Daniel W. Drezner

Gartzke on policy, political science, and zombies

Erik Gartzke, an associate professor of political science at UCSD and a man who’s Google Scholar citation count makes me feel very, very small, sent me the following thoughts on political science and policy relevance.  I reprint them, below, without edits or comment: ZOMBIE RELEVANCE by Erik Gartzke Dan Drezner’s penchant for zombies may have ...

Erik Gartzke, an associate professor of political science at UCSD and a man who’s Google Scholar citation count makes me feel very, very small, sent me the following thoughts on political science and policy relevance.  I reprint them, below, without edits or comment:


by Erik Gartzke

Dan Drezner’s penchant for zombies may have yet another application.  In the policy relevance debate, political scientists are like Renfield, Dracula’s sidekick (or possibly like Thomas the Tank engine if children are present).  We really want to be "useful."  I know of no other discipline that is so angst-ridden about mattering, even those that don’t matter in any concrete, "real world" sense.  Obviously, what makes us different from poets, particle physicists, or Professors of Pediatric Oncology is that we study politics and occasionally imagine that this gives us some special salience to that subject.  Policy makers, too, want us to be "relevant," though I think what they have in mind differs in important respects.

There are three ways that political science can be relevant to politics.  On both sides of the debate, attention seems focused on only one of these roles.  Interestingly, each side has chosen a different role to emphasize.  First, academics could have expertise that is valuable in connecting policies to outcomes.  We have lots of examples of this.  Economists invented theories like adverse taxation and tools like GDP to help policy makers more effectively manage the economy.  Unfortunately, there are very few insights or tools from political science, and those we do have are either very narrowly relevant (i.e. techniques for gerrymandering congressional districts to achieve affirmative action objectives), or very imprecise (i.e. nuclear balancing).  Academic political scientists consciously _want_ this role, but the complaint from policy makers is that they do it poorly, providing policy guidance that is not expert enough, or overly nuanced and complex.  This would seem to imply that political science should remain in the ivory tower, developing better tools.  Instead, however, the argument appears to be that political science should give up these tools and practice a form of political consultation more comprehensible by the policy community.  One then has to ask why, and what this will achieve.  Is it the case, as many argue, that non-expert political scientists will be more useful?  Why?

Interestingly, one of the critical exceptions to the general trend, and examples where political scientists have prospered in Washington as experts, involves pollsters.  Survey methodology got its start in political science and has penetrated deeply into the political process, precisely because pollsters can provide valuable information to politicians and policy makers about cause and effect.  Pollsters are now even regulars as pundits, asked to shill for policies and politicians on the basis of their expertise. 

The second thing that academics can provide is thus credibility.  We can "speak truth to power" or perhaps just generally speak the truth, at least as we see it.  This could be valuable if policy makers themselves have become zombies, enslaved to a process that prevents them from stating things, even when obvious, that are unpopular or controversial.  We see this happening in processes such as the Base Closure Commission, where outsiders helped to smooth a transition that was politically difficult.  This kind of relevance is difficult, however, as politics is not really about the truth.  Paul Pillar, one of the protagonists the debate ("In your face, political science!") found this out, much to his regret.  One of the least zombie-like people in the national security bureaucracy, Paul was the perfect foil as author of the national intelligence estimate that legitimated the Bush policy of invading Iraq.  In his, and his boss’s moment to speak truth, they propagated a politically-expiedent myth.  This kind of policy relevance really _is_ valuable to policy makers, especially since credibility is such a scarce commodity inside the beltway, and so valued elsewhere.  The problem, of course, from an academic perspective is that selling credibility has nothing directly to do with expertise and everything to do with what, for lack of a better phrase, was once called "moral turpitude."  The value in academics in holding forth in Washington may have as much to do on occasion with their _lack_ of contact with policy making, as with their putative expertise, at least in terms of credibility. 

A corollary to this is the role of academistic consultants, some with faculty positions, others with beltway connections, that provide "research" that feeds the beast of the Washington policy machine.  This can be financially rewarding, but the desire for funding leads to varying degrees of compromise, a zombification by extension.

The third contribution that academics can make to the policy community is one that all seem to agree upon, but which makes the least direct demand on political science as a substantive discipline.  The intellectual discipline of first getting a PhD and then practicing as an academic gives one an ordered, logical mind, which can then be applied to tasks in the policy community, as well as to more purely intellectual pursuits.  There is nothing wrong with this, but then again, there is nothing particularly unique about how political science does this that prevents scholars in other disciplines from applying themselves to policy making as well.  Indeed, this is what we observe.  Sociologists, economists, engineers and physicists (even the occasional poet) enter public service. 


