Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On Political Scientists and Reform

Andrew Gelman:

 I resist what I see as the occasional habit of political scientists to report a null effect and imply from that the conclusion that various reforms don’t matter or shouldn’t be done. This comes up here with term limits for judges and has also come up regarding ideas for campaign finance reform, nonpartisan primaries, and nonpartisan redistricting. I resist anti-reform arguments for two reasons:
1. There’s no reason to believe that whatever happens to be the current rule in the U.S. is actually an optimal policy or anything close to it. Reforms proposed for the U.S. are often close to existing policies in other countries.
2. Outcomes are multidimensional. I discuss various potential outcomes of term limits on judges here and here.
3. Much of the research essentially compares of the current system to the past. There were long-serving elderly judges in the past, just as there are today, so why worry?
OK, first of all, my credentials. I support a variety of filibuster (and executive branch nomination) reforms. I support changes in the line-of-succession. I support teenage voting, and have flirted with support of vote-from-birth, and I support eliminating the minimum ages for serving in elective office. I support, in theory at least, replacing "electors" with an automatic system that translates state voting results into electoral votes without the danger of a flaky elector. I'd support some sort of change in the composition of the Senate to make it less malapportioned. So I'll claim that I'm not against all reform.

So how to deal with reforms? The main thing about supporting a reform is that it requires a multistage test. First: is the identified problem really a problem? For example, lots of suggested reforms are intended to solve the problem of the influence of political parties. Right away, that's going to separate those of us who believe that parties are mostly a good thing from many reformers. Then, second, would the proposed reform actually solve, or at least contribute to solving, the problem. And, third, it's probably worth at least some assurance that the proposed reform is unlikely to cause other significant problems.

Now, I agree with Gelman that we should not approach reform with too high a bar. We certainly should not assume that the framers in Philadelphia got everything right, nor that the happenstance, partisan maneuverings, and compromises of the last two hundred years have left us with some sort of perfect system. That said, my sense is that we also should be very careful about this stuff, especially as political scientists. As we contribute to the popular and political discussion, we should be clear what our professional expertise allows us to say, and what it doesn't. I think some political scientists believe the best course is simply to analyze, not to endorse (or reject); others, of course, feel perfectly comfortable acting as citizens regardless of their expertise.

My guess is that the reason political scientists sometimes appear to be reform-averse is that there are a lot of very goofy reforms out there that can't pass those tests. My guess is that I have something like a 50/1 ratio of reforms that I've read that I reject to those which I support...but that still leaves me supporting quite a few reforms.

I obviously can't speak for others, but I suspect that you would find the same thing -- a very large ratio of rejected to embraced reforms, but still quite a few reforms that they support.

I guess overall, I think that if someone makes a strong case for reform, many, and perhaps most, political scientists are open to listening. It's just that we've often heard this turn before, and we know how it goes. Which, I'm sure, can make some of us (myself certainly included) seem dismissive at times, and that's not a good thing at all. But an overall bias against reform? I'm just not sure it exists.

Anyway, my guess is that most political scientists who study the US (I think that's the group Gelman is talking about) support at least a couple of significant political reforms. Yes? No? Let me know about it.


  1. Sure we do.

    But, I think you're downplaying #3 in your stages: the Law of Unintended Consequences. Note: we call it a LAW. I do think that there is a significant bias among political scientists for the status quo. And this might be what Gelman is pointing at, and I think he has something there (even if he does seem to gloss over the stages).

    Political scientists do seem to be a bit ad hominem in their reactions to a lot of reforms. And part of that stems from what you rightly identify: a LOT of reforms and a lot of reformers aim at parties, and political scientists tend to like them. So, after hearing it from so many reformers (often referred to by political scientists as "goo-goos", short for Good Government, but it's obviously also a derogatory term meant to imply childish, and I think its use is relatively widespread), political scientists naturally get in our "professor with a student" mode. In fact, that might contribute to it: as a profession, we constantly deal with young, idealistic (but not necessarily well-read or informed yet) students promoting this or that reform, but without much thought given to them.

    For example, I had a student complain about their B- on their very well-written essay in 2001 arguing that a single national primary day would have helped John McCain. When I patiently explained to her that, no, the candidate with the most money would do much better in that circumstance, it was like: "Oh, yeah, I guess so." We get so many of those papers that we end up defaulting to status quo.

    It's ingrained in us, though, to a degree I don't see in historians or sociologists. We seem to be more conservative, in the classic sense of not wanting change for change's sake.

  2. Oh, and as for reforms I'd support:

    Floors not ceilings CFR
    Filibuster reform
    Direct national vote for Prez
    Age limit on Justices (80?)

    Those are the ones that come immediately to mind.

