Archive | Political Science and Journalism

5 Ways to Get Political Science into the Public Sphere

In the APSA panel on what political science offer journalists, I asked the panelists what political scientists could do to increase the “supply” of academic research that reaches journalists. Here is the advice, condensed into a convenient listicle:

1. Self-promotion
As I noted in my earlier post, Ezra Klein simply urged political scientists to promote their stuff. He saw a basic “gap” in the self-confidence of political scientists vis-a-vis, say, economists. Of course, no one is advocating for intransigent arrogance, but the broader point stands: political scientists should just be more assertive about what they have learned and are learning. As Ezra also noted in the panel, this will help reporters realize not only what the “answers” are but also what questions they should be asking in the first place.

Note that this advice is not subfield-specific. The panel did tilt toward those who follow American politics and policy, often with an eye toward quantitative information such as polls. Robert Farley, who blogs at Lawyers Guns & Money, rightly asked about other subfields and those who work with qualitative data. My thought is that such research is equally if not more worthy of promotion. Qualitative work often deepens our understanding of policymaking processes, and a lot of journalism and political blogging is about policymaking. Work in international relations and comparative politics can inform reporting on lots of international trends and events—especially when political scientists bring area-specific knowledge to bear.

I am happy for self-promotion to start with an email to me or any of my co-bloggers. We are will almost always mention and link to papers that people have sent us.

2. Email people
This simple piece of advice came from Mark Blumenthal, and was buttressed by Matt Yglesias, who described how he posted something about Chinese urban policy and then was corrected by someone writing his or her dissertation on the subject (and who attached a dissertation chapter to the email). The broader point seemed to be: don’t sit around. If there are reporters whose beat—politics, the media, the environment, race, etc.—is relevant to your work, you should reach out to them. Politicians do this routinely of course, calling reporters to press their point of view. There is no reason political scientists should be any different.

3. Start blogs, or tweet, or something
There have to be more forums where political scientists can talk colloquially about what they know. Blogs are valuable because they explain academic findings in shorthand and are easily Googleable. To the extent the blog posts have passion and a ready connection to the news, there is a decent chance they will attract links. Twitter can be useful for passing along short observations and especially links. The point is that a lot of journalists and lay readers get political information from RSS and Twitter feeds. And political science has been slow to take up these forms of communication, a point I made in this blog’s inaugural post and one I still think is true. If you have begun a political science blog, email us and we will add it to the blogroll and link. We hardly drive lots of traffic, but it’s a start.

4. Eliminate paywalls
Journalists won’t read what they can’t read. And most political science is locked up behind journal paywalls. What to do?

Step #1: Ungate my heart. More research should be available on scholars’ personal webpages. Which is to say, scholars should have personal webpages.

Step #2: The political science organizations that oversee journals, in concert with the publishers of these journals, should work to make content available to those people who do not subscribe to the journals. Perhaps it’s just some content, not all. Perhaps it’s just for a few weeks after publication. But something is better than nothing. I realize that there are long-term questions about viable models of academic publishing—something I can’t get into in this post. Suffice it to say that I think that model should include do something to raise the public profile of the discipline. For example, I would be happy to give up my paper copies of journals if the revenue saved could go to public access.

Step #3: Get journals into the hands of journalists. Jeff Isaac, the editor of Perspectives on Politics, made a plea the panel that I could perhaps summarize as: I edit a journal. It’s good. Read it. It strikes me that if paper and/or electronic copies of journals are going to be sent out, they should be sent to journalists. Should we send them for free? That’s ideal, although probably unrealistic. Perhaps APSA could create an affordable rate at which journalists (or their home institutions) could become members and receive the journals that way. If so, APSA should market that offer, assuming that few journalists would join on their own.

5. Web resources
Marc Ambinder asked about some sort of reference guide that would tell journalists about research on particular areas and provide names of who to call. APSA maintains some resources, but I don’t think that many people know about them. Much more could be done. I could imagine a sort of political science Wikipedia. I could imagine more focused newsletters with accessible digests of recent research. I could imagine RSS feeds from the APSA conference paper website. Whatever it is, it needs not only to be created but to be marketed and advertised in some fashion so that the target audience will actually use it.

I welcome other ideas in comments, but please leave aside questions about my underlying premise for now—e.g., the inherent value of engaging the public sphere; whether anyone will even read political science research no matter how well it is supplied; whether journalists, policymakers, or some other group is the best audience; whether self-promotion is an unalloyed good for any individual or for the profession, etc. I will return to those questions in a subsequent post.

