Posted: October 8, 2004
he vast majority of professional political scientists align themselves with liberal causes and the Democratic Party. Beyond this surface unity, the discipline is adrift.
As a profession, political science is extraordinarily comprehensive, possessed of many parts, and strangely silent as to what the whole amounts to. Compared, say, to Aristotle's Politics, which begins by spelling out the architectonic political good in terms of justice and happiness, the American Political Science Association (APSA) oversees and promotes chaos—er, pluralism. The APSA's most recent national meeting, for instance, listed 46 different organized sections, and not one of them mentioned justice, good, or happiness in its title.
Take a recent issue of the American Political Science Review (APSR), the profession's flagship journal. In his inaugural issue (Vol. 96, No. 1), editor Lee Sigelman, professor of political science and Columbian Professor at George Washington University, makes explicit what is obvious to any APSR reader, that "any real coherence in political science exists only at the broadest conceptual level." This might be thought to be a problem for a journal that seeks to communicate across a discipline, but it doesn't much bother Sigelman, who is content with the modest editorial ambition to "showcase" all the different things going on. Well, there is much to be modest about. The APSR, in the absence of a particular political science goal, end, or intention, is a kind of political science five-and-dime.
The articles provide a look into what is going on in the profession as a whole, the book review section into what is happening in the subfields. The issue contains ten articles and an exchange; the political theory book review section, to take one subfield as an example, contains reviews of thirty-two books. The articles immediately reveal something curious. The lead article, the presidential address of Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University, at the 2001 APSA convention, reviews the implications of what the international relations literature terms "the democratic peace." Without going into the details of this notion—that democracies do not war on one another, which, in a democratically tending world, implies the diminishing likelihood of war—one may say that Jervis's argument seems starry-eyed as we leave the bloodiest century in history and troops begin deploying in the Mideast. For our purposes, however, even more surprising is that the next article is on "the dictatorial peace," and makes the point that some types of dictatorial regimes tend not to war upon one another. It is an easy leap to conclude that, if one's cause is peace, there is little difference between democracies and dictatorships. Neither article is much help in pondering what might be worth fighting to preserve or what might be sufficiently pernicious to warrant attacking—that is, the issues which dominate current political debate. Professional political science, on the evidence here, could hardly be further removed from that debate, or from what a political regime ought to require.
The tendency to work at cross-purposes, repeat the obvious, and shrink from relevance, marks the rest of the articles as well. We are told that politicians distribute governmental largesse with an eye to influencing voters; that parental influence on young voters is great at first but lessens over time; that for most people social context, that is, friends and family, influence voting more than the media—this by four celebrated senior political scientists who dispose of untold amounts in research grants. Furthermore, we learn (if that's the right word) that when we know we are being manipulated, manipulation is less successful; that many Americans receive their information on foreign crises by way of soft-news shows, e.g., Oprah; that people surrounded by folks much like themselves will likely be less aware of the arguments of other type folks; that voters hold their representatives accountable for their votes, and legislators know that; and that, according to exquisite mathematical analysis, the movement away from the president's party in midterm elections is explained by voters having seen that their preferences and those of the president's party differ.
Independently, the various articles are neither threatening nor particularly offensive, but as a group they point to how little political scientists have to say. The proposition that most everyone, dictators and democrats alike—Saddam Hussein, one suspects, fails all models—prefers peace to war sets the stage for the vacuity to come. What we get is a series of scattered observations without a hint of hierarchy. Thus in the one place in the journal that expressly attempts cross-communication—in the "exchange"—the argument is entirely over models. Technique is the only thing left to argue about.
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These problems do not entirely elude political scientists. Indeed, a recent reform movement launched by an anonymous "Mr. Perestroika" and conducted largely by email has had some apparent success. Attacking the "extreme methodological bias" of the APSR and other official organs of the profession, Perestroikans (as they're called, lamely) demonstrated (by counting!) that in the major journals, articles based on statistical research and mathematically-backed models had almost wholly eclipsed "qualitative" research, i.e., research that does not depend upon statistics or modeling but upon, say, reading old texts and documents. Sigelman's statement that his APSR will "showcase" all varieties of professional work is already a concession to the critics. But the APSA has gone farther, approving a new journal, Perspectives on Politics, the stated purpose of which is "to open up the discipline of political science." Still, Perestroikan success is not entirely comforting. It's not clear that what the Perestroikans, a movement with a postmodern tilt, have to say is much different from the profession at large, or that their work is weightier than that of their more scientifically inclined brethren.
Such doubts are reinforced by the example of contemporary political theorists, who can claim immunity to fallout from the profession's methodological disputes but still do not seem to produce much that is substantial or has broad appeal. In the book reviews in the APSR political theory section, one looks in vain for a common thread either in the books reviewed or the reviews themselves. As John Gunnell puts it in one review, today's political theorists may try to "celebrate how eclecticism has enlivened political theory," but when they try, as they must, to indicate "some sense of unity and continuity," all they find is some sort of "unspecified family resemblance."
Judging from the APSR, the seriousness once associated, at least potentially, with political theory is largely dissipated. This has a number of effects. First, in today's political theory, the struggle over the canon would seem to be decided in favor of the non-canonists. Among the reviewed books in our issue, for example, only Rousseau of the old canonical authorities is mentioned in a title, and he only once. Along the same lines, and not until the sixth review, is there mention of Aristotle, and that is largely dismissal. The only thing bordering on a common concern is a loose sort of interest in democracy, which figures in seven book titles. America and justice appear in one title each, giving them parity with cinematic political thought (one title) and cultural studies (one title), and placing them behind sex (three titles).
But numbers and titles do not tell all the story here. For a start, so-called diversity rules. Books solely authored by women are reviewed by women (five) but books by men can be reviewed by women (six). Second, trendy subjects rule. The first five reviewed books focus upon teledemocracy; homosexuals (by a good margin, the longest review in the section); feminism; cultural studies, which seems to mean tabloid studies; and "the Ordinary," which, if the review is accurate, represents People magazine raised to metasociology.
A third feature of the books reviewed is that the authors, and sometimes the reviewers, blow their own horns. They devote themselves to subjects that exist for or are of interest only to themselves and their fellow partisans. For example, several books deal with the politics of people who fall under the newly empowered acronym LBGT (lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender). They favor introducing "an antihomophobia and/or proqueer ethos of solidarity into American society," which in its obliviousness to individuality would not commit the faux pas of treating LBGT studies as particularistic. The latter sin would be "nothing more than the latest version of homophobic pathologization and erasure."
Another theme in these books, of course, is resistance. A number of them share an animus towards common elements of our politics, for example, regard for representative democracy and for the family. On the basis of her reading of the LBGT studies, for instance, the reviewer calls for a "retooling" of power relationships and gives as her only example the family. Similarly, the feminist book proposes that women be released from bondage "to the state as wife and mother within the traditional heterosexual family." Finally, two books add the shakiness of our political foundations to the list of concerns. One looks back to the "conspiratorial tone" of the Declaration of Independence as unsettling to any certainty of who holds "legitimate power" in America. The other, fastening on the more up-to-date, suggests that the film Independence Day speaks to a "crisis in American national politics that is precipitated by the decline in confidence in our system of representation generally."
These examples will be easy to laugh off for most of us, I imagine. But a not so laughable problem attaches to them. There's a vacuum at the core of today's political science and political theory, caused by the absence of an understanding of what politics itself is. To fill this vacuum, the best our political scientists and theorists have to offer is self-involvement, technique, and empty abstractionism. Good articles occasionally appear in the APSR and there are good books among those it reviews but, on balance, things are in a sorry state.