Seeking Relevance: American Political Science and America

Robert Maranto

Are We Happy? Behaviorism and Political Science

As Anthony Downs, Herbert Kaufman, and James Q. Wilson, among others show, professions need agreed upon practices and terms, as well as a mix of ideological, social, and material incentives to recruit, train, guide, and retain members.1 For political scientists and other academics, social incentives arise more or less organically through the field and are probably not subject to policy-making. Material incentives are provided by the usual bureaucratic job markets, with official and semiofficial criteria for promotion.2 Arguably, American political science lacks what Anthony Downs calls an “organizational ideology”—a vision of how the profession contributes to society. As we argue below, this is not an entirely bad thing. Indeed, we are delighted our field embraces a range of different methods and maintains some ideological diversity.

It was not always so. As Frank Goodnow put it in his 1904 inaugural American Political Science Association (APSA) presidential address, American political science began the century with a clear mandate to promote “the realization of state will.”3 A Progressive agenda to promote a unified, bureaucratized, “modernized” state able to solve problems such as inequality dominated the field, as reflected in such efforts as the 1950 APSA report advocating a responsible party model. This was meant to build strong political parties that could overcome constitutional checks and balances in order to expand the state.4

Yet, to hear many people tell it, since the behavioral revolution pushed the field to embrace the scientific method and quantification and to limit normative inquiry, political science has faced more of the worst of times than the best of times. As Lawrence Mead most cogently argued in these pages, hyper-specialization has caused political science to resemble medieval scholasticism, in which theologians debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin:

The conceit of scholasticism is that the life of the mind is entirely self-justifying. The society should support academics to pursue their own interests even if these have no relevance to ordinary life, much as medieval society supported monasteries engaged in prayer and contemplation. Even some conservative critics of the university might embrace that ideal, since it does offer some protection against political correctness.5

To some degree, even applied policy research “has not escaped scholastic trends. It shows the same drift as social science generally—toward ever more elaborate statistical analyses with less and less real-world content.”6 Applied social scientists in the mold of the late James Q. Wilson are increasingly marginalized in the world of scholasticism.7 Mead reports that by 2010 no fewer than 160 political science and public administration journals earned sufficient prominence to be cited in the Social Science Citation Index, while the number of organized APSA annual meeting panels more than quintupled between 1972 and 1987.8

This evidence in support of the idea of increased scholasticism is not completely persuasive. Behaviorism, which stresses quantification and abstract theory building above all, was always more of a current than a dominant force in political science. Elements of our field remained qualitative; still others remained applied. Indeed, political science remains far more eclectic and for that reason more interesting than other social sciences, as Gabriel Almond, J. Tobin Grant, and Richard M. Merelman have each noted.9As James Ceaser and Robert Maranto (an author of this piece) quip, for publishing representatives “sentenced by their superiors to attend the professional meetings of academic disciplines,” the APSA “is by far the most lively and interesting of all the professional association conventions,” featuring a variety of perspectives and methods, and even some ideological diversity.10

Further, among the social sciences and humanities generally, political science has fared relatively well. Menand argues that the rapid increase in the numbers of Ph.D.’s produced in the 1960s and 1970s, coupled with the sudden stability in undergraduate enrollments starting around 1974, distorted much of the academic marketplace. The desperate condition of graduate students on the job market led to implicit, but nonetheless very strong pressures to conform to group norms: “The academic profession in some areas is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself.”11

Yet as Ceaser and Maranto note, political science suffered less than other social sciences and humanities, with the possible exception of economics. In the 1970s and 1980s the field decreased its Ph.D. production substantially, and to some extent developed applied job markets in government and think tanks. Perhaps in part for these reasons, while the social sciences and humanities generally moved from about a four-to-one liberal to conservative ratio in the 1960s and early 1970s to at least an eight-to-one ratio today, conservatives within academic political science are nearly as common as they were a half-century ago, comprising roughly a solid sixth of the field. Ceaser and Maranto argue that this relative stability and moderation reflects the continuation of traditional political thought, the influence of modern pluralistic theory, the “real-world” nature of much of what the field studies (particularly in matters of elections and war), and invasions from law and economics.12

The Case for Change

In short, the state of political science is not as dire as some would have it. Yet that is very different from saying that all is optimal. A serious problem within academia generally and within relatively non-applied fields like political science in particular is the inability of those in the field to see how their field supports, or at least should support, humanity—or as Anthony Downs puts it, to propose an ideology of how the profession improves society.13 Just as “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18), without a public interest ethic, professions become irrelevant at best, corrupt at worst.

