Bash Reporters, Not Political Scientists

Political journalists make mistakes when they try to figure out what it all means. They should just report.

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John Harris at Politico has a post-election item saying that “much of what is served up as political insight in modern media -- as articulated by reporters, political operatives, academics and assorted gurus" is nonsense. (He used a different word for "nonsense.")

Harris notes in particular that pundits tend to overinterpret elections as future indicators, but generally he is calling out those, himself included, who are constantly looking to build a larger picture or true meaning of political events whether such a meaning exists or not.

All of which is spot-on. But I’m with blogger (and political scientist) Dan Drezner: Why did Harris have to drag political scientists into it?

Here’s our real record. Political scientist John Sides, right after the 2012 election, knocked down “Democrats’ Euphoria” and argued: “Democrats are excited after last week’s election, and they should be. It feels good to win, and winners should celebrate. But talk of realignment reflects a degree of optimism that isn’t warranted.”

And here’s what I said the day before the 2012 election:

You’re also going to hear a lot of triumphant talk from the winners that this proves that they have an enduring majority. … If Obama wins, even by a small margin, Democrats will point out that this marks the fifth of six presidential elections in which the Democratic candidate won the national vote plurality, and that future demographics make future Republican victories even more difficult. …

It’s all bunk. If the parties aren’t at dead-even parity right now, they’re close enough that little pushes one way or another will make up for it. Another recession, a poorly planned overseas adventure, even a lousy candidate, and we could easily see a landslide in the other direction next time around — starting with midterms just two years from now.

Harris is correct that political scientists have something to apologize for. The talk about “realignment” comes from political science research that was dead wrong. However, we’ve known it was wrong at least since David Mayhew’s work more than a decade ago, and even before that few political scientists were guilty of overreacting to every election with declarations of permanent (or even long-term) party majorities.

Read the Monkey Cage or Mischiefs of Faction or other political science blogs, and you aren't going to be misled. Sure, we won’t get everything right, but we aren't just throwing stuff out there to have something to say. There’s careful research behind it.

This doesn't mean what journalists do is worthless. To the contrary. Reporting what elites are saying, in public and behind closed doors, is essential; so is shoe-leather reporting from the campaign trail.

Harris is right to counsel “caution” to pundits, but the answer is almost always the same: For those whose skill set is reporting, worry more about getting the reporting right and less about figuring out what it all means.

And if those reporters want to think about larger-picture stuff, political scientists (and historians and other academics) are here to put things in perspective and context. That’s what we know how to do. Sure, there are hacks and charlatans with academic credentials, but punditry informed by the best of academic work is going to be far better than without it.

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