Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Why Political Scientists Should Take Political Science Seriously

. Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Warning: This post is intentionally inflammatory, over the top, and abrasive. Also, some claims are over-stated. Nevertheless...

So I was just going on a rant to my wife the other day about how we IR folks frequently waste our time because we don't know what other (non-IR) political scientists are doing. For example, the big trend in studies of trade politics now is to find new and novel ways to figure out what peoples' trade preferences are. So scholars are spending tons of time (and sometimes money) running surveys and experiments to figure out whether attitudes towards trade reflect sociotropic interests or self-interests.

All fine and good, but ultimately it just doesn't matter. Why? Because no election in American history  has ever been a referendum on trade policy.* Hardly any elections are decided on foreign policy more generally. Study after study shows that voters don't care about foreign policy, don't know about it, and don't change their vote because of it unless something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. That is, if IPE knew any damn thing about what political scientists who study American politics know we'd leave trade preference formation to the psychologists (and preference aggregation to the Americanists). And if security scholars actually took domestic politics seriously they likely wouldn't've wasted thousands of pages on audience costs, or the "transparency" of democracies vs. non-democracies as causing them to be more peaceful overall (which they aren't).

Instead, we've got reams of literature showing contradictory results regarding the link between trade preferences and policy, and the existence/non-existence of audience costs and democratic propensity for conflict, and then we try to figure out how to rectify these divergent results. Well the answer is to ignore them completely -- at least in the case of the U.S. -- because the supposed mechanism doesn't exist. We would know this if we paid attention to political scientists working in other sub-fields.

This is prompted by this post from Nexon:

Among other things, Saunders argues that theories of “democratic international relations” — particularly those surrounding audience costs — need to incorporate a central insight from the last fifty years of American politics research: that most voters are “low information”* when it comes to most things political–and especially foreign policy.** Thus, elites who provide “cues” to the voting public in general, partisans, ethnic groups, etc. are often key intermediaries in the relationship between foreign-policy and electoral pressures. ...

Saunders spent a lot of time walking us through arguments about low-information voters, partisan cueing, and various aspects of contemporary theories of political behavior. During the Q&A period, I asked her, basically, “why are you spending all this time telling us things we already know when you could be using that to further elaborate the implications for international-relations theory?” She responded that, in essence, when she presents the paper, “about half the time” she gets “that reaction”; “the other half of the time people are surprised.”

My reaction to this was, more or less, how could anyone working in political science in 2013 not know this stuff? I don’t mean know it well – I certainly don’t know a lot of the relevant literature or the intricacies of key debates — but rather: know the basic contours at all. And after the last few Presidential campaigns? I suspect most readers of this post will have the same reaction.
My reaction is that social scientists don't take social science all that seriously, and they take the work of other social scientists even less seriously. When was the last time an IR scholar cited The Macro Polity to note that foreign policymakers are generally not constrained by domestic mass politics?

I can't believe I'm even typing this, but despite its many (theoretical, empirical, rhetorical, etc.) flaws a book like The Israel Lobby is at least on the correct track. Foreign policy can be influenced by strong domestic interest groups and is influenced by strong domestic interest groups, so when IR folks study domestic politics we should probably focus on which groups are doing the influencing, rather than inferring causal relationships from mythical qualities of regime type.

I'm sure there are times and places in which foreign policy is exceptionally salient for mass publics. I know, for example, that common people pay lots of attention to exchange rates in Japan. I'm sure that the typical Greek pays more attention to central bank activities than the modal American. But to acknowledge this is to reinforce my point: if we in IR are going to theorize about domestic politics, we cannot simply assume that all polities are the same in all times and places. And we especially cannot do that when comparativists (yes, Americanists are comparativists) are telling repeatedly that that is not the case.

*This is not to say that campaigns will never use trade policy to target particular groups like, say, sugar growers in Florida or steel manufacturers in Ohio. They will. Occasionally winning the support of these groups might even be critical for winning elections. Interest group politics is real, and IR folks should be concerned with the phenomenon. But knowing what the median voter thinks on "trade" as a general intellectual concept just isn't very helpful.

2 comments:

Phil Arena said...

Amen.

Lisa said...

Now, that is some serious rant, something for us to think about...

Why Political Scientists Should Take Political Science Seriously
 

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