Why Political Science Doesn't Matter

Why Political Science Doesn't Matter

Modern political science is heavy on exotic statistical analysis and narrow specialization, short on practical insights into democratic governance.

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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. Roosevelt. With one big power center, the funda­mental dilemma of political scien­tists became acute: How could they counsel political leaders while retaining their scholarly detach­ment and their ability to speak truth to power? So they retreated from the path Wilson favored.

Today, there are two main streams in U.S.-focused political science. A warts-and-all group examines the behavior of public officials and government institutions down to the minutest detail—for example, why do members of Congress vote the way they do?—but has little to say about how their discoveries might guide political leaders or citizens. Theory-minded political scientists work with the kind of a priori assumptions Wilson detested, devising sophisticated statistical tests of their hypotheses—“with the results rarely contradicting the theory,” the authors remark. Such prescriptions as they offer carry little weight. Both groups have thrown out history, literature, and law as sources of political understanding in favor of the scientific model and methodologies borrowed from economics.

Yet there are dissidents in the discipline’s ranks, most promin­ently Theodore Lowi of Cornell Univer­sity, a former president of the American Political Science Association. “Political science is a harder science than the so-called hard sciences because we con­front an unnatural universe that re­quires judgment and eval­uation,” he told his colleagues in 1992. “The modern state has made us a dismal science, and we have made it worse by the scientific practice of removing our­selves two or three levels away from sensory exper­ience.” Lowi calls for a return to Wilsonian principles and to greater engagement with the real world of pol­itics, but his is at least as lonely a voice as Wilson’s was in ­1903.

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