10 things political scientists know that we don’t
Acton Institute Powerblog

10 things political scientists know that we don’t

“If economics is the dismal science,” says Hans Noel, an associate professor at Georgetown University, “then political science is the dismissed science.”

Most Americans—from pundits to voters—don’t think that political science has much to say about political life. But there are some things, notes Noel, that “political scientists know that it seems many practitioners, pundits, journalists, and otherwise informed citizens do not.”

Here are excerpts from Noel’s list of ten things political scientists know that you don’t:

#1. It’s The Fundamentals, Stupid

The most exciting and visible part of politics is the political campaign.

Politicians and their team of strategists, pollsters, and surrogates wage battle for the votes of the public. Slogans are trumpeted. Gaffes are made. Tactics are deployed.

And it probably does not matter all that much.

At least not as much as the political environment matters. Presidential elections can be forecast with incredible accuracy well before the campaign really begins. In fact, if all you know is the state of the economy, you know pretty well how the incumbent party will do.

#2. The Will of the People is Incredibly Hard to Put Your Finger on

How do you know a political commentator is making stuff up? They pretend to know what “The American people” want, think, will do, or anything else.

The first, most obvious, problem is that a majority in a given survey does not represent all of “the American people.” If 75 percent of respondents say they are for something, this means that 25 percent did not say they were for it. Those 25 percent are Americans, too. But of course, we have a strong belief in majority rule, so perhaps that is not so troublesome.

#3. The Will of The People May Not Even Exist

OK, let us say that “the American people” do have preferences, even if it is hard to measure them with surveys. We need to aggregate those preferences somehow. We need to let the American people participate in democracy and get collective decisions that are reasonable. That might not be possible.

#4. There Is No Such Thing As A Mandate

Take items #1, #2, and #3 together, and it is hard to interpret elections the way that politicians and pundits want us to. Economic fundamentals guide voters who might not have well-defined attitudes to vote in a system that cannot satisfy all the demands of democratic decision-making. This is not a formula for sending a clear message to anyone.

#5. Duverger: It’s The Law

Social scientists are notoriously unwilling to declare anything with certainty. Physical science is full of laws; we just have findings. Except for Duverger’s Law. It was put into print in the 1950s by Maurice Duverger but understood for much longer (Riker, 1982). To wit: “The simple-majority single-ballot system favours the two-party system.”

#6. Party On

Policy disagreements happen because people disagree about policy. Liberals believe the government has an important role to play in managing the economy, and conservatives do not. Conservatives believe that the government must protect a set of cultural values that liberals do not share.

It is true that politicians also want to win, and scoring political points is a part of that. But this winning is in service to policy goals that are divergent. Some compromises are just incoherent.

#7. Most Independents Are Closet Partisans

It is true that if you ask a survey respondent if they identify with a major party or are “independent,” a growing number over the last several decades will say they are independent. The problem is that a majority of those independents act like partisans when it comes time to vote or take positions on issues.

#8. Special Interests Are A Political Fiction

How do you know a politician is being dishonest? He blames something on “special interests.”

What is a special interest? Why, it is an interest opposed to the “general interest” or collective will. But see items #2 and #3 above: There ain’t no such thing.

Special interests are labor and business. They are environmentalists and developers. They are pro-life and pro-choice activists. They are gays and they are fundamentalist Christians. They are you. They are me. It is hard to think of any political outcome that does not satisfy some interests and oppose others

#9. The Grass Does Not Grow By Itself

Is the Tea Party a “real” movement, or is it “astroturf”?

The speed at which this debate is bouncing around partisan circles is shocking, considering how silly the question is. If a movement is astroturf if some outside force is organizing it, then all movements are astroturf. People do not spontaneously wake up and go to rallies. Someone hosts the rally and invites them to come.

#10 We Do Not Know What You Think You Know

Among the things that we think we know, but that political scientists have found at best mixed evidence for:

1. Money buys the votes of the general public. (Maybe savvy donors just donate to candidates who will win in the hopes of influencing them.)

2. Money buys the votes of elected legislators. (Maybe savvy donors just donate to candidates who will vote the way they would like, and not to those who would not.)

3. Parties influence the votes of elected legislators. (Maybe politicians just sort themselves into the parties they agree with in the first place.)

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).