So, my newest favorite reader Bob wrote me in an email:
In these last few days it occurred to me to ask you to define the difference (if there is one) between (A) “Political Science” and what I would call (B) the “Art of Politics.” Does it all “come together” or are certain maneuvers and techniques different? If there was a sliding scale would you give Obama more “points” for his Art of Politics rather than his abilities in Political Science?
We both agree that the President’s “negotiation techniques” are weak. I would, without knowing any better, consider negotiations to be part of Political Science.
But he’s the President. Is he more an artist than a scientist? Should he be?
So, even if it takes me a few days, I certainly want to respond to thoughtful emails. So, I would personally define a huge difference between political science and the art of politics. I consider political science to be the abstract and scientific study of politics. E.g., why do voters choose the candidates they do, how do various strategic considerations shape the actions of a House Speaker or a President, why are women less likely than men to run for political office, how does a female candidate affect a campaign relative to a male candidate, etc. I could come up with dozen more options, but hopefully you get the idea. Political science, at least from my perspective, is about using a scientific approach– creating hypotheses, testing the hypotheses, attempting to rule out alternative hypotheses, etc. Now, it’s far from perfect– it’s social science and thus faces inherent limitations that come from dealing with human behavior rather than molecules or physical laws, but we can come to some pretty good understandings of underlying concepts that drive action in the political world.
I would consider the Art of Politics to be the savvy practicing of actual politics– running a campaign, persuading voters, besting the other political party in a budget negotiation or the other country in a trade negotiation, etc. Now, in many cases, I think the art of politics can actually be informed by political science (though, not as much as it should– smart practitioners are missing out on some good advice), but, ultimately quite distinct.
As to the more specific case of Obama as a negotiator, there’s a whole branch of political science (and economics) called Game Theory that helps explain negotiations. Now, I’m not always the biggest fan of this approach, but I do think it can be really valuable in understanding political bargaining. Would actually be curious to see what a Game Theorist has to say about Obama’s negotiating.