It is notable that public executives—career and political, liberal and conservative—frequently speculate about whether particular agency practices serve a broader public interest, and how better to align agency practices with the needs of taxpayers.14 Such discussions are unusual, to say the least, among political science professors, who seem far more concerned about pay raises and teaching loads. Over the long term, this disconnection from the society that supports political science will threaten its existence.

The relative absence of a mission leads to two contradictory tendencies within political science, each dysfunctional in its own way. First, as lamented by David M. Ricci and Lawrence Mead, behaviorists largely eschew a direct role influencing politics, producing instead theory-driven works of social science.15 These authors blame the incentives of academic bureaucracies, which reward narrow scholarly publication rather than public service. Particularly for junior faculty, time is a scarce resource. Scholarly publication helps one earn tenure; writing newspaper op-eds or working in campaigns does not.16

Critics like Joseph Nye and Jonathan Cohn,17 among others, also blame the temptation of quantitative methods and mathematical models, which have, as Nye puts it, pushed the field “in the direction of saying more and more about less and less.”18 Save in certain public policy or public administration programs, graduate training seems to focus one’s thinking and vocabulary away from applied concerns. As John Pitney tartly put it:

Graduate school trains young scholars to think and write in ways that will get them published in major journals. While this training has great value, it sometimes has the side effect of leaving political scientists unable to communicate with anybody but other political scientists.19

Of course, the same could be said of economics and psychology, which are at least as quantitative as our field. The difference, as Stark points out, is that these fields are inherently applied and thus more connected to their host nation.20

Most members of the American Psychological Association and roughly half of the American Economic Association are nonacademics, compared to only a quarter of APSA members, and fewer still among political science’s leaders. Particularly on the left, but occasionally (as with Straussians) on the right, some political scientists conceive of their roles as, in the old Progressive sense, philosopher kings and queens guiding public policy. For most prominent political scientists, equality trumps freedom. For example, in The Future of Political Science: 100 Perspectives, the outstanding collection of essays by leaders in the field, four of the nine categories of essays address equality or social movements.21 Only one individual essay, by Eric Nelson, addresses classical liberal concerns. It thus does not surprise that the work of the APSA Task Force on American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality is among the latest manifestations of such efforts.

Yet as Karl Popper, Charles E. Lindblom, Lindblom and David K. Cohen, Aaron Wildavsky, and Vincent Ostrom point out, there is a certain danger in those claiming political influence who have relatively little ideological diversity, relatively little real-world experience, relatively little input from other actors, and limited and often dated data.22

Political science has enormous strengths in its highly talented practitioners and sophisticated methods. However, its disconnection from its host society, while not so severe as for fields like English and sociology, nonetheless poses an existential threat over the long term. This threat can be exploited by certain politicians and perhaps rival disciplines (e.g., economics) if not addressed. As we suggest below, there are ways to overcome this and exploit new opportunities to make the field more interesting and relevant without detracting from its methodological rigor. Key to this is fostering ideological diversity within political science.

Reshaping Political Science

Maintain a Commitment to Scholarship

Any plan for political science must first and foremost recognize that, regardless of the public’s skepticism of academic scholarship, research rests at the core of our public mission. As Thomas Sowell puts it, though research can interfere with teaching, so too can poker or golf. It is possible that the worst teaching occurs at institutions where the faculty might impress sophomores, but are incapable of research that could withstand peer review.23 For political science to remain vibrant, practitioners must actively investigate political phenomena.

For those of us who actively engage in scholarship, the benefits seem obvious. Scholarship disciplines us to stay current on the research in our specialty. Authoring books, articles, and conference papers compels us to evaluate competing arguments in our field. Collaborating with colleagues on research projects helps foster new ideas, improving the quality of our work. Yet, unaware of how scholarly pursuits raise the level of discourse within our respective disciplines, the public will inevitably grow ever more skeptical about how precious higher education resources are spent. As an integral part of our continued commitment to research, political science practitioners will have to explain how academic scholarship provides tangible benefits to our students, our institutions, and the communities we serve. We can do this more easily if our ranks have considerable ideological diversity.

Renew Focus on Practical Scholarship

In effectively arguing that our scholarship is more than scholasticism, we ought to pursue (where practical) research addressing pressing social problems rather than abstract topics likely to matter only to a narrow band of scholars within a specialized subfield of political science. For those who recognize the importance of building bridges to the wider world, it’s useful to pose a simple question before embarking on a protracted and potentially expensive line of research: Does anybody care?

