Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ten Things Political Scientists Know That You Don't

That's the title of an excellent essay by Hans Noel in the current issue of The Forum (pdf, free guest registration).  Actually, regular readers here and of The Monkey Cage, Seth Masket, and Brendan Nyhan will know quite a few of these things (such as how few voters are really independents, but odds are you'll find at least a few that you didn't know -- and even better, Hans gives a bit more complete explanations for some things that we bloggers often give shorthand versions of.

For example I've referred before to the idea that tabulating individual voter preferences into something that we want to call majority preference is problematic, but I haven't really gone through and explained why.  Hans gives a much more detailed (and easy to follow) explanation.  And it's important; indeed, part of the case I'm always making against majoritarian versions of democracy rests on the finding that in most cases voting doesn't actually do what we want it to do.

So what are the ten items? (my wording except where indicated):
  • Fundamentals matter in elections
  • Public Opinion is actually complex and hard to figure out
  • Elections don't necessarily do what we want them to do
  • Mandates are fiction "created after the fact by people who want you to think one thing or another"
  • First past the post tends to yield a two-party system
  • Political parties are essential for democracy to work
  • "Most independents are closet partisans"
  • Interest groups are on balance good things
  • All groups and parties have some sort of leaders; there are no spontaneous mass movements
That's nine.  The tenth, and perhaps the best part of the essay, is a list of things that people believe are true, but political scientists haven't been able to either prove or disprove, at least so far.

It's a nice job, and I highly recommend it.
    But wait: there's more!  The current issue of The Forum is chock-full of articles about the intersection of political science and practical politics.  I'll have to wait to recommend things until I read them, but (among others) I see pieces by Seth Masket, by John Sides and Henry Farrell, by Jacob Hacker, by Burdett Loomis, and by the journalist Rhodes Cook that all look promising to me.

    (I don't usually put in a disclaimer, but every once in a while I should mention that political science, especially the broad subfield of American politics, isn't all that large a discipline, and various authors I'll recommend are friends or acquaintances or former softball teammates from grad school).


      1. I'd post this at The Forum, but they (foolishly IMO) don't allow commenting and require all letters to go through some formal submission process. In the first item in their list they fall for an urban legend: Clinton's campaign mantra wasn't "it's the economy, stupid". My google-fu isn't strong enough to find the excellent online debunking of that myth, unfortunately. Suffice to say that "the economy, stupid" at most was one of several internal mottoes, but even that claim is unsourced. It doesn't really make sense, either- who's being called "stupid" here? The voter? The volunteer campaign worker? Not very plausible, is it?

      2. Anon,

        You are mostly correct -- and not only that, but I actually did an item on this a while back. So if you want to know more about "the economy stupid," see:

        But really, I don't think Hans misused it in any egregious way. (Oh, and the "stupid" is campaign workers, no question about it).

      3. Here's something I know that political scientists apparently don't--if you want people to read your articles, don't hide them behind a registration wall with a complicated-looking reg process!

        I probably will get to them (after the election), but a lot of people will be put off.

      4. Dan,

        Political scientists know that, but the people who own & run journals don't know or don't care. Different set of people. It is getting a bit better, but very slowly.

      5. One hobbyhorse of Plain Blog that I have noticed is the argument that campaigns don't really make that much of a difference in general elections. I was surprised to see that this didn't make the poly-sci master list. Either way, this does seem like a salient and pertinent point if true. Obviously campaigns are always marginal, but I would love to see more on this topic.


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