Why Political Science Doesn't Matter

The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Why Political Science Doesn't Matter


THE SOURCE: "Wilson's Failure: Roots of Contention About the Meaning of a Science of Politics" by Peter N. Ubertaccio and Brian J. Cook, in The American Political Science Review, Nov. 2006.

AT LEAST 10 CANDIDATES ARE campaigning for president in the 2008 election, staffed up with pollsters, consultants, managers, and communications specialists. Where are the political scientists? For the most part, they're writing papers with titles such as "Enhancing the Validity and Cross-Cultural Comparability of Measurement in Survey Research." Or "Bargaining in Legislatures Over Particularistic and Collective Goods." In other words, they're far from the real world of politics.

Modern political science is heavy on exotic statistical analysis and narrow specialization, short on practical insights into democratic governance. These are tendencies that Woodrow Wilson squared off against in 1903 when he founded the American Political Science Association, before he went on to become governor of New Jersey and president of the United States, and which others in the discipline continue to resist, with little success.

Wilson was wary of theory that was not grounded in experience, and believed that "a purely academic orientation, with its embrace of logic and reason, was inadequate as an approach" to the study of the political world, where passions and other forces reign, write Peter N. Ubertaccio and Brian J. Cook, political scientists at Stonehill College and Clark University, located, respectively, in Easton and Worcester, Massachusetts. "Shakespearian range and vision" are needed to understand politics, along with street-level experience of politics, Wilson declared. Modern government requires better leadership, and it should be the mission of political science to develop statesmen and help democracy solve its problems.

Yet political scientists were moving away from Wilson's principles even as he enunciated them. In part, this was a response to the centralization of political power in Washington that increased during Wilson's own presidency and escalated dramatically under President Franklin D. …

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