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Political Science A Politician Can Love

Ezra Klein’s new column is entitled “Poli Sci 101.” He pivots off last week’s APSA meetings to note that politicians don’t pay enough attention to political science, and that is a bad thing. He lists a few lessons they could learn, citing the work of George Edwards, David Canon, and Frank Baumgartner, Beth Leech, et al.

He quotes me in this passage::

But if politicians took these findings to heart, it would free them to do their jobs better. “The fact that much of what cable news is talking about on any given day is not important probably is empowering,” Sides says. Particularly combined with the finding that what does matter, both for elections and for people’s lives, is how well the country is doing. Worrying less about tomorrow’s polls and news releases and more about the effect of today’s policies could make for better bills—and happier, more successful politicians.

I want to emphasize this. Political scientists are sometimes accused of denying that politicians can affect anything. For example, we say that election outcomes depend a lot on the economy, and somehow this means that all campaigning by politicians is superfluous.

In fact, Ezra’s point and my quote suggests quite the opposite: political science really does empower politicians. It tells them to ignore a lot of gossip and trivia. It tells them not to sweat every rhetorical turn of phrase. It tells them that as useful as Mike Allen’s Playbook might be in some ways, it captures a conversation that the vast majority of American voters knows nothing about.

Freed from these concerns, politicians can, as Ezra suggests, focus on what they really can and do affect: the policy agenda and the content of legislation. Now that’s a simplification, because certainly members’ power to affect these things will depend on election outcomes—theirs and others’—as well as their status as a majority or minority party member. So we would not expect members to put campaigning entirely out of their mind. Political science is more implying a reweighting of priorities.

I assume this would be sweet, sweet music to politicians, many of whom complain routinely about things like the media and the time they must spend fundraising for their campaign, and profess their true passion for crafting public policies big and small.

A lesson of political science is that the stuff they hate is not as important as they fear, and the stuff thy love is what they can spend more time doing.

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“What Political Scientists Can Offer Journalists,” Part I


From left: Mark Blumenthal, Mark Schmitt, Ezra Klein, me, Matthew Yglesias, Marc Ambinder (Photo credit: Seth Masket)

The panel that Henry and I organized on this subject was a lot of fun. Although we had two late cancellations from the very apologetic Anne Kornblut and Jeff Zeleny, Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress and Mark Blumenthal of Pollster kindly stood in alongside Marc Ambinder, Ezra Klein, and Mark Schmitt.

In this first post, I’ll report the panelists’ answers to the initial questions I posed: one thing they had learned from political science, one question that they wanted political scientists to address further, and one blind spot of political science.

Things Learned
Marc Ambinder blogged some of his thoughts here (see also Joshua Green’s comment). In his post, he cited how much political science had taught him about the nature of political independents, and in particular how many of them are essentially closet partisans. In the panel, he noted that Mark Blumenthal had taught him that robo-polls cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Matt Yglesias, like Joshua Green, lauded the political science critique of realignments, especially David Mayhew’s book.

Ezra Klein emphasized how valuable he found political science’s focus on structure and institutions and, concomitantly, how often political science showed that “trivia” doesn’t matter.

Mark Schmitt noted how much he had learned from rigorous research about campaign finance, and how it had qualified some of his concerns about money in politics.

Mark Blumenthal simply noted that without his undergraduate political science degree (from the University of Michigan), he wouldn’t have had the career that he has.

Mark Ambinder spoke about several things. He noted that he always had in mind a “pyramidal model” of public opinion, with a small number of elites at top, followed by a somewhat larger number of informed members of the public, followed by a large mass of relatively uninformed people. Given the increasing percentage of people who believe that Obama is a Muslim, he said, does this model still hold? Ambinder also commented at the panel and in his blogpost that there is no good polisci explanation for Sarah Palin, especially McCain’s trust in her as a vice-presidential nominee. He also wondered why Obama was so stubborn in pursuing health care. (Later in the panel, Dan Drezner would usefully frame such questions as centered on “political leadership.”)

Matthew Yglesias wished for more research on primary elections, and especially open-seat primaries.

Ezra Klein turned the question on its head. Political science, he said, should tell journalists what questions journalists should ask. He noted, for example, that despite extensive debate on term limits for Supreme Court justices, he never thought to quantify the length of terms a la the Crowe and Karpowitz research I previously discussed.

Mark Schmitt’s answer spoke both to this question and to the “blind spot” question: he wished that political scientists had more to say about why big things do happen in Congress (e.g., FinReg). In other words, how do we get to something other than the “equilibrium state”—by which I think he meant relatively incremental policymaking?