More elegantly put, might a reasonable, intelligent person outside of academia find the topic of one’s research worthy of public support? This doesn’t mean we should tailor our work to the lowest common denominator, promoting scholarly questions to catch the interest of Entertainment Weekly or USA Today. Rather, researchers might consider whether the typical voter or policy maker would say their work contributes to an ongoing national debate. Striving to pursue more “practical” research will bolster our case for ongoing scholarship in higher education and strengthen our claim that political science research yields real-world benefits.

Encourage a Truly Impartial Approach to Political Research

Even as researchers examine applied questions, political scientists ought to resist falling into partisan advocacy. Unlike the political class, our first devotion ought not to be advancing a policy agenda, but rather discovering and explaining scientific Truth. As Wildavsky and Lindblom and Cohen have argued, the discipline must ensure that all sides in political debates are well armed with data.24

This isn’t to say that political scientists ought (to borrow a phrase from John Adams’s defense at the Boston Massacre trial) to “behave like a stoic philosopher, lost in apathy.” As knowledgeable observers of the political world, most of us are destined to form an ideological world view and gravitate toward one of the two political parties. Nevertheless, as a discipline, we ought to redouble our efforts to encourage impartiality, especially in public policy research. In doing so we may improve the political quality of discourse while raising our stature with the public. Here we might suggest that centers on classical liberalism and free institutions, as currently exist at Villanova, Princeton, and numerous other universities, can play a useful role in checking the left-leaning tendencies of the field.

Recognizing that there is no perfect “solution” to the problems posed by our tendency to partisanship, we can as a discipline take steps to encourage new faculty and graduate students to conduct genuine scientific studies of politics, even as they privately advocate for their favorite candidates and causes. Since early socialization probably plays an important role in shaping the research agenda of young faculty, Ph.D. programs should carefully consider whether their training encourages students to examine politics systematically, without indulging in right-wing or, more often, left-wing zealotry.

In many respects, political science has a distinct advantage over other social sciences in promoting an ideologically balanced research agenda because a significant proportion of its practitioners identify as either Republicans or conservatives.25 Whereas a social scientific discipline completely dominated by one ideological viewpoint would inevitably struggle to examine cutting-edge controversies impartially, the vibrant enclave of right-leaning political scientists enhances the quality of our scientific research. From a psychological perspective, researchers have the tendency to look less skeptically upon research that favors their ideological worldview.

If, hypothetically, a newly minted Ph.D. submits a flawed research paper prematurely concluding that illegal immigration places no special burden on a community’s social service, it’s highly improbable that a review panel of sociologists will include a skeptical referee. Whereas, a well-trained leftist scholar is theoretically capable of picking apart the methodological flaws of a paper supportive of illegal immigration, it is more likely that an ideological rival will identify the problems and raise substantive objections to the research. By contrast, with a sizable minority of moderate to conservative researchers, fewer political scientists have the luxury of writing polemics masquerading as genuine scholarship, confident in the knowledge that a likeminded reviewer will overlook its flaws.

The relative diversity of the discipline compels political scientists to conduct their research mindful of the criticisms that may arise from reviews on both the left and the right. The discipline’s general devotion to scientific impartiality, combined with its relatively diverse faculty, makes political science a potentially valuable resource to society. We should continue to strive to promote these values among practitioners.

Promote Open Discourse and Civil Debates on Contentious Political Issues

Apart from teaching students about the inner workings of government, the sources of international conflict, and the methodologies that social scientists use to study politics, political science has another important responsibility: demonstrating how intelligent people can discuss controversial political issues in a thoughtful and nuanced manner. In fact, for many practitioners, discussing/debating politics and policy with our colleagues is one of the perks of the job. Yet these thoughtful and informative discussions rarely take place publicly, and as a consequence, students don’t benefit from our example. Instead, important social controversies that deserve a serious and often lengthy public debate are confined to six-minute shouting matches on MSNBC or Fox News. To counter this cultural shift away from a substantive discussion of the issues, we argue that political scientists ought to take a more public role in sponsoring, organizing, and participating in campus-wide debates.

Such an initiative would serve several purposes. If done appropriately, it would provide students and the community with an example of a reasoned and substantive discussion of important political issues. Whatever views he ultimately adopts, a thoughtful voter must understand liberal and conservative views—not parodies of those views. Students, and arguably some faculty, could benefit from witnessing two (or more) highly educated people civilly discussing a contentious issue without the absurd time constraints imposed by television news.

