What is Politics? More Thoughts on Matt Bai

by John Sides on May 13, 2009 · 13 comments

in General Politics,Media,Political science

A couple months ago, Henry linked to this passage from New York Times writer Matt Bai:

Generally speaking, political writers don’t think so much of political scientists, either, mostly because anyone who has ever actually worked in or covered politics can tell you that, whatever else it may be, a science isn’t one of them. Politics is, after all, the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity; make all the equations you want, but a lot of politics is simply tactile and visual, rather than empirical. My dinnertime conversation with three Iowans may not add up to a reliable portrait of the national consensus, but it’s often more illuminating than the dissertations of academics whose idea of seeing America is a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.

I took my licks, as did Andy. In my post, I wrote:

And his description of “politics” — “the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity” — sounds a lot like, well, life in general, not politics in particular. (It’s not my definition of politics either, but that’s a separate post.)

This is that post. I think Bai’s definition of politics is deeply problematic. A good litmus test of any definition of politics is to imagine that your spouse has come home from work. You say, “How was your day, dear?” And your spouse says, “Not so great.” You say, “What happened?” And your spouse says, “Oh, you know. Office politics.”

If we think about what is meant by a phrase like “office politics” or “church politics” or politics in any setting, it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t mean what Bai think it means. If you said to your spouse, “Office politics?”, he or she wouldn’t say, “Yeah, Betty in the next cubicle is attempting to triumph over her own disorder and insecurity.” Chances are, office politics would mean something like this: “You remember how Betty wants to chair the office picnic committee instead of me? Today she went around bad-mouthing the job I did last year so that everyone would support her.”

And that is the essence of politics: people have conflicting goals, and so a process unfolds by which they attempt to realize their goals. That process is politics. Textbook definitions of politics emphasize similar features:

Politics is the process through which individual and groups reach agreement on a course of common, or collective, action—even as they disagree on the intended goals of that action (Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser).
Politics refers to conflicts over the character, membership, and policies of any organization to which people belong. As Harold Lasswell, a famous political scientist once put it, politics is the struggle over “who gets what, when, and how” (Lowi, Ginsberg, and Shepsle).

These definitions contrast sharply with Bai’s. Politics involves a collective (a polity, government, office, church, etc.), not atomized individuals. Politics involves disagreement over goals within that collective (up to an including even war; hence Clausewitz), not individuals who are striving to overcome personal failings. To be sure, the personal qualities of political actors can be consequential, but they are not the essence of politics. Betty may be insecure, or arrogant, or confident, or competitive, or disordered, or nice, or mean, or left-handed, or blonde, or Sagittarius, or whatever. More importantly, those qualities may help her or hurt her. (Indeed, even Bai’s thinking about personal characteristics is odd: why must individuals triumph over their arrogance or competitiveness? Don’t many politicians succeed in part because of arrogance and competitiveness?)

It’s funny that Bai himself articulates this particular definition. The title of his bookThe Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics—suggests something much closer to the textbook definitions (conflict, etc.). Perhaps something about political science, to which he is reacting in that passage, pushes him to emphasize things that are difficult for political scientists to study and thus conclude that political science research is largely irrelevant.

Where does Bai’s definition come from? Perhaps spending a lot of time covering politics makes you more vulnerable to thinking about it in terms of individual politicians and their foibles. After all, it is the job of journalists and political writers like Bai to observe politicians frequently and at close range. You get to know them, at least to a degree. And you know that writing about politicians as individuals—their personalities, their experiences, their hobbies, their vices—engages readers. (See the study discussed here. Another of Bai’s pieces will illustrate.) So a “personalistic bias” emerges, one focused on people, rather than the overall process of politics. The fundamental attribution error also emerges, whereby political outcomes are explained in terms of individual attributes, rather than the interaction among individuals or some other situational feature. To be sure, I’m describing a tendency, not a deterministic process. But it seems operative.

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