To the Editor:
Almost despite ourselves, we appreciated and enjoyed reading Bruce Heiden’s well-crafted “The Ideology of Political Science” (Summer 2013, vol. 26, no. 2), a response to our own “Seeking Relevance: American Political Science and America” (Spring 2013, vol. 26, no. 1). Prof. Heiden’s strongly worded essay makes some sound points. Here, we offer five key disagreements with Bruce Heiden, who, though an accomplished scholar, has seemingly spent little time reading political science journals and attending political science conferences.
First, Heiden complains that we offer “no account of how and why political science developed,” and thus cannot understand how the field works today. Such a treatment was beyond the scope of our AQ essay—though we do spend a bit of time on pages 404–6 outlining the field’s modern history—and one of us has done more extensive work in this area, with the help of Jim Ceaser.1 Heiden is in fact right that, as we note in “Seeking Relevance,” political science began as a field dedicated to the “realization of state will.” Fortunately, however, our field was influenced over the past seventy years by Straussians, by the Defense establishment, by the fall of communism, by invasions from economics, and to a degree by the general interplay of ideas in Washington, which from the 1980s through the early 2000s tended to favor conservative and neoliberal thought. (Those were the days, my friend.) This has maintained more than a little ideological diversity in our field, though not quite so much as he and we like.
Second, Heiden does not understand how methodologically and conceptually diverse our field is. Contrary to his assumptions, political scientists use more than just “ubiquitous surveys” to make sense of the world; they also use models quite different and more nuanced than the hardcore rational choice theory that Heiden presumes rules. Indeed, because of the field’s breadth, to use an example from Heiden, there are apt to be numerous approaches to something as complicated as the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Our field’s classical liberal political theorists, and there are more than a few, would express concerns about ACA’s intrusion into the private sphere, while public policy scholars taking a political economic bent would express concerns about ACA’s inability to use market incentives to spur innovation and drive down costs. From the center, implementation theorists would express concerns about organizational complexity and bureaucratic politics. In short, if our field has a social democratic majority, that majority is far from unchallenged.
Third, to a far greater degree than Heiden, we believe that the application of social scientific methods, of developing hypotheses and testing them systematically, and allowing skeptics full access to one’s work, does in fact offer substantial promise in teaching us about human behavior. There are numerous examples, many from the right side of the political spectrum. John Chubb and Terry Moe have taught us about how political processes hamper public schools, while market forces empower private schools.2 Their work, which has withstood considerable scrutiny, helped spur the school choice movement. One of us, combined with Patrick Wolf, has shown how improved policing reduced homicide by 80 percent in New York City, and explained why other cities have not copied this stunning success.3 We hope that, eventually, other cities might follow suit. In a more positive vein, Stephen D. Krasner, using qualitative case studies, showed that American presidents consistently relegated the interests of American corporations behind broader national interests—often idealistic interests—in making foreign policy.4 This finding, which has stood the test of time, should comfort moralists and afflict the cynical. Using qualitative, quantitative, and at times historical data, Samuel L. Popkin has shown how American voters use “low information rationality” to make at least quasi-rational decisions, decisions arguably good enough for government work.5 A field thoroughly dominated by social democrats, like sociology, would be unlikely to embrace such work.
Fourth, Heiden misconstrues our concerns about basic civic education for a general criticism of voters themselves. Our assertion that too many voters harbor strange beliefs or sometimes act with less than optimal information does not make them “stupid.” In fact, if our criticism of voters were rooted in their basic intellectual capacity, improving civic education wouldn’t strengthen democracy, but rather waste scarce public resources.
Whereas Heiden claims gaps in voter rationality are due entirely to poor survey designs predicated on manipulative questions, survey researchers have found credible evidence that many (and perhaps most) voters have not thought through the consequences of their beliefs. Perhaps the most famous example of this work was summarized by Phil Converse, who found that most citizens harbored beliefs that were unconstrained by other, potentially conflicting points of view: “[A]mong adult American citizens, those who favor the expansion of government welfare services tend to be those who are more insistent upon reducing taxes.”6 When citizens demand increases in social welfare, education, farm aid, medical research, and military spending, while simultaneously calling for sharp decreases in taxes, most aren’t justifying their positions based on their studies of the Laffer curve.
Most citizens simply want to “have their cake and eat it, too.” Since there is no personal cost in making irrational demands on the political system, few citizens are motivated to sort out the inconsistencies in their political views.