Public debates among the faculty signal to impressionable students that even on the most contentious issues intelligent people can disagree. Discussions of such contentious issues as same-sex marriage, abortion, universal healthcare, civilian trials for terror suspects, or responses to the Iranian nuclear program would demonstrate that the university values intellectual diversity rather than ideological dogma. Here again, university-based centers on free institutions can play a useful role, but without broader support from the APSA, the sort of intellectual exchanges we propose may be ghettoized. While any presence on campus is better than none at all, we can and should aspire to more.

Ironically, concerns about renewed public debates on campus emanate from both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives fear that exposing their political views will affect tenure, promotion, course assignments, and even simple acceptance among one’s peers.26 Many on the left fear that open political debate will open the door to outside agitators and their political backers.27 We believe it is time for political scientists to reach beyond these fears, and to systematize debates to keep policy makers informed and to make our colleges and universities intellectual environments.

Build Bridges to the Practice

A major weakness in political science stems from the relative absence of practitioners among the faculty.28 We could overcome this by increasing the number of visiting professorships held by former policy makers in the same way that certain business and education schools have practitioners in residence. From a personnel standpoint, this would increase administrative flexibility when enrollments surge or decline, without endangering commitments to tenured and tenure-track professors. It would also create a new subclass of faculty who would see their long-term material well-being as linked to the world of applied politics rather than the university. They would not be under the power of senior faculty and thus would not be subject to exploitation, as traditional adjuncts and junior faculty sometimes are.

More important, employing additional practitioners would strengthen our understanding of applied politics and help place our undergraduates in jobs, while exposing members of the political class to university-based analytic techniques. Many of the most successful and insightful political science academics (e.g., William Galston, Donna Shalala, John Pitney, and John DiIulio) have held policy-making or campaign positions, and such highly regarded university teachers as Mickey Edwards and Fred Harris previously served in government. A revolving door between applied and academic political science might lead to better understanding across sectors, and fewer calls from senators questioning our field’s public funding.29

In an era when Republicans win roughly half of elections, this move would also likely increase the ideological diversity of academia.

Take a More Active Role in Educating the Public and Secondary Educators

At the heart of the Founders’ grand democratic experiment is the assumption that to guard against tyranny the people would stand as the final arbiters of who wields political power. For the Republic to function effectively, citizens must have a rudimentary understanding of government, its functions, and its limitations. Unfortunately, numerous surveys have found enormous gaps in the public’s understanding of government.

Maranto offers a summary: Disturbingly large percentages of citizens believe that the government had some role in the September 11 attacks, and even larger percentages believe that the government might be hiding aliens from outer space. On the left, in particular, few understand that government taxes and spending are in fact “progressive.”30 Such ignorance makes it difficult for citizens and their representatives to make rational choices among the available political alternatives. For example, Democratic and Republican voters have contrary and equally fantastic beliefs about where public money goes,31 and Americans feel subjective unease in the face of objective public and private sector progress on such matters as pollution, crime prevention, race relations, and health. We are living longer, in a cleaner environment, in what is almost certainly the least racist time and place in history, and since 1990 even endure less crime—most of which the public fails to recognize.32

Ignorance makes it nearly impossible for politicians either to raise taxes to support our public sector commitments or to scale down those commitments in a realistic manner (as our representatives across the political spectrum lament). Related to this, citizens cannot understand the language used by policy makers unless they have the basic core knowledge that policy makers share, particularly regarding recent U.S. history.33 After all, how can voters consider whether American involvement in Afghanistan is another Vietnam or another World War II when few young people know anything about either conflict? Voter ignorance lowers the quality of political discourse, giving politicians rational incentives to run relatively simplistic campaigns.34

Political scientists should play a role in lessening the prejudice and ignorance that tend to corrode democracy. However, our role in educating America’s youth is constrained by our limited involvement with students outside of higher education. Most civic education is delivered by instructors at the secondary level. To have an impact on citizens’ knowledge of and interest in governance, political scientists must shape secondary education rather than leaving this to far less expert colleges of education and their cohorts in state education bureaucracies.

In particular, the political science discipline should lobby state legislatures to strengthen the substantive coursework required of secondary education majors, particularly those who plan to teach civics and economics. Unfortunately, secondary education majors are often heavily burdened with classes on learning or pedagogical theory. While some coursework in teaching methods is certainly appropriate for aspiring high school teachers, too much deprives them of content knowledge, meaning that teachers often do not know what they are tasked to teach.35 In arguing that the typical civics instructors might benefit from additional classes in political science, we propose reforming teacher certification. Although high school civics instructors and college professors are charged with introducing students to American government, state teacher certification rules typically limit exposure to substantive courses on government. If we want an informed electorate, this must change.

