Early Returns

Political Science Gets a Dose of Humility

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.


Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Scott Lucas at Politico attended the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association held last week in San Francisco -- hey, so did I! -- and wrote what I think is a not-unfair summary of what a lot of us were saying. Granted, it's a little hard to tell; there are a lot of political scientists there -- the conference spills over to three different hotels, with multiple panels during each time period, so there's no way to talk to more than a fraction of those who are there, or attend more than a fraction of the panels. And we political scientists do a lot more than study U.S. politics, and even the Americanists are divided into all sorts of subspecialties, so, again, it's hard to generalize.

But I do think it's fair to say that a good number of political scientists are expressing some humility over the events of the last two years, or at least aspects of what has happened. It really does vary. Those who study voters in presidential elections, from what I can tell, believe that 2016 wound up as a fairly normal election except for the flukish Electoral College/total vote split. I'm not sure whether we've learned anything new about the presidency or Congress this year. The real wrong calls were from some of us who study presidential nominations (yes, myself included). 

My impression is also that there's still a split among political scientists between those who are running around with their hair on fire about Donald Trump's threat to U.S. democracy and another group who agree Trump is no friend of democracy but anticipate that the republic will muddle through, even though it may take on some damage. There's been some speculation that those who study comparative politics have been particularly anxious about Trump while we Americanists tend to be less panicked; I'm not sure that's true. 

One thing that I do think is the case is that political scientists are, as Lucas reports, fairly obsessed with the tweeter in chief. One thing that might surprise outsiders about political scientists is that only a small number of us are highly engaged with current events. We're not a profession dominated by political junkies at all. So when we get together I know I'm going to hear lots of departmental and discipline gossip, some teaching stories, and a fair amount of rather abstract talk about new theories and the evidence behind them. Sometimes those use data from recent politics, and sometimes they have obvious implications for policy or elections or whatever, but that's normally secondary for many of us. Again, I can only speak about those who I talked with, but my impression is Trump has sparked more interest and talk about day-to-day politics than any other recent president. 

I guess I should touch on one quote that took a beating Tuesday on Twitter, in which one attendee said he had "hardly ever met a Trump voter" and speculated that "Most of us in academia have not." I find that unusual. Those political scientists who teach undergraduates -- and that's the overwhelming bulk of those in academia -- simply meet a ton of people over time, and even in the most Democratic locations there's usually a wide spread of partisanship. And there are plenty of universities in Nebraska, Idaho, Alabama, Mississippi and other very Republican states where plenty of students and others one might meet were Trump voters. 

And, yes, there are also more than a few Republican political scientists, although I strongly suspect a higher proportion of them were #NeverTrump than among all Republicans.

1. Good Brendan Nyhan item on the importance of norms in democracies. Would have liked to see some mention of Newt Gingrich, though -- Trump didn't come out of nowhere.

2. Robert Shapiro at Brookings on the 2020 census

3. Jamelle Bouie on Trump's legislative failures.

4. Sarah Posner at the Plum Line on Steve Bannon's next big project

5. And Seth Masket has advice for political scientists considering blogging. I'll add one thing: If that's you, and you want people to read it, make sure other political scientists with decent-sized megaphones know about it so they can spread the word. 

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