What makes political science different from most other fields is that we have failed to resolve our conflict with our subject matter.  Poets report the human condition.  They do not expect to alter it, at least not permanently.  Physicians can make you better, so they do intervene, but their detachment is credible in the sense that they do not want to become illnesses.  No physicist I know of hankers to _be_ her subject matter, though of course we are all of us made of matter.  Political science alone wants to be different but engaged. 

Imagine suggesting to a congressional committee that Congress should abandon the forecasting models of the OMB as esoteric and speculative.  Try to suggest to someone like Paul Pillar that he should hanker after the "good old days" of pre-GDP census taking and data collection.  Economics became policy relevant in the first sense because it developed tools that could help policy makers better connect their actions with outcomes.  These are not perfect, as recent events illustrate, but they work better than the old way of doing things (i.e. whatever we did last time, or holding one’s thumb up to the wind).  The problem is that political science does not yet have "killer apps" like GDP.  Optimists would say we are still working on these things.  Pessimists would say that they will never come.  I will not weigh in on that debate because in some sense it does not matter. 

The real point, however, is that the debate does not matter.  Either way, the search for policy relevance, as it is pursued by many in the policy community, makes no sense.
If you believe the optimists, then the correct role of political science is to get back in the kitchen (metaphorically) and cook up some good insights and tools so that we can eventually fulfill role number one.  If you are instead pessimistic and despair of political science ever achieving much headway in terms of expertise, then you should still prefer us in our academic enclaves, only occasionally venturing down from the mountain, since this is what gives us our credibility as unbiased agents.  The largely pessimistic perception of policy practitioners implies that they should treat political scientists like poets, or perhaps adherents of atonal music.  Someone gets it, but thank God it is hidden in academic cloisters!  This is perhaps what policy makers often do, as suggested by Paul Pillar’s example of the debate between academics over perestroika witnessed by James Baker.

Another possibility is that those in the policy community wish academic political scientists were more like them for reason number three.  This, however, does not make much sense.  There can be no harm in making some political scientists esoteric if after all not everyone can move in policy circles.  The training of academic political scientists still provides disciplined minds.  Nor does it appear to be the case that there is a shortage of policy-eager political scientists to staff government bureaus and policy-focused beltway agencies and advocacy groups.  In this light, academic political science may be accused of leading the youth astray, but no more than poetry or physics departments.

So what is it that makes many in the policy community so uncomfortable with academic political science, and for that measure why are political scientists so anxious about being labeled as not policy relevant?  The best I can come up with again involves those zombies.  Zombies eat the living.  They move slowly, clumsily, if inexorably.  People who run away can escape the zombies.  So, the problem for zombies is that they cannot really catch unwilling prey.  Academic political scientists, for their part, are strangely attracted to these undead creatures.    They run, but not vigorously.  Having your brains eaten is bad, but still, it is nice to be valued for something in which you have considerable pride….
Academic political scientists keep looking back to see if they can make eye contact with one of those zombies, maybe share a good anecdote, provide some advice, secure funding for the next research project…

There is the hint of the symbiotic relationship between predator and prey, political scientist and policy community.  Each needs something from the other, even as both communities see the other as distant, alien.  Policy practitioner-political scientists who disdainfully remark that they cannot even read the American Political Science Review would never see the need to make such a comment about a journal like Solid State Physics, or the Journal of Philosophy.  Academic political scientists, for their part, should stop pretending that their main value to the policy community at present is in their expertise and fess up, if appropriate, to providing credibility or intellectual discipline (directly or through our students).

Becoming comfortable with this duality as a community also means embracing the differences that follow from that duality.  Some of us should be in the ivory tower, just like physicists, chemical engineers, and art historians.  In order for political science to fulfill the objective of expertise, it must — like other fields of expertise — become "expert", and unfortunately that really means becoming largely incomprehensible to all but those deeply enmeshed in the field or a particular subfield, at least for the purposes of "inhouse" debates.  Others will work best in applying, interpreting, or otherwise interacting with the "real world" — though if this characterization of non-academia were true, we would not need anyone studying (i.e. how does one know the real world and still hanker after insights that would connect his-or-her actions with the (unknown) implications of policy?).  In any case, those of us on the academic side should stop teasing the zombies, just as the zombies should stop pretending that every academic brain is a ready meal.  "Policy relevance" is a complex set of social phenomena that both attract and repel political scientists on both sides of the policy divide.  Let some of us be more like our poet, mathematician or linguist brethren and become one with our academic-nerd nature.  Others can prefer to engage Washington more directly, but they will make themselves, and their sponsors happier if they are candid about the fact that those within the beltway want your brains (or your soul), not your incites.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner