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On Studying Things

February 28, 2014 Leave a comment

I used to be a reporter. From the ages of 14 to 24, I worked in radio (and occasionally television) newsrooms – first in my hometown of Marshall, MN at KMHL (1400 on your AM dial), then at the University of Nebraska (90.3, KRNU), then at CBS31/1470WMBD in Peoria, IL, and finally KFAB (the 50,000 watt blowtorch on AM radio) in Omaha, NE. I liked being a reporter. My job was to report the verifiable truth to our audience.

In 2000, I started to get interested in thinking about why news coverage looked the way it looked and whether the way we reported the news and the way politicians framed contemporary problems was good for democracy. Quickly, I realized that an answer had to involve some idea of what a good democracy would look like, evidence of what factors made up news coverage, evidence detailing how politicians framed issues, and evidence of whether any or all of that influenced public attitudes, associations, and behaviors. I took the summer and fall of 2000 to work as a press secretary on an ill-fated congressional campaign while I started to prepare for my new life. . . in the academy.

I decided to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in political science at Indiana University.

Now, I am on the faculty of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin, where I also hold an affiliation in the Department of Political Science.

I love being a scholar. I love being given the freedom to think of things I would like to know and working on my own or with other smart, curious, hard-working and kind people to try and figure out the answers. I love teaching undergraduate and graduate students. The classroom is roughly analogous, at least to me, of appearing on air to convey the verifiable truth to an audience—though the give and take with students, the pouring over their papers and exams, the meeting with them outside of class and so forth is much more personally rewarding for me than airing a great story was.

Now that I have sufficiently buried the lede, let me present it. I am mystified by the continued public questioning of why we should want to know things that speak to the health of our democracy.

Two examples of what I mean. The first was the attack from Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma on political science research funded by the National Science Foundation. Coburn enjoyed some success in the past year limiting what kind of political science research could be funded. The reporter in me immediately wanted to ask Senator Coburn, “Gee, what possible interest could a politician have in seeking to limit what scholars might investigate about politicians?” The researcher in me wondered about what interest the government has in limiting how much we can learn about how democracy works and how we might make it work better.

Thankfully, from my extremely biased point of view, the limitations on NSF-funding of political science research are gone for now—see this excellent recap over at the great Mischiefs of Faction blog.

Relatedly, the New York Times’ columnist Nick Kristof recently wrote a column bemoaning what he felt was a lack of engagement in the real world from scholars. While scholars can certainly do more and do better to bring what they’ve learned to a wider audience of policymakers and folks in the general public, there have been enough responses that have exposed how ridiculous his argument was—in terms of whether it was true, whether he understands what faculty do, and whether he did the requisite amount of work any journalist should want to do before making a claim in print or on the air—that I won’t directly add to the pile of stuff raising great questions about his column.

Instead, I will use his call for professors to engage more to pivot to my second example: the recent kerfuffle over the FCC’s interest in learning about what news organizations cover and whether what they cover help meet the information needs people have to function well in a democracy.

The attacks on the literature review and proposed pilot study of news once again seek to tell scholars what they should not study. Some folks like Cal Thomas think that the study is a potential precursor to government monitoring of conservative news outlets, others like Rush Limbaugh have been far more pejorative. Others still have said that we already know the answers to these questions and so there is no use pursuing them.

One of my colleagues at Wisconsin, Lew Friedland, is an author of the literature review and participant in the design of the proposed pilot study. Read his great response in today’s Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post.

To be sure, we do know a great deal about how newsrooms operate, just as we know more than a fair amount about what people know about politics. Still, as the ecology of the news environment changes (see Sue Robinson’s great work) and as investigations into what we really know and how our knowledge about current affairs and the machinations of government matters, it is clear there is more work to be done.

As scholars like the excellent Arthur Lupia begin to ask serious questions about what kind of knowledge actually helps people and scholars like Friedland investigate what kind of information is being delivered in print, online, on TV, and on the radio, we have the potential to enter a whole era of scholarship pushing forward the long tradition of research examining how differences in the kind of information presented by news organizations affects public knowledge, preferences, associations, and behaviors. It would be a mistake to say scholars shouldn’t pursue this line of inquiry just as it would be a mistake to say that the government should have no interest in supporting it.

It is important to know things. It is important to be able to explain how we know what we claim to know. Journalists do this on deadline every day. Their work is vital to the American experiment. Scholars have a longer time horizon and have the ability to provide more detailed accounts of why things happen the way they do. We need both ways of knowing.

Indeed, it is heartening to see the growth in importance of outlets like the The Monkey Cage, the new venture at the New York Times that will employ scholars like Brendan Nyhan and Lynn Vavreck, and burgeoning efforts from journalists like Ezra Klein. What isn’t so heartening is the recent cacophonous chorus of complaints claiming that knowing how politics and the media work is a bad idea.

