The Science of Politics
Here’s a question: Why do so few people in politics seem to know or care a whit about political science? People in sports care about sports science. People in business care about the science of how to do whatever it is they do better. But folks involved in politics — campaign consultants, journalists, and politicians themselves — could hardly be any more ignorant or disengaged when it comes to the science of politics.
I have a few ideas why this is, but first let’s take a quick survey of the political landscape in the wake of health-care reform…
As Andrew Gelman points out, two things are true right now: 1) The Democrats have passed a historic piece of health care legislation; and 2) The Democrats are exceedingly likely to get slaughtered at the polls in November.
In another day and age, these two facts would be inextricably linked come the day after Election Day. The narrative would be: Democrats got slaughtered at the polls because of passing health care reform. However, there’s a catch… In this particular case, political scientists have gone on record, as far back as September 2009, predicting that the Democrats would get slaughtered in the Fall of 2010. The economy’s terrible, they are the incumbent party in Congress, and a new president of their party has just been elected. Any model of midterm elections would point in the same direction: Big losses for Democrats.
Now, political pundits will no doubt write this narrative anyway after the relatively inevitable happens. But people who’ve been paying attention will know the real story (assuming, of course, that these models do indeed bear out).
What’s interesting, though, is how small a role knowledge of these models and predictions seems to have played in the health care fight. The truth for most members of Congress, even in swing districts, is that it didn’t matter how they voted. People vote emotionally, they vote blindly, and they vote based on a general sense of whether they’re doing OK or not doing OK. If the economy’s humming along, they’re OK and they keep incumbents around; if not, they do the opposite. Instead of realizing this, however, we had months of fighting over “process,” including a lengthy interval spent agonizing over whether voters would punish Democrats for using reconciliation to pass health care reform.
Let me be exceedingly clear about this: Voters don’t know what reconciliation is. If you went to their houses and explained it to them patiently and clearly, they’d punch you in the face for interrupting American Idol.
And, so, what would somebody with an understanding of political science have told Democrats about health care reform? Elections are usually determined by forces entirely outside your control, so vote your conscience. Voters have the memories of gnats (that may be unfair to gnats), so vote your conscience. And people love a winner.
I think that last point may have actually broken through in the process debate. A question formed toward the end: Do you really think it will be better to be the party that tried to pass health care reform and then got spooked, or will it be better to be the party that passed health care reform. And, lo and behold, we’re getting the first evidence that the latter indeed was the smarter strategy: A new poll from Gallup shows that people suddenly support health care reform — now that it’s passed. And Obama’s poll numbers are bouncing.
The fact is, people like a winner. When someone’s winning, we assume it must be because they’re smart and good; when they’re losing, we assume it must because they’re idiots and bad. As the president himself says: “I guess we’ll be considered smart again for at least another four weeks.”
And, so, my theory of why no one in politics likes to think about political science: because it renders them powerless. How do you do your job as a political consultant when the truth is that 90% of the success or failure of what you do will be determined by the unemployment rate? If you’re a political journalist, how do you write a story every day for a year (or three years, given our current presidential election system) saying, essentially, “Well, the fundamentals still make it exceedingly likely the president will be reelected.” If you’re a politician… well, then you’re a sociopath anyway, so perhaps it’s not worth getting into this scenario too deeply.
The point is, we need to believe we’re in control. Political science tells everyone in politics the opposite: You’re not in control. The economy rules your fate — the rest is just pissing in the wind.
No wonder they prefer to keep their eyes closed and their fingers in their ears.
UPDATE [8:36 p.m., 3/24/10]: More movement on health care numbers, though more for Obama’s approval on health care than for the bill itself.
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