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Mar. 24 2010 - 5:21 pm | 3,418 views | 1 recommendation | 17 comments

The Science of Politics


Image by RyAwesome via Flickr

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.

  • Neuroworld looked at whether politicians are primarily liars or cowards or morons here.

  • Neuroworld looked at whether more elections equal more democracy here.

  • Neuroworld looked at the politics in your genes here.


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  1. collapse expand

    First, I cringe every time someone refers to “political science.” To call politics of any sort a “science” denigrates politics, and the word “science.”

    Politics is an ART! Calling it a science shows how little the practitioners really know about the subject. A true political leader does not count votes and twist arms. They lead, they make cases, they collect groups together and they bring common ground to the table where people can act upon it.

    What churns my stomach is not that a health care bill was proposed that has some stuff in it that I probably won’t like. Almost every bill will have something someone doesn’t like. No, what churns my stomach is that the “leaders” did none of the above.

    They didn’t lead, they threatened, they bribed, they compromised their principles, and in the end, they annoyed most of the public by ramrodding a bill through congress that almost nobody had any time to review. Yeah, that’s political science all right.

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a political artist. He was a true leader. Ronald Reagan was a political Leader. Harry Truman was a leader. I can’t say much for any of the recent presidents we have had on either side of the isle.

    What we’ve got right now are a bunch of idiots who do not understand leadership. None of them from either party deserve to be voted back in to office. This farce that happened recently may have some essential notions that the public needs, but it also has some terrible things in the details of this bill.

    We haven’t heard the last of this. It’s going to get much much uglier.

  2. collapse expand

    Politicians are very interested in political science! Every time they conduct polls they are engaging in and utilizing political science. Predictions of Democratic losses in upcoming elections are based on history but are a long way from being written in stone. I dare say that if the Republican implosion toward unprecedented lunacy continues, those predictions may prove to be way off base.

    • collapse expand

      You’re looking at the trees and failing to notice that you’re in a forest.

      FIRST: Political Science isn’t. You’re discussing the intersection of the mathematics of polling and politics. That’s not a science. It’s not even leadership.

      Second, asking a political leader to govern by polls is idiotic. That’s the management side of political leadership. Polls are great for gathering feedback on how well you did, but they are of very little use for figuring out where you should lead.

      If you don’t know what you’re doing in politics, any *poll* will take you there.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Ryan, I have a BA and MA in political science, and I’ll be the first to say that most of it is nonsense. The Pentagon has been trying to come up with political science computer models for insurgencies (http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2009/10/dont-hold-your-breath-for-sim-afghanistan/#more-17431), but they can’t because hey can never even get social scientists to agree on the underlying theory. So yes, if a politician can find a political science that is historically accurate, has predictive value for the future, and is comprehensive enough to be useful and specific enough to apply to a legislator’s unique circumstances, then great. Wouldn’t hold my breath, though. As soon as one social scientist comes up with a theory, two others will shoot it down.

  4. collapse expand

    Political science is complicated, and we don’t like things that can’t be explained and interrupted in a 2 minute segment on television :(

  5. collapse expand

    If any science has come out of political science it would be in the area of the use and abuse of science of persuasion and the accuracy of polling. Once a demographic is targeted they can be promised exactly what they want, code language could be used as in the Southern Strategy, fears could be played upon, demons raised such as nazism and socialism and terrorist muslims, and place the proper emotional images and the targeted develops a phantom fixation for or against something. Another odd bit of persuasive science involves negative advertising, it seems people tend to identify with those making accusations and believe first, think later. I think the health debate we witnessed every bit of persuasive science and propaganda at work and there is more to come.

  6. collapse expand

    If I may abuse a quote from Richard Feynman:

    Political Science is about as useful to politicians as Ornithology is to birds.

  7. collapse expand

    Ryan, Ditto. But also interesting is that Political Scientists aren’t very interested in the day-to-day politics. It’s like playing fantasy football only looking at the stats and hardly watching a game. But it is really frustrating when people wax philosophical about what how our representatives and our government should behave when you want to say, “that’s not how it works!”

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

    These days, I'm interested in humanity's ever-expanding understanding of its own irrationality. Hence, this blog.

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