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September 03, 2014 5:05 PM Political Science Less Unreliable Than Game-Change-y Journalism

By Ed Kilgore

Ezra Klein has an amusing and instructive piece up at Vox today about the increasing acceptance of political scientists among journalists and practitioners alike in Washington. He does not, however, attribute that much to the persuasiveness of poli sci arguments or to the skills of those brave missionaries from academia who advance them, but rather to the increasing unreliability of alternative sources of wisdom:

Political scientists traffic in structural explanations for American politics. They can’t tell you what an individual senator thinks, or what message the president’s campaign will try out next. But they can tell you, in general, how polarized the Senate is by party, and whether independent voters are just partisans in disguise, and how predictable elections generally are. They can tell you when American politics is breaking its old patterns (like with the stunning rise of the filibuster) or when people are counting on patterns that never existed in the first place (like Washington’s continued faith in the power of presidential speeches).
As politicians lose power and parties gain power, these structural explanations for American politics have become more important. That’s what I’ve found, certainly. Talking to members of Congress and campaign operatives is useful, but not terribly reliable. Politicians are endlessly optimistic — in their line of work, they almost have to be — and they want to believe that they and their colleagues can rise above party and ignore special interests. But they usually can’t. They begin every legislative project hoping that that this time will be different. But it usually isn’t. An understanding of the individual dynamics in Congress or in the White House can be actively misleading if it’s not tempered by a sense of the structural forces that drive outcomes in American politics.

At Ten Miles Square, Jonathan Ladd finds it rich that Ezra’s identified a structural reason for the relevance of poli sci’s structural insights.

But I wouldn’t take the argument too far. When Bloomberg decided to upgrade its political coverage, they didn’t offer a million smackers each to John Sides and Larry Bartels, did they? No, they threw the big bucks at the original Game Change-ers, the high priests of non-structural political journalism, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. So even if old-school political reporting has lost Ezra’s respect, I’m sure Halperin & Heilemann are too busy counting their money to notice.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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