I only indirectly am involved in this fight: given the nature of what I do, I might apply one day for an NEH grant if it were possible. I doubt I’ll be studying electoral models or conducting surveys any time soon, and applying to the NSF for a grant is rather unlikely for me.
I also think Sen. Coburn could have made his case very simply by saying “it would be worth paying for the research if we had the money. We don’t at the time.” Implicitly, this means I agree with Dan Drezner – “basic research in the… social sciences is a public good.” A good example of electoral politics done well (but receives $0 federal funding, I imagine) is Jay Cost’s HorseRaceBlog, which I depend on to keep up with trends in the American/electoral politics part of my field (it helps, to my discredit, that the writing style is popular and it doesn’t get heavy with statistics).
But instead, Sen. Coburn had to say this:
Theories on political behavior are best left to CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, political parties, and the voters, rather than being funded out of taxpayers’ wallets, especially when our nation has more urgent needs and priorities.
I’ve often said that conservatives are hostile to education, and I’ll repeat that here: if you can’t tell the difference between a comprehensive scientific survey into voter attitudes and engagement geared toward a specific, academic question (i.e. how is party identification achieved, with what levels of knowledge are people going to the polls), versus a poll CNN runs during one of its shows in order to demonstrate that everyone agrees with the host, well.
Moreover, Senator Coburn really hurts his case when one considers how little money is at stake – we’re talking $100 million the last 10 years ($325 million, though, last year alone when one includes the study of economics. Hmm.). Again, I think it can be cut; he can also advance the case that the hard sciences more desperately need the money at this point. But he chooses to advance the latter case in such a way as to attack anyone and everyone who studies politics with deeper questions in mind. Ultimately, he’s making a case that there shouldn’t be such a thing as political science that is federally funded in any way: it should be cut, according to this logic, from every state university and private institution receiving federal funds. After all, why is any money spent on political science a good thing?
I don’t know how to respond because I don’t like advancing the case that learning is useful: it isn’t a useful thing for you to know about the Gettysburg Address or the Federalist, or to know how other people in the US think and feel aside from what professional pundits and people openly lusting for power say. Ultimately, democracy itself isn’t a useful thing: one who knows better ruling simply – a very smart despot, a “philosopher-king” – would probably be the best form of government. At some point, the criteria for “who is educated” stand far away from utility. I’m not saying political science in its present form is a precondition for democracy (although – a defense of political science that is very rigorous: Aristotle, Nic. Ethics 1094a28 – 1094b12), but I am saying the line of questioning pursued is a dangerous thing to abandon. If you believe politics is reducible to populism, then Senator Coburn is correct, as is Nancy Pelosi, both at once: our tools for differentiating between the two are inadmissible. While political science nowadays isn’t concerned with “the good,” it is most certainly concerned with identifying formal aspects of political behavior that are most useful to us who are concerned with what is best, and do not need crude populism to argue for budget cuts partly because we study political science.