Saturday, January 9, 2010

Friday Night Cheap Shot

What th?????

Political scientists aren't going to like this book, because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press, which is to say -- a messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition between flawed human beings -- a universe away from numbers and probabilities and theories.
That's Marc Ambinder, a good reporter, ending his post on the good bits from the upcoming Heilemann/Halperin book about the 2008 campaign with an out-of-left-field shot at political scientists.

Yes, this is going to be a rant.  Look...first of all, most (although not all) political scientists actually are interested in the "human beings" side of politics.  I have no idea whether I'd find "Game Change" on a par with Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes, or John Barry's The Ambition and the Power, or Fred Emory's Watergate, or John Jacob's A Rage for Justice -- all great books -- or even a less ambitious but still thoroughly fun book like Maraniss & Weisskopf's "Tell Newt to Shut Up!"  Those are terrific books, well-received by political scientists, and they had plenty of politics "as it actually is lived."

Now, that doesn't mean that every claim in each of those books was something that rang true to political scientists.  If, however, the reporter is reporting claims that are believed by political actors, then it's good reporting (and definitely interesting to many political scientists) even if we have excellent evidence that those claims aren't true.  For example; we happen to know quite a lot about independents.  But if Obama's campaign manager believed that independents were the largest group in the electorate, then I want to hear that, and find out what actions if any he took based on that mistake.

I like it somewhat less when the mistakes are coming from the author, not from the actors.  Then it's a negative, instead of a positive, for at least this political scientist as a reader.  But you know what?  As long as it doesn't get in the way of good reporting, I don't really care very much.  I can't tell you how many times I've recommended What It Takes (not to mention the number of times I've assigned it, which I could count) even though there are bits in which Richard Ben Cramer imposes his assumptions about what's important to winning a nomination, assumptions which turn out not to be true.  But that's at most a minor distraction from the wonderful stories he tells about his pols.

What else...oh, "numbers and probabilities and theories."  Yeah.  Political scientists do, in fact, have theories about politics, and we've been known to use quantitative data.  So?  There are also plenty of political scientists who do empirical work with qualitative data (no numbers).  (I, like many of us, do both).  And I think every political scientist would agree that while many things are best explained by theory, others are not.  Let me explain that a little better...if I wanted to know six months ago about the likely numbers of Democratic and Republican Senators who would retire instead of seeking reelection for various levels of presidential approval, I would turn to findings by political scientists who had studied such things.  If I wanted to study it myself, I would want to build on theories we have about how elections work and what sort of incentives tend to drive Senators.  But if I wanted to know what Byron Dorgan was going to do, I'd want to talk to or read someone who knew a whole lot about how the world looks to Byron Dorgan.  There are political scientists who do that sort of work, but mostly that's going to come from reporters.  I'd be able to interpret what the reporter says through the lens of what political scientists know, but what I'd be interpreting is precisely "politics as it is actually lived," at least if I was doing it correctly. 

Two more examples might help to get at how political scientists look at the world.  First, here's Seth Masket wondering at how pols within a party manage to coordinate the tricky dance of who is going to run for which office.  Seth, actually, is an expert in informal party networks, and knows a whole lot about how these things happen in the places he's studied (and the places that others, including myself, have studied), but here's a new instance of it, and the politics-as-it's-livedness is fascinating.  I'm sure he'd love to have a reporter's account of what's going on (which he would then filter through what he knows from his own research and from others of us who do party networks research.  Second, here's Andrew Gelman on how the incentives for the party, as a collective, seem to contradict the incentives of individual Members of Congress when it comes to retirements.  Andrew cites some numbers here, and calls upon theory, but it's theory that's precisely about politics-as-it's lived. 

Political scientists, in my experience at least, tend to be most dismissive of reporters when those reporters are smug about the implications and meaning of the things they're reporting, especially when there are well-established findings that contradict the reporter's impressions.  I remember one book -- don't remember which -- on the 1984 campaign basically turned on the idea that Reagan stood in great danger of losing the election after the first debate, but then saved everything with his quip about age at Mondale's expense.  That's nonsense; the most extreme debates aren't going to matter much to the final vote, for lots of well-understood reasons. In my view, a better book would not have given those debates a context they did not actually have.  But it's also true that for many voters, and for the candidates and their staffs, the presidential debates are central moments of the campaign even if they don't really affect the vote that much, and I don't see anything at all wrong with telling that version of the story. 

Really, what gets anyone in trouble is claiming more for what they're doing than it warrants.  It would be a mistake for me to say "(general election) debates don't matter" in an absolute sense, because the truth is they do matter in some's just that they don't actually move all that many votes. But it's just as wrong for those who are close to the candidates to pretend that the things that you learn from that close range are the things that really matter, and even more wrong to believe that the things you learn from close range are the ones that determine election results.  In my experience, reporters are at least as likely to make that mistake as are political scientists.  And the other thing that gets people in trouble is ignoring sources of information.  It so happens that there are a lot of people who study politics systematically, and it's sometimes baffling why those who report on it don't seek out what we know -- not because we know everything, but because we know some things, and why wouldn't a reporter want that?

OK, end rant. 

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