Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Put the Politics Back into Political Science

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Put the Politics Back into Political Science

Article excerpt

"I remember all these mathematical formulas," Robert Caro recalls of his coursework as a Neiman Fellow at Harvard University. "Equations. Equations. They kept getting longer and longer. All of a sudden I looked at my notebook and said, 'This is all wrong. This isn't how highways get built.'"

Caro is explaining how he came to write The Power Broker, his penetrating study of Robert Moses, the former New York City highway czar who drew much of the map for that metropolis.

Previously a reporter at Newsday, Caro knew how highways got build; it was when Robert Moses wanted them built. His decision to tell the story resulted in a prize-winning account of the interaction between an individual and institutional power: how a wily and single-minded administrator, never elected to public office, came to tower over his supposed superiors who were elected. Caro says he never intended to be a biographer. But, "the more textbooks I read on political science and urban and regional planning, the more I felt they didn't have any relationship whatsoever to the realities of how political decisions are made."

Caro is not the first to conclude that much "political science," in its obsession with computer analyses and theoretical "models," is out of touch with the realities of government and power.

About a decade ago, a study called the "Political Science Utilization Directory" attempted to evaluate the discipline by asking political scientists working in government whether their education was helping them in their jobs. The assessment read like a Dean Martin roast. Political science, one Commerce Department official tartly suggested, should start to "deal with issues, theoretical or other, which are related in some way to reality, past or present." Perhaps the most pungent comment came from a grant officer at the Education Department who was asked about the employment prospects for political scientists at his agency. "Present Hiring: Only Two or Three of 2,000. Future Hiring: Less."

What prompts such responses? For a clue, one might turn to the American Political Science Review, a good barometer of the profession's academic concerns. One recent entry, "The Political Reliability of Italian Governments: An Exponential Survival Model," aimed to discover "as well-defined, systematic pattern in the downfall process of Italian government ... from a probabilistic and dynamic perspective." There followed 19 pages of graphs, equations, and scholarly citations informing breathless readers that the "half-life" of an Italian government is "approximately 33 weeks" and that "the average government falls when it has accumulated exactly one unit of political stress."

An extreme example, of course. But it is neither exceptional, nor as funny as it might at first appear. Unfortunately, the effects of these scientistic obsessions extend well beyond the academy. The people who design computer models of the Italian government also teach successive generations of American college students what politics and government are all about. They write many of the books that inform us as citizens and voters. It these scholars were giving us readable accounts of how the institutions of our democracy really work, we could have a more informed political debate. We might even have better programs and policies. A recent remark by Sar Levitan, an economist at George Washington University, applied as much to political science as to the social sciences generally. "I'm not interested in running another regression analysis, another statistical model," Levitan told The New York Times. "I'm not interested in writing in an obscure way, and being understood only by an elitist group."

Cheerleaders versus scientists

The notion of a political "science" is a fairly recent development in the west. Traditionally, political thought grew from first-hand observation and experience. Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke, Mill, and others were all involved in the politics of their days, as were architects of American democracy, such as Jefferson and Madison. …

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