applied good standards of evidence to their stories about politics, but rarely did they offer the kinds of insights that political scientists bantered about in university hallways.

The idea that other people might be interested in knowing what field experts think about modern politics must have had some traction because political blogging exploded over the past few years. I could not find any systematic account of the number of individual or institutional blogs, but I compared the blogroll from several popular political science blogs over the years.

In 2009, the Monkey Cage listed 48 related blogs to which it provided links. Just before it moved to the Washington Post in 2013, it listed 106 related blogs to which they linked. More recently, the well-known international relations blog Duck of Minerva linked to 70 blogs earlier this year. These are just the blogs maintained by individual political scientists who write in particular subfields.

The concept of using applied social science to explain current events has become so mainstream and commonplace that it’s difficult to know the difference between random professor X’s blog and a news service whose mission is similar. Vox is a good example. While Vox hosts our blog, and several other independent academic blogs, it’s also a legitimate electronic news magazine, with professional journalists and a full-time staff and offices. Much of Vox’s political reporting is done with the mission of using evidence, science, and the same standards of reasoning that social scientists use in evaluating claims. In addition, there are now whole services devoted to blog-style reporting written by area experts rather than salaried journalists, such as the Conversation and Medium.

Blogs are also useful in the classroom as a pedagogical tool. Evidence shows that students who read political science blogs in international relations perform better than those who don’t. Blog reading and writing promotes critical thinking, writing skills, evaluating evidence skills, and exposure to state-of-the-art theories and findings. The American Political Science Association, the primary professional association for political science professors, finds political blogging to be valuable enough to include a section for its members to blog directly on its website.

The public appetite for media has never been stronger. The market is happy to provide all varieties of media for consumption. The ease of creating and accessing media has had obvious costs and benefits. It’s easier for people with special knowledge to offer intuition, but also easier for anyone (ANYONE) to post anything and gain traction.

Perhaps because of the information deluge we all live in now, the role for political scientists to engage with the public and offer their interpretations and evidence-based context for current events has never been more important. As I, and others, have strenuously argued previously, the world needs political scientists (and other experts) to remain vigilantly engaged because the state of affairs in the world is unsettling, uncertain, and sometimes dangerous.

The Trump administration in particular has broken a number of rules of politics, and is emboldened to continue doing so. Those of us who look to past events to explain current events have remained flummoxed by Trump’s rise and disregard of politics’ rules. For these reasons alone, the public engagement of social scientists — who look on the world with an eye of skepticism, objectivity, and quizzicalness, rather than one of political favor or contempt — is an important service.

The effort to do this has become complicated recently because of the striking correlation between government criticism and partisanship. Scholars, who are right to guard closely their objectivity and neutrality, may cringe at being critical of shifts in American politics or institutions that mostly originate in one party. If one party engages in democracy-damaging politics, it’s still right for social scientists to point that out. It doesn’t make one non-objective to observe that breaks with democratic norms appear to be happening in one party. The need for social scientists to publicly mark these changes, and note how they differ from the past and to try to explain why, has never been stronger. Therefore, the need for political science blogging has never been greater.

On this fifth anniversary of the birth of Mischiefs of Faction, I’m tremendously proud to be a part of this endeavor, however meager it may be, and to play our part in helping to offer explanation where we can, skepticism where it’s warranted, evidence where we have some, and awareness of lack of understanding when it’s wanting.

This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system. See more Mischiefs of Faction posts here.

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