Mark Blumenthal wanted more research on elections other than presidential elections, as well as more research on emerging patterns of news consumption, particularly of ideologically slanted media.

Blind Spots

These will be all to familiar to many political scientists. In his blog post, Ambinder thought that political scientists did not do nearly enough to interact with the people they study. He writes:

The lived experience of politics and the academic representation of it often differ.

Yglesias noted that there is much less research on the behavior of members of Congress outside of roll call voting.

Klein argued that political science’s blind spot is, well, the value of political science. His impression was that political scientists would rather not explain their research and, compared to economists, seemed to lack a certain self-confidence. Mark Schmitt amplified this, noting that even when economists disagree they “show their fights well”—and the resulting debate helps outsiders learn to grapple with the questions that economists are struggling to answer. I saw this as a useful corrective to the instinct (which sometimes I have as a blogger) of downplaying debates or avoiding research questions on which there are significant debates.

The issue of self-confidence is one that I will return to in subsequent posts on the panel.

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Homophily and Causation: Snarking on Journalists Edition

Jonathan Chait eat your heart out and watch Cosma Shalizi really go to town on Ross Douthat. Advantage: statistics academia.

I have long thought that most opinion writers could be replaced, to the advantage of all concerned, by stochastic context-free grammars. Their readers would be no less well-informed about how the world is and what should be done about it, would receive no less surprise and delight at the play of words and ideas, and the erstwhile writers would be free to pursue some other trade, which did not so corrode their souls. One reason I feel this way is that these writers habitually make stuff up because it sounds good to them, even when actual knowledge is attainable. They have, as a rule,_ no intellectual conscience._ Yesterday, therefore, if you had told me that one of their number actually sought out some social science research, I would have applauded this as a modest step towards a better press corps.
Today, alas, I am reminded that looking at research is not helpful, unless you have the skills and skepticism to evaluate the research.

From there it gets snarkier. Much snarkier.

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Chait on Noonan

Perhaps the day is coming when we can hang up our gloves and just concentrate on telling people about fun things in political science, rather than being mean to pundits and journalists who make silly arguments. When journalists start to take up this cause, they can do it better than most academics can. Jonathan Chait demonstrates his comparative advantage in snark.

Political science is not a perfect field. But there are a few things the field has a pretty good grasp on, and one of them is that there is a strong relationship between economic conditions and presidential approval rating. … pundits tend to be fairly unaware of political science, and prefer to explain events in terms of narrative and broad assertions about the character of politicians and the public that cannot survive empirical scrutiny. Noonan is especially egregious. … Toward the end of the first paragraph, Noonan wanders toward the basic reality of the situation—people liked Clinton because the economy was booming—before returning to the familiar embrace of mysticism (Americans get “nervous” when the president appears “snakebit.”) Rather than seeing this as demonstrating a basic correlation, she calls this the “Mysteries of Leadership.” It reminds me of a classic Saturday Night Live skit, “Theodoric of York,” in which Steve Martin plays a medieval barber practicing superstitious methods like bleeding in the name of science. After killing yet another patient, Martin’s character announces:

erhaps I’ve been wrong to blindly follow the medical traditions and superstitions of past centuries. Maybe we barbers should test these assumptions analytically, through experimentation and a “scientific method”. Maybe this scientific method could be extended to other fields of learning: the natural sciences, art, architecture, navigation. Perhaps I could lead the way to a new age, an age of rebirth, a Renaissance! [ thinks for a moment] Naaah.

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Well-connected journalists

I learned today that the wife of the foreign minister of Poland is a columnist for the Washington Post. Or, should I say, the husband of a Washington Post columnist is the foreign minister of Poland. (I also learned that said columnist is not a fan of Hilary Clinton—perhaps not the most diplomatic thing to say right now, foreign policy-wise?)

What I’m wondering, though, is how common this sort of thing is, for a major journalist to have open political connections. Here I’m not thinking of retired politicians who write for the press (an op-ed by Newt Gingrich, a column by Eliot Spitzer) or pundits and politicos such as William F. Buckley and Pat Buchanan who appear on TV, but someone with this kind of political role who has what seems to be more of a straight journalist job.

I’m certainly not trying to imply that there’s anything wrong here—I’m sure the Post has set careful rules to avoid conflicts of interest—I’m just wondering how often this occurs, and whether it’s more common now than in earlier decades. I recall seeing occasional conflict-of-interest items of this sort before, but always on a case-by-case basis.