With the proper civic education, citizens can be encouraged to think through the logical implications of their core beliefs (liberal or conservative) and exercise their vote accordingly. While we concede that political leaders often try to pollute the political discourse by spreading misinformation or concealing their intentions, as was the case on both sides of the ACA, educated voters have a fighting chance of seeing through the rhetoric. Political scientists have an important role to play in helping citizens cast a rational vote by teaching them political history, the workings of the Constitution, the function of the courts, the constraints on executive authority, the value of federalism, and even the limits of social scientific research. If trained to approach politics rationally, rather than emotionally, voters of all political persuasions will cast more effective and meaningful ballots.
Finally, we must say a word about those aliens. Jody Dean actually employs a range of historical analyses, survey work, and even fieldwork among the believers—not just surveys, as Heiden suspects. (It always pays to read the book.) With these mixed methods, Dean shows that the widespread belief in aliens arose in response to scientific breakthroughs in technology that many found incomprehensible, combined with the rise of a national security state that was and is of necessity (in our view, not Dean’s) nontransparent.7 We disagree with Dean’s leftist politics, but her analyses can stand up to scientific scrutiny, and underscore our belief that political scientists should take a more active role in K–12 schooling, to spread facts and thus strengthen our democracy.
We would never say our field is beyond improvement; else we would not have penned our essay. We do, however, say that our field is not (yet) politically correct, and has more than a little to offer the world. On this, Bruce Heiden is wrong.
21st Century Chair in Leadership
Department of Education Reform
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Matthew C. Woessner
Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy
Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg
Prof. Heiden Responds
Robert Maranto and Matthew Woessner’s response to my essay “The Ideology of Political Science” would have served Academic Questions readers better had it provided an accurate summary of my essay’s main points before proceeding to the authors’ objections. By doing so the letter would have made clear that it does not respond to (and scarcely acknowledges) any of the actual claims of my essay, and instead deflects them by reiterating at greater length the same view of political science the authors previously advanced in their AQ essay “Seeking Relevance.” There is no dialogue here. In these paragraphs I shall simply clarify the differences of approach that Maranto and Woessner have obfuscated.
In “Seeking Relevance” Maranto and Woessner argue that political science is methodologically and ideologically diverse. As the examples in their essay and letter show, they mean that the field tolerates a certain limited diversity of personnel and methods. Maranto and Woessner also report that “those in the field” (again, personnel) lack a vision of the profession’s contribution to society. My essay, in explicit contrast to theirs, approached political science institutionally, proposing that as an academic discipline political science functions within a durable network of interests, purposes, and concepts (i.e., an ideology) that in effect circumscribes the type and practical impact of tolerable diversity. I would suggest that the professional vision of political science may be invisible to some practitioners because over decades of formalization it has become efficiently incorporated into the disciplinary structure, like a factory plan or program of “choice architecture.” I’m sure that some political scientists and sociologists have already thought of this, even if Maranto and Woessner haven’t.
In “The Ideology of Political Science” I suggested that the scientific pretensions of political science entail a reductive model of what human beings are. I also suggested that the dissemination of this model is harmful to democracy. In their letter’s conclusion, Maranto and Woessner assert that political science has “more than a little to offer.” That is not an objection to my suggestion that some of what political science offers is harm. Maranto and Woessner also point out that political science deploys a diversity of theories and methods, but they do not so much as mention any model or models of the human being—reductive, elevated, whatever—postulated by any of these theories. Rather than objecting to my point, they’ve just evaded it.
In advocating, however, for their own theory of the role political science should play in education, Maranto and Woessner propose to “[train voters] to approach politics rationally, rather than emotionally.” Notwithstanding the authors’ protestations that they view citizens respectfully and wish to strengthen democracy, I persist in thinking that their proposal as stated is profoundly condescending and dangerous. To elites it offers a warrant to ignore the voices of citizens and manipulate compliance. To nonelite citizens (all of us, when at home) it is a warning that our franchise is a mere formality and that resistance to “rational” social management is futile.
Maranto and Woessner’s disparagement of human emotion also evinces, if a nonexpert may venture an opinion, a misunderstanding of politics. Caring is an emotion. If citizens didn’t approach politics emotionally, they wouldn’t be patriotic, wouldn’t care about whether laws were just to the community rather than simply advantageous to factions, and wouldn’t trust anybody in government or out. I’m afraid we’re coming to that depressing condition without the special training proffered by Maranto and Woessner. But I’m also afraid that the discipline of political science that they inherited and carry on has long since made its contribution to our civic decay. That’s the substance of our disagreement.
Professor of Classics
The Ohio State University