Sunday, September 12, 2010

Thoughts on Political Science

Ezra Klein has a fantastic article in today's Washington Post about last week's American Political Science Association conference in D.C. (if you can't access the link, you might have to sign up, but it's free).  Klein walks away with four simple findings that political scientists wish to convey to the general public.  All very interesting, but he misses a few details:

1. Presidential speeches don't make a big difference.  Not true.  Although presidential speeches don't move public opinion closer to a presidents' preferences, they can have a major impact on policy outcomes in a different way.  By making a major speech on a certain issue, a president raises the importance and visibility of the issue.  Legislators respond to this increased issue salience by shifting their stated policy preferences closer towards the publics.  By making an issue super-important, presidents can increase the political costs of having policy preferences greatly at odds with the general public.  A presidential speech can make a big difference, but not in the way we generally assume.  For more, check out Who Leads Whom? by Brandice Canes-Wrone.

2. 'Citizen legislators' empower the very special interests they're meant to fight.  This conclusion by University of Wisconsin political scientist David Canon is counter-intuitive and fascinating: "If you have a bunch of rookies in there who don't have much experience, you're basically turning power over to the permanent government in that town: the staffers and the lobbyists the newcomers end up relying on."

3. Lobbyists don't run the show.  Obviously true, but misleading.  Lobbyists may not be able to change a legislator's vote, but they can have profound influence on policy outcomes.  By the time a bill comes to vote, it has already passed though a myriad of hurdles.  Starting with the agenda-setting stage, lobbyists and interest groups affect outcomes by gaining access: they provide expertise and information to policy makers, update people about political incentives, and even write legislation.  For the same reason that major corporations give money to both sides of the partisan divide, lobbyists do have an impact.

4. Politicians should talk to political scientists.  Hard to argue with this one.  Rigorous analysis of politics increasingly reveals that all the little tactical stuff consuming politics and media probably doesn't matter nearly as much as the larger structural factors like unemployment, health, and education, etc.  Although this sends a great message--policy makers can stop fretting and get down to business--it's not that simple.  Tactical details like speeches, ads, debates, etc. might be necessary but not sufficient.  Raising tons of money and never making gaffes probably doesn't guarantee a candidate's victory, but a candidate who doesn't play along probably won't get very far.  I think policy makers should put more emphasis on rigorous scientific thinking, but I understand that strong incentives exist to obsess over mundane horserace politics.

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