If Political Scientists wrote the news

Really interesting (at least to any Political Scientist, and especially to me) article in Columbia Journalism Review about the way political scientists, as opposed to political journalists, approach explanations for politics and how thanks to some intrepid bloggers (especially Ezra Klein), political science is having some real impact– for the better, I’d definitely say– on political journalism.  It’s a great read (and pretty brief, too), but no one does a summary like Jon Chait:

This is a nice way of saying that political scientists understand that a huge portion of the analysis of news events that appears in the media is total bullshit…

Again, bullshit is the perfect description for this kind of analysis. (Harry Frankfurt’s classic exploration of bullshit can be read here.) It’s not a lie. It’s not undertaken out of any sort of malice or agenda at all. It’s just an attempt to concoct a theory or explanation out of the most readily available events, without any soundness to the method. If unemployment sharply declines and Obama’s approval ratings increase, there will be some new bullshit to explain his political mastery.

In general, this is a great trend, and while political journalists will always be forced to come up with short-term (and deeply flawed) explanations of the president’s popularity, Scott Brown’s victory in MA, etc., the more the analysis is informed by a better understanding of long term trends and context, which comes from political science, the better.
For me, this article crystallized why I am such a big fan of both Ezra Klein and Jon Chait (and Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum).  All these guys “get it” and are looking deeper for explanations and not letting the silly minutiae of the day drive their conclusions.  Anyway, it will definitely be interesting to see how this trend continues to develop.  And Three Cheers to Ezra Klein for really helping get it going.

On a humourous note, Slate’s Chris Beam takes the ball and runs with it and gives up some headlines as written by political scientists.  Here’s a sampling (they’re all pretty damn good):

Chief among the criticisms of Obama was his response to the spill. Pundits argued that he needed to show more emotion. Their analysis, however, should be viewed in light of the economic pressures on the journalism industry combined with a 24-hour news environment and a lack of new information about the spill itself.

Republicans, meanwhile, complained that the administration has not been sufficiently involved in the day-to-day cleanup. Their analysis, of course, is colored by their minority status in America’s two-party system, which creates a strong structural incentive to criticize the party in power, whatever the merits.

Sorry, no pithy or insightful wrap-up, just click through to the CJR article.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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