What I know and you don’t

Hans Noel has a great article entitled “10 Things Political Scientists Know That You Don’t.”  It’s good stuff.  Hits at a lot of points I’ve discussed here over time.  Here’s some of my favorite parts:

#6.  Party On

It is a fantasy of many a journalist and voter that politicians will come to Washington (or wherever) and sit down and just make good decisions. Politicians in this fantasy will set aside their differences and just find out what is best for the country, and then do it. They will not try to score political points. They will not stick to their ideologies. They will just do what is good for America.

In other words, can’t we all just get along?

Unfortunately, no, we can’t. Policy disagreements happen because people disagree about policy. Liberals believe the government has an important role to play in managing the economy, and conservatives do not. Conservatives believe that the government must protect a set of cultural values that liberals do not share.

It is true that politicians also want to win, and scoring political points is a part of that. But this winning is in service to policy goals that are divergent. Some compromises are just incoherent.

He hits my favorite bugaboo (I did write my dissertation on the matter):

#7.  Most Independents Are Closet Partisans

Fortunately, most Americans are willing to give parties a chance. You just would not know it from the way “independents” are revered. The biggest non-story of the last half-century is the rise of political independents.

It is true that if you ask a survey respondent if they identify with a major party or are “independent,” a growing number over the last several decades will say they are independent. The problem is that a majority of those independents act like partisans when it comes time to vote or take positions on issues.

I’ll close with his #1– the bane of political journalists:

#1.  It’s The Fundamentals, Stupid

The most exciting and visible part of politics is the political campaign. Politicians and their team of strategists, pollsters, and surrogates wage battle for the votes of the public. Slogans are trumpeted. Gaffes are made. Tactics are deployed.

And it probably does not matter all that much.

At least not as much as the political environment matters. Presidential elections can be forecast with incredible accuracy well before the campaign really begins. In fact, if all you know is the state of the economy, you know pretty well how the incumbent party will do. See, for instance, Figure 1. If you account for a little bit more, like whether the country is at war, how long the president’s party has held the office, and which candidate is more ideologically moderate, you can do even better. (Gelman and King, 1993, Vavreck, 2009, Hibbs, 2000, Bartels and Zaller, 2001).

This piece should actually be required reading for anybody who ever writes a political story.  It’s understandable that ordinary Americans don’t necessarily know these things– it’s inexcusable when political journalists do not.


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

3 Responses to What I know and you don’t

  1. Jeff Pelletier says:

    So would reading your dissertation tell me which party I’m more likely to align with, as a current independent? I might have to run across campus to go get it!

    • Steve Greene says:

      Yes, actually. It would suggest that there are aspects of Independence you value, but the pull of childhood socialization is strong and that you would be a Republican-leaning Independent. On the other hand, it’s also worth noting that many who come from strong partisan homes cannot make the complete break and end up “identifying” as an Independent despite a clear preference for the opposite party of their parents.

      Of course, you’re probably my only reader who could actually run across campus and grab a copy :-).

  2. saideman says:

    Should be entitled Americanists as it only is stuff that applies to American politics or at least domestic politics. Not an IR idea in the bunch. Americanists are such imperialists…..

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