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“Me, The People”: Repeat Offender Edition

Clive Crook does it again (see here for context). All good, as far as I am concerned – it finally allows me to make the pun in the title (which I really should have thought of the first time around). Anyway, Crook, with some minor editorial improvements, below:

Remarkable as it may be—and welcome, too, as I believe—it is nonetheless a tainted victory. Brown won in Massachusetts for a reason. The Democrats had failed to make their case for this reform to me. They pressed the case for some sort of reform, but that was easy: I was already there. What I dislike is this particular bill, and the Democrats, intent on arguing among themselves, barely even tried to change my mind.

I struggle to understand how extending health insurance to 32 million Americans, at a cost of a trillion dollars over ten years, can be a deficit-reducing measure. If cuts in Medicare will pay for half of that outlay, as the plan intends, I struggle to see how the quality of Medicare’s services can be maintained—let alone improved, as Pelosi said again in her speech on Sunday. The CBO notwithstanding, I am right not to believe these claims.

Whether you agree with that or not, the law the Democrats just passed is unpopular with me. It is a far-reaching, transformative measure that in the end will affect almost everyone; it is opposed by me most of the time; and it is now law. I would never have believed this possible in the United States.

See Josh’s post below for some actual analysis that looks toward data (I wonder in particular where Crook gets his ‘most of the country’ claim given the narrowness of the divide in opinion polls). I should acknowledge that Crook does suggest that public opinion may change on this (and also criticizes both sides of the aisle and favors generic HCR more than my ‘revised’ quote would suggest) – but he really seems to have a quite exaggerated understanding of the depth and coherence of public opposition. Nor do I want to keep on picking on Crook in particular; I imagine that this will be only one in a series of posts hammering away at this rhetorical-shtick-masquerading-as-an-argument given its ubiquity among political commentators. Readers are invited to forward me more as they see them (nb: I am looking for more than shallow ‘the country demands’ type applause-lines – what I really want to see evidence of is pundits looking into their hearts, discerning the shape of American public opinion there, and drawing the necessary conclusions).

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Read My Lips: Voters Do Not Care About the Legislative Process of Healthcare Reform

Clive Crook resurrects the canard.

In the last big push to get reform through, using whatever deals, scams, ruses and parliamentary evasions fall to hand, the public and their concerns are pushed ever more to the periphery of Washington’s vision. … Recovering voters’ respect for the outcome, even assuming the outcome is good, looks an ever more distant prospect. … Democrats facing tight elections are right to worry that “in due course” might be a long time. It is hard to see how the public will forget this mess between now and November. … passing an unpopular bill by questionable means is unlikely to prove an electoral tonic.

John, of course, has been all over this. However, he merely has ‘data’ and ‘analysis’ on his side. Clive Crook, in contrast, has the punditocracy’s trump card – confidently-worded assertions. Less sarcastically (OK – only slightly less sarcastically), when I become world dictator, my first act will be to decree that pundits who promiscuously write about how “the public” thinks this or that, without any reference to data on what the ‘public’ (a dubious concept in most of these debates anyway) actually thinks will be required, under pain of death, to rewrite their columns so as to substitute the word “I” and related personal pronouns/possessive adjectives for the word “the public” throughout. In the interim, readers are invited to make the necessary substitutions themselves. As illustrated by the following

In the last big push to get reform through, using whatever deals, scams, ruses and parliamentary evasions fall to hand, me and my concerns are pushed ever more to the periphery of Washington’s vision. … My respect for the outcome, even assuming the outcome is good, looks an ever more distant prospect. … Democrats facing tight elections are right to worry that “in due course” might be a long time. It is hard to see how I will forget this mess between now and November. … passing an unpopular bill by questionable means is unlikely to win my vote.

which happily has the dual advantage of being punchier and more accurate than the original.

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Greek Pensions and Democratic Commitment Problems

This post on the background to Greece’s economic problems from the Economist’s Charlemagne is both very interesting and surprisingly non-Economisty.

