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The Politics of Attacking Political Science

• February 25, 2013 • 1:34 PM

When someone attacks physics, Neil DeGrasse Tyson is there to defend it. But who comes to the defense of political science?

Political science seems to be finding itself in politicians’ crosshairs lately. Less than a year after Rep. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) amendment making political science ineligible for National Science Foundation funding passed the U.S. House, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has said that federal dollars currently spent on studying politics should be spent instead on researching diseases. A former political science graduate student, meanwhile, has taken to the pages of The Atlantic to deride the discipline as being largely without public value and therefore not warranting public support. And of course last summer, a practicing political scientist complained in the New York Times that her peers are lousy forecasters.

As a political scientist, I find it curious that my discipline has been singled out as being particularly wasteful of federal research dollars. How did we join welfare queens and spotted owls as convenient punching bags, things that must not be aided by taxpayer money during lean times? Can we really not comb through the social sciences and liberal arts to find some other less deserving discipline? Have we discovered things that our elected officials would like to keep from coming to light?

Part of what’s going on here is that politicians know that, like punching bags, we won’t hit back. There’s a strong (if not universal) norm within political science that mitigates against our own political activity. Sure, we vote (mostly), we donate to candidates, and many of us were involved in student government back in high school and college. But compared to our peers in many other disciplines, we’re relatively under-engaged in politics. Using our knowledge to weigh in on political matters, especially ones that concern our own livelihoods, is often seen as bad form.

We also don’t really have a network of prominent allies eager to speak up for us when we get attacked. Go after physics or history, and beloved scholars like Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Doris Kearns Goodwin will take to the airwaves and make you look bad, explaining how under-funding scientific exploration or failing to understand our past weakens our country. Who rushes to the defense of political science? Notably, a large chunk of former political science majors are now lawyers and politicians—not exactly up there with nuns and baby seals in terms of likability. There’s really not much downside to attacking us.

It’s also a problem that few political scientists have made much of an effort to explain to the broader society just what we do and why it’s important that we do it. We don’t do ourselves any favors, either, by withdrawing from larger political discussions or hiding our research (especially that which is funded by the public) behind paywalls.

There are exceptions, of course. John Patty, for example, recently wrote a compelling post explaining how political science is the only social science concerned with understanding institutions, which are really important if you want to, say, pass a law, develop rules for society, or promote some sense of the common good. Institutional rules have enormous consequences for policy outcomes, and if you want to understand what sorts of rules allow for certain types of outcomes and what rules impede them, ask a political scientist. John Sides also offers an excellent justification for support for the social sciences, noting that people’s happiness and quality of life depend a lot more on social than physical phenomena, and we’re the ones who study the social stuff.

Our political leaders, meanwhile (even the ones opposed to supporting political science research), make claims all the time about things that have been tested by political science, but they largely ignore our research. Eric Cantor himself has advocated for term limits for party leadership positions. There’s a lot of solid research about the effects of term limits! Cantor might want to know whether this would improve the functioning of his party or weaken it. But as far as I know, we haven’t been consulted in this case.

More generally, there are plenty of examples of political science research that addresses important questions about how we live our lives and what sorts of political arrangements can improve or worsen them. It’s regrettable that some political leaders have chosen to scapegoat this research, but more regrettable that there is so little reaction from political scientists and their allies. As scholars who study political phenomena, we should hardly be surprised when a group with little political power and less will to fight back is singled out.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

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