Brief, incomplete thought on political science today

Right now what’s on my mind is the conduct of political science today. I’ve been reading Jay Cost at Real Clear Politics, and he makes a lot of sense. But there are ways he approaches problems that irk me, because he’s right, but he’s right because he’s narrowed the problem. For example: in his latest article, he does a great job of explaining why declaring there is a New Progressive Majority is going to require much more rigorous evidence than one commentator provides.

But in that post – and other posts – he seems to lean strongly to the idea that the electorate is non-ideological, and he asserts flatly that parties don’t win because they convince people of an ideology, but because they form coalitions and pick off voters at the margins (i.e. people who vote b/c the candidate wore green and their favorite color is green).

I can’t help but think that “what makes good analysis in political science,” therefore, is the enemy of healthy republicanism. In other words: Mr. Cost is right, but only at the expense of the United States of America. You either try for more deliberative institutions, and call out idiocy when you see it, or you accept the status quo as if debased populism and its close relative “utter and complete self-absorption” are things we have to accept because of the scale of the US electorate. Note that I’m not arguing for any particular ideology here: this is about whether ideas matter in American politics or not, or whether electoral models are more important than our making choices.

Contrast Mr. Cost’s analysis with the Federalist – yeah, the Federalist is very cynical. It isn’t clear that politics is wholly about reflection and choice, sure. But the existence of the Federalist assumes that voters – citizens, the people who many times help us, take bullets for us without even knowing us – will read it, want to be educated, want politics to be the expression of something higher, not just a process that gives satisfactory outcomes. I’m not saying all politics is conducted on this grand a scale: it isn’t. But Mr. Cost’s mode of analysis, that which political science uses today, makes it impossible to conceive of why politics matters in any sense, why anyone fought and died for self-governance.


  1. so … in my pre-breakfast befuddled mind i’d say: you’re talking about value-free science here. these kinds of attitudes can be found anywhere, and of course i know it a little better in psychology. i’d like to take a benevolent stance and hope that that the reason is not elitism but a gross lack of understanding of objectivity.

    just out of curiosity – is philosophy of science taught in political science?

  2. There are all types of people and all types of motivation. While I personally kind of like to analyze people from a “scientific” perspective, note trends, try to anticipate behavior, it’s very impractical to devise a model for human behavior in some areas (most areas?).

    I read somewhere recently, some silly unrelated article, that human beings are by nature creative and that they will all do things differently, and while the rest of whatever article this was was not inspiring, I found this statement insightful. People are all different and all the same. And we are very complex and even the most “average” of us is capable of pretty deep and complex thought and will develop a system of beliefs that (I believe) won’t match anybody else’s.

    So, all that to say, I don’t like assuming that people- that the majority of people- care as little about real issues (even though I generally take a negative view of people I keep in the back of my mind the knowledge that the loudest and most obnoxious always make the biggest impression, but they are obviously not the majority) as it would seem we believe they do. Haha, was that a contorted sentence or was that a contorted weird sentence. By “we” I mean political scientists, which I call myself sometimes when I want to laugh hysterically.

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