  3. I like your idea of the three-stage test for potential reforms, because I think it appropriately treats these proposals as public policies that can be analyzed in the same kinds of ways as other legislation. But I think that there's usually also an ideological overlay to reform debates that makes it tricky to have the "policy" debate. Reform proponents typically want to fix one of about half a dozen broad problems they think the political system has -- not responsive enough to citizens, too expensive, too big, too many checks and balances (not nimble), too few checks and balances (not really limited government), etc. These perceived problems, I'd guess, correlate pretty highly with ideology, and maybe party ID. The bottom line is that it's tough to have a "clean" debate on the merits of a reform proposal as a policy (the way a political scientist would) without getting peoples' ideological hackles up.

    If people *were* more interested in having a debate using the kinds of evidence you mention in your 3-part test, a rich source of evidence would be state-level versions of these reforms. (The authors of The Federalist cited a lot of this kind of evidence.) But as I've pointed out in a paper (available at http://tiny.cc/n95jcw), evidence of state experiences with reforms like term limits, line-item vetoes, and campaign finance typically get used opportunistically, if at all, in debates about reforms at the federal level.

  4. Something else that comes to mind: One of the smartest questions I ever got while teaching a political science course was from a student who noticed that the authors of The Federalist sometimes claimed that the results of switching from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution would be quite modest. If they thought the new constitution was so necessary and well crafted, she wondered, why didn't they make stronger claims that its effects would be far-reaching? I think the answer is that reform proponents walk a fine line between positioning their proposals as just small technical fixes vs. things that will save the constitutional order. So, proponents often end predicting relatively modest (positive) effects, and opponents are the ones who play up the substantial (negative) effects with claims that it will unravel the constitutional order.

  5. Good stuff. As Deborah Stone in her great book "Policy Paradox" points out, many of the changes political "reformers" advocate for our political system are fundamentally based in arguments rooted in moral or ethical choices. There's nothing wrong with that, it just has little to do with analyzing a political system. Ask a carpenter how to make a house "better" and they will tell you that depends on what you want. Likewise most arguments for term limits, a main goal of political "reformers" for years, are based in the subjective idea that "career politicians" are bad while "citizen legislators" would be good. Just as many conservatives seem to want to privatize things even when it is shown that privatization doesn't necessarily reduce cost or improve quality. Privatization is a goal in itself as much as anything else. Other reformers announce that their ideas are more "rational" and then we get the idea for silly "rational" plans like the Simpson-Bowels panel which as a complete and total failure. Other people say we need to be "objective" and use "metrics" but objective metrics will tell you things like vastly more Americans died from slipping in the bathtub last year than from terrorism, so shouldn't we have a war on bathtubs? Any layman can tell you that's a bad idea for a political agenda. Its fine for people to make these reformist arguments but political scientists are right to dismiss them as being political arguments veiled in some sort of rational or scientific disguise.

  6. Here's a reform for your consideration . . .

    Most Americans don't care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state. . . they care whether he/she wins the White House. Voters want to know, that even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was directly and equally counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans think it's wrong for the candidate with the most popular votes to lose. We don't allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of 'battleground' states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in more than 3/4ths of the states that now are just 'spectators' and ignored after the primaries.

    When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%,, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes - 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via nationalpopularvoteinc

  7. There have been 22,000 electoral votes cast since presidential elections became competitive (in 1796), and only 10 have been cast for someone other than the candidate nominated by the elector's own political party. The electors now are dedicated party activists of the winning party who meet briefly in mid-December to cast their totally predictable rubberstamped votes in accordance with their pre-announced pledges.

    If a Democratic presidential candidate receives the most votes, the state's dedicated Democratic party activists who have been chosen as its slate of electors become the Electoral College voting bloc. If a Republican presidential candidate receives the most votes, the state's dedicated Republican party activists who have been chosen as its slate of electors become the Electoral College voting bloc. The winner of the presidential election is the candidate who collects 270 votes from Electoral College voters from among the winning party's dedicated activists.

    The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld state laws guaranteeing faithful voting by presidential electors (because the states have plenary power over presidential electors).

    1. @toto: that's all well and good. I agree with the basic idea of directly electing the president, and have always thought this little 'trick' (not meant in any negative way) to be a clever workaround. I've written my state legislators in favor of it.

      HOWEVER....your post illustrates, I think, one of the reasons political scientists are anti-reform generally. In a discussion on why we are anti-reform, you posted a very long comment arguing for a particular reform. This is a common experience for political scientists; 'reformers' often grate on our nerves because everything ends up being about their reform, even if the topic of conversation was different. Honestly, I think a lot of political scientists avoid talking about politics generally because the parts that WE want to talk about are not quite the same as others do. It's not that reformers haven't thought a lot about topics or don't have good ideas; it's that we speak slightly different languages and want to take conversations in different directions. I see a similar frustration in the reformers, when us poltical scientists just don't seem to 'get it'


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?