One simple way that political scientists can take an important role in educating educators is to lend our faculty to schools of education. After teaching introductory American government courses to freshmen and sophomores, most political scientists develop a feel for how to make government rigorous and interesting. With their extensive knowledge of politics, law, and research methodology, veteran instructors could play a valuable role in helping secondary education majors understand the science of politics and the art of teaching government devoid of partisan rancor. Working with secondary education majors would undoubtedly prove valuable to political scientists who take part in such an exchange as they too would learn valuable lessons about how aspiring high school instructors are trained to teach civics.

Conclusion: Toward Social Utility

Political science as a discipline is hardly the sort of tragedy that some suggest. The field remains more vibrant, more methodologically diverse, and even more ideologically diverse than any other American social science with the possible exception of economics. Still, reform is needed, and our proposals are designed to bridge the gap between our longstanding scholarly mission and the public’s ongoing concerns about the cost and social value of higher education.

The renewed focus on “practical” scholarship is not meant to constrain the research agendas of current or emerging scholars. As in the natural sciences, there will always be a place for purely theoretical investigations with no obvious tie to public demands. Try as they might, cosmologists have never made a convincing argument for how multimillion dollar studies of distant galaxies serve a pressing social need. As scientists we sometime pursue knowledge for the sake of expanding our understanding of the world we inhabit. But scholarship that can be readily applied to contemporary political controversies will demonstrate the value of political science to lawmakers and the public.

We suspect that many of our colleagues will look skeptically upon a call for a renewed commitment to “impartial” political research, particularly coming from two moderate/conservative political scholars. Yet, the suggestion that political impartiality ought to play a central role in political science isn’t a call for a radical transformation of the status quo, or a subversive effort to inject conservative values into an otherwise left-leaning discipline. Most of our colleagues already embrace the principle of ideological neutrality. Like journalists, we serve society most effectively when we actively promote impartiality as a cornerstone of our profession. While the majority of the discipline’s practitioners will continue to lean left, their commitment to the scientific process of seeking Truth overrides their political instincts. A public commitment to conducting impartial political research, particularly by the APSA, could improve political science’s image, while opening doors for researchers on both sides of the political spectrum.

Through public debates and expositions, political science faculty can promote the major to students who have otherwise lost interest in government. Through our enthusiasm for the issues debated—regardless of whether we take liberal or conservative positions—we can show a new generation of students why politics matters.

Our assertion that political science should make better use of practitioners in the classroom will almost certainly meet some resistance from faculty who feel that the role of full-time professors is already under assault. Indeed, the number of tenured and tenure-track positions has shrunk in recent decades.36 Faculty often perceive that their influence, relative to administrators, is declining.37 However, adding political science practitioners is not meant to supplant full-time faculty, but rather to improve the quality of instruction by exposing students to a perspective of politics and policy unavailable elsewhere. Working with part-time faculty who regularly apply their education to real-world problems allows students to see that a political science degree is useful.

Adding practitioners to the faculty could also help to diversify the academy by encouraging more conservatives to study political science. In part because right-leaning students are so oriented toward seeking practical college degrees, liberals are far more likely to seek a Ph.D. than conservatives.38 As a result, the pool of traditional candidates for tenure-track positions is heavily slanted to the left. To the extent that political science opens its doors to highly qualified instructors from outside academe—high level bureaucrats, ambassadors, former members of Congress, think tank fellows, etc.—it provides students opportunities to learn from important figures who elected to work in government or related activities rather than in academia. Drawing more readily from Capitol experts not only infuses political science with a more practical perspective on politics, it provides many conservatives with a unique opportunity to participate in higher education.

Finally, believing that public discourse could be improved by better educating the citizenry, we’re convinced that the discipline should be more involved in shaping civics education. Although high school civics instructors and college professors teach introductory courses in American government, there is vast difference in their interest, training, and experience. State-level certification requirements that emphasize pedagogical training rather than substantive coursework handicap talented high school teachers who could benefit from advanced coursework in political science. As an organization, the APSA could play a role in moving states to adopt more favorable rules in their certification process.

Fundamentally, we mean to diversify and strengthen political science and in turn enhance its public standing. In this case, the public interest is our own self-interest, rightly understood.

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