War of Ideas
Is the Republican attack on political science self-defeating?
In between swigs from her Big Gulp, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin launched an attack on data-based approaches to political campaigning during her CPAC speech last week, particularly as practiced by one Karl Rove. Writing at Reuters, Nicholas Wapshott is perturbed by the notion that Republicans don’t have anything to learn from studying voter behavior: ...
In between swigs from her Big Gulp, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin launched an attack on data-based approaches to political campaigning during her CPAC speech last week, particularly as practiced by one Karl Rove. Writing at Reuters, Nicholas Wapshott is perturbed by the notion that Republicans don’t have anything to learn from studying voter behavior:
Palin’s takeaway from the November debacle is that all political science is junk and that opinion polling, listening to focus groups and all attempts to understand the voters through sociological method are part of a deceitful racket plied by greedy political insiders like Rove, who make themselves fat on the funds raised cent by cent by the party’s hardworking grass roots. Or, as she put it, “these experts who keep losing elections and keep getting rehired and getting millions” should stand for office themselves and either “buck up or stay in the truck.”[…]
In another part of her diatribe, Palin called for “ending the poisonous practice of treating Americans of different social, ethnic, religious groups as different electorates to be pandered to with different promises. … [T]here are no Hispanic issues or African American issues or women’s issues. There are only American issues.” The lift from Obama’s 2004 convention speech ? “There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America,” ? is a noble sentiment of intent, but as a critique of political science or as a prescription for regaining votes lost to the Democrats it is detached from the real world she claims to understand.[…]
As the science clearly shows, each social group responds differently to issues. When Obama wins 95 percent of black votes to Romney’s 5, it is worth GOP operatives asking why. The same applies when Hispanic voters back Obama by 75 percent to 21 percent. Or when women vote 55 percent to 44 percent in favor of Obama, and young people aged 18 to 29 divide 60 percent to 37 percent in his favor. Palin’s dismissal of such telling figures as bunk is not only a denial of hard facts, it is a suicidal rejection of the very science that might save the Republicans the next time around. She is like a member of a religious sect that does not allow medicine yet cannot understand why the patient’s condition continues to deteriorate.
It’s a little odd to attack Rove for putting too much empahsis on polling data when the real flaw in his method seemed to be confirmation bias — or as Fox’s Megyn Kelly memorably put it on election night, "math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better."
Palin’s target is high-priced campaign consultants rather than academic political science, but it’s interesting that her speech came the same week that the Senate GOP moved to limit National Science Foundation funding for poli sci. An amendment introduced last week by Sen. Tom Coburn would restrict the NSF’s ability to approve grants for political science projects unless it can certify that them as "as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States."
As Wapshott suggests, Coburn and his colleagues might also want to keep in mind the electoral interests of their party. The GOP’s longtime stances on a range of issues from immigration to gay marriage are proving to be turnoffs with growing segments of the American population. The party may soon find a way to adapt to America’s changing demographics without diluting its core stances on national defense, the economy, and social issues, but the answers for how to do that are exactly the sort of thing studied by… political scientists. In particular, the sort of political scientists whose work — voter preferences, demographic trends, media studies — can’t really be justified under the national interest criteria.
Obviously, cutting off NSF funding won’t be the death knell for this reasearch, but it seems short-sighted for the party to be making politcal scientists a target at a moment when it seems they’re very much in need of their services.
For what it’s worth, Palin, who had a remarkably perpatetic college career, ended up minoring in political science at the University of Idaho. She writes in Going Rogue that she "knew poli sci would mesh well with a journalism major" and that she "looked forward to every poli sci lecture" due to her "patriotism and a fascination with current events." You can decide for yourself whether that’s an endorsement for the field.