The Greek civil war, and the bloody score-settling that followed, is a living memory for many Greeks. Any consideration of Greek nepotism or clientelism needs to be seen in that light. So for example, it is not enough to say that Greek civil servants enjoy jobs for life, and that is a big problem. (Though it is a big problem, not least because many Greek civil servants are paid pitiful wages—partly because there are so many of them. That means they will resist austerity measures all the harder, because they feel like victims in this crisis, not fat cats.) But the bloated public sector is also a function of history. Here again, is a commentary from Kathimerini:

The vast majority of Greek civil servants and others working in public enterprises are guaranteed lifetime employment. This practice arose from the country’s recent past, when any new government coming to power would fire the employees hired by its predecessor and replace them with its own supporters. Unfortunately, immunity from dismissal has been abused and simply offers hundreds of thousands of employees shelter from changing economic conditions

… Newspapers here in Belgium talk all the time about the government needing to “buy social peace” by paying off some interest group or other. In Belgium, the alternative to “paix sociale” is a strike. In Greece, plenty of grown-ups remember when the alternative to social peace was their neighbour, or their loved-one, vanishing in the night into a jail cell or worse. The current clientelist truce between right and left is the price (albeit a horrible, wasteful price) established for the current version of social peace enjoyed in Greece.

I am not an expert on Greek politics, but this strikes me as a highly plausible explanation, and one that is very clearly compatible with the emphasis that Adam Przeworski and others lay on credible commitment problems in new democracies. One of the most urgent tasks for those who would like to build a sustainable democracy is to ensure that credible commitment problems are solved – most basically, that (a) power will alternate according to election results, and (b) that disgruntled losers won’t take to the hills with their Armalites. Laying the foundations for these credible commitments is not always a politically pretty process, and leads to various inefficiencies (see also the Austrian Proporz system. But – as Charlemagne notes – it surely beats the alternative.

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Trust and the Economy: Journalists Getting It Wrong Edition

Jonathan Bernstein (guesting at Andrew Sullivan’s blog) complains about an AP piece on trust and politics.

there’s an annoying AP story this morning claiming that declining trust in government has something to do with…television. And yet, as political scientist Henry Farrell says, “When the economy is doing well, people trust government, they trust Congress and they trust a bunch of other institutions. When the economy’s doing badly, people’s faith tends to drop.’’ Unfortunately, after the AP quotes Farrell, the story then ignores him and returns to speculation about how damaging it is for people to see things like the health care summit, with its bickering and lack of immediate action, on TV.

Well, not so. Political scientist John Sides did a nice item on trust recently at The Monkey Cage, showing that trust in government fell steadily in the 1960s and early 1970s (no surprise, given Vietnam and Watergate) and since then—in fact, since the mid-1960s—trust in government basically follows the economy.

I’ll confess that I was pretty annoyed too. The piece by Liz Sidoti really didn’t reflect the conversation we had.

‘’When the economy is doing well, people trust government, they trust Congress and they trust a bunch of other institutions,’’ said Henry Farrell, a political science professor at George Washington University who has studied the issue. ‘’When the economy’s doing badly, people’s faith tends to drop.’’

But America’s trust in institutions started dropping long before this recession.

Analysts point to the 1960s and 1970s—with the counterculture, Vietnam, Watergate and the rise of the conservative movement—as the beginning of a several-decade slide. TV was in its heyday at the time, with nightly newscasts showing the imperfections of institutions, particularly government, more than ever before.

‘’Hand in hand, the rise of television also accompanied the rise in mistrust of institutions. That isn’t to say one caused the other, but they’re very much in a symbiotic relationship,’’ said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of television who studies popular culture.

The juxtaposition here strongly suggests to readers that I was simply arguing that the current decline in trust was a product of the recent recession, and that I didn’t say anything at all about historical trends. But not only did I make it quite clear that the relationship between trust and economic growth was one that had stretched over several decades, I emailed her a link to John’s post with a graph showing the relationship over time, telling her that this was where she should go for a detailed discussion. And she got the link too, suggested she had read it, and thanked me for it.

I don’t want to bag on her too much – she seemed both nice and genuinely intellectually curious on the phone. Still, the story – as it was printed – didn’t seem to really reflect the debate, or my summary of it. I can understand how the political science take on this makes for a poor journalistic story – it suggests that the debate about how trust is declining today is a non-issue. She doesn’t have to be convinced by this argument – perhaps she found the professor of television studies made a more compelling case. Also, perhaps, she doesn’t have the statistical training to understand what variance is etc – journalists come from a wide variety of educational backgrounds. But at the least she could have accurately reported what I said, and why I said it. Instead, she used a distorted version of my argument as a throwaway to set up her main argument about the evils of TV, the horrible things that are likely to result from declining trust, etc etc. I should also say that this is not an unique experience half the time when a journalist calls me, he or she already has a strong idea of what I ‘ought’ to say to make his or her precooked story work, and makes that emphatically clear either in the interview, or in how he or she uses my quotes in the story afterwards (or, more often, doesn’t use my quotes – I get the impression of an implicit political economy in which academics or experts who conform to the script get rewarded with media coverage).

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