why political science dismissed Trump and political theory predicted him

Political scientists and data-crunchers were almost unanimous in their authoritative predictions all summer and fall that Donald Trump was going nowhere. (Daniel Drezner has a nice summary.) Meanwhile, several political theorists and political philosophers were alarmed by Trump from the start (e.g, Jason Stanley, and others whom I follow on social media). It seems they were right, so score a point for political theory. But this case actually reveals interesting strengths and weaknesses of two ways of thinking about politics.

Empirical social science is based on data, which is by definition from the past (although sometimes including the very recent past, like this morning’s polls). To the extent that it is predictive, it derives patterns or trends from what has already happened. That is a very broad definition that can encompass research at any geographical or historical scale. It can describe research that is meant to be descriptive or predictive of the existing regime and power structure or research that looks for openings for radical change. So it’s unfair to stereotype political science. However, there is a dominant style of research on American politics that has the following features:

  • It focuses on the US case, presumably because empirical generalizations are difficult across national lines. Trump strikes me as highly similar to current European right-wing leaders. Mainstream political science could explore this resemblance, but it would be very hard to incorporate data from Europe into a predictive model of US elections.
  • It restricts itself to recent political history, because models of election outcomes that include data from distant times are irrelevant. But, as often acknowledged, a study of presidential elections since 1960 or since 1972 is based on a problematically small number of cases. Just as elections have changed fundamentally at turning points in American history, so they can change again.
  • It discounts the significance of rhetoric and narrative, because empirical studies of the impact of discourse usually find small results. For instance, one can usually predict the results of a presidential election based on economic conditions a few months earlier. Likewise, the presidential bully pulpit is found almost never to affect public opinion. Such research suggests that rhetoric and ideological positioning are unimportant. Yet a broader look at the differences among regimes (and among eras in our own history) make ideas and ideologues look central again.
  • It discounts the impact of Margaret Mead’s “small groups of thoughtful and committed citizens,” because empirical research typically finds larger effects from demographic changes, market conditions, and other impersonal forces. Yet Nate Silver calculates that Trump won just 2.0% of the eligible adult population in Iowa, 9.7% in New Hampshire, 6.5% in South Carolina, and 1.8% in Nevada. That’s why he’s winning the nomination. Silver adds, “A few passionate supporters can go a LONG way.”
  • It takes the basic structure of the regime as a given. We have, for instance, a two-party system with privately funded elections and a certain ideological spectrum. But obviously, the regime could–and probably should–change.

Although you can study the current regime empirically with a critical intent, I think focusing tightly on the way things actually are creates a bias in favor of the status quo. It makes the discipline conservative. Theodore Lowi concludes his great book The End of Liberalism (1969, revised in 1979) by saying:

Realistic political science is a rationalization of the present. The political scientist is not necessarily a defender of the status quo, but the result is too often the same, because those who are trying to describe reality tend to reaffirm it. Focus on the group, for example, is a commitment to one of the more rigidified aspects of the social process. Stress upon the incremental is apologetic as well. The separation of facts from values is apologetic.

There is no denying that modern pluralistic political science brought science to politics. And that is a good thing. But it did not have to come at the cost of making political science an apologetic discipline. But that is exactly what happened. … In embracing facts alone about the process, modern political science embraced the ever-present. In so doing, political science took rigor over relevance.

Now, to be clear, political scientists are not apologists for the 2016 election, which most would depict as a nightmare. But, Lowi would argue, they were apologists for the fundamentally unstable and indefensible system that produced it.

Compared to empirical political scientists, theorists have been more attuned to the possibility of disruptive events, because:

  • They are interested in the regime, not just concrete behavior and events. They recognize contradictions within the regime that may presage radical change.
  • They have other regimes in mind–from ancient Greece to fascist Italy and beyond.
  • They are highly attuned to ideas and ideology, and therefore quick to see that Trump might have an unprecedented popular appeal.
  • They mostly don’t much like the status quo. Instead of being apologists for it, they are quick to expect and even celebrate its demise.

These predilections can mislead, though. It is very important to take into consideration the findings of empirical social science. Otherwise, what you want (or fear) can too strongly color your interpretation of events.

Indeed, I can imagine that the 2016 election will vindicate mainstream models of American politics. It seems highly likely that Hillary Clinton will beat Donald Trump, albeit with limited effects on down-ballot races because the country is so polarized along partisan lines. Clinton holds similar policy views to almost all the Democrats in Congress, so the election may reinforce their central place in US politics. Leftish critiques of the Sanders variety will then struggle for attention and traction. However, once the first Hillary Clinton administration nears its end, Democrats will have held the White House for 12 straight years, and voter fatigue may set in, perhaps compounded by a recession. Republicans will realize they can win with a more mainstream, Romney-type candidate. They will nominate such a person, and the parties will rotate as usual, restoring the system that we know.

That remains a plausible scenario. But so does a political realignment, or a constitutional crisis, or a meltdown. It’s to political theory that you must turn to assess not only the possibility of such events but their desirability.

In his most recent book, Public-Spirited Citizenship: Leadership and Good Government in the United States, Ralph Ketcham tells how leading American political scientists of the early 1900s decried education that took the form of “sermonizing and patriotic expostulation” (p. 105). The only alternative they recognized was a rigorous, detached, disenchanted study of politics as it was. In keeping with that goal, they advocated specialization and expertise. Political science meant training for professors and technocrats in basically the current system. Ketcham argues for a broad liberal education that is “profound,” “integrated,” and “radical.” But positivist social scientists tend to gravitate to education as specialized empirical training for the status quo. If you hope to navigate a time such as ours, you need do data and empirical models. But you also need a bit of profundity and radicalism.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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