Hey, I’m on C-SPAN

December 31, 2013 Leave a comment

Clearly appealing to the non-bowl-watching supermajority of the American people, C-SPAN aired this New Year’s Eve morning the panel on partisan polarization from the 2013 State of the Parties Conference at the  Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. As usual, John Green assembled a great meeting.

Me on CSPAN

Click here to watch the panel; I bat lead-off with my co-authored paper with Mike Ensley and Ted Carmines about why Americans can’t get beyond the left-right divide. The panel also includes two very interesting papers giving evidence for the idea that dislike for the other party is a driver of partisan polarization in the electorate.  The first, from David Kimball, Bryce Summary, and Eric Vorst provided evidence that partisans are systematically likely to find that the other side makes them feel angry and afraid. Alan Abramowitz showed evidence of increasing negative affect for the other party as well; his analysis of the American National Election Study data showed that people’s placement of the distance between their own ideological position and the position of their party has not changed much but that the distance between their position and the other party has grown dramatically.

Categories: Uncategorized

All the News About “the Center” That’s Fit to Print

December 3, 2013 Leave a comment

The great Thomas Edsall, the New York Times columnist and professor of journalism at Columbia University, has a nice column featuring my research with Ted Carmines and Mike Ensley examining the consequences of a political system in which elected officials are divided along a single ideological dimension while the public is split across two.

He writes,

The Carmines-Ensley-Wagner analysis helps explain the roiling nature of contemporary politics, what they call “the deep-seated ideological heterogeneity” of the American electorate. The heterogeneity lying just under the surface polarization has led to two seemingly divergent developments.

The relatively narrow voting groups that fit the traditional definition of liberal and conservative are entrenched in the two-party system — conservatives strongly sharing the policy preferences of the Republican Party and liberals strongly sharing the policy preferences of the Democratic Party — and the very depth of this belief creates the gap that defines political polarization. But there is another world of disaffection aswirl here too: populists and libertarians are disconnected from both parties, often cross-pressured issue by issue, with libertarians gravitating towards the Republican Party on economics and to the Democrats on social issues, while populists are propelled in the opposite direction.

The figure that expresses the general logic behind the argument is below.

We presented the paper at the State of the Parties Conference at the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron last month. The hyperlink in the previous sentence links to all of the paper presented at the meeting. The whole conference was very interesting.

Categories: Uncategorized

Why Journalists Need Math: Knockout Edition

November 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Jamelle Bouie has a great post explaining why the recent media apoplexy over the “knockout game” is contributing to a panic over a growing trend that is neither growing nor a trend. As he notes,

 it’s worth emphasizing the broad picture. Overall, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2012 crime report, there were an estimated 127,577 assaults with “hands and fists” in American cities with more than 250,000 people, a 0.7 percent increase from the previous year. The “knockout game” may or may not be a new phenomenon, but with a few instances out of tens of thousands of assaults, it’s not a trend, and media outlets shouldn’t treat it as one. A few teens may describe their behavior as a game, but to hold them up as signs of a crime wave is to cherry-pick data and mislead the audience. A little incredulity, in other words, would go a long way.

It is yet another reason more journalists need to follow Matt Waite’s advice from his wonderful piece at Nieman Lab and realize that they are not inherently bad at math. Rather, they just need to spend a bit more time working to learn it.

Update: Apparently, a lawmaker in my state (Wisconsin) is considering proposing a bill to increase the penalty for perpetrators of violent crimes that are also the knockout game (h/t Megan Duncan).  This potential “solution” is in greater search of a problem than proposed solutions to voter fraud, which occurs about as frequently as alien abduction.

Hey, We’re Featured on The Dish

November 14, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s Seth Masket’s world and we’re just living in it.  Here’s Andrew Sullivan spreading the word about my work with Ted Carmines and Mike Ensley examining the consequences of a political system in which elites are divided along a single ideological dimension while the public is divided along two. Some of our published work on the subject is here.

A Response to “Your Genes Influence Your Political Views. So What?”

November 13, 2013 Leave a comment

No political science research program has grown faster, across more disciplines, and received more popular attention in the past decade than the biopolitics literature.  Research examining genetic links to political ideology, one’s partisan strength, and one’s likelihood of participating politically (but see here for a critique and here for a slight amendment) is standing alongside other work examining physiological correlates to political ideologythreat perception, and participation,  permeating political science and “hard science” academic journals.

Yesterday, Larry Bartels, an excellent scholar posting on the fantastic blog The Monkey Cage, asked what has become an increasingly pointed question to the biopolitics literature (he focuses only on genopolitics, but I suspect/assume he would stipulate that his argument applies to physiology and politics research as well):

So what?

Who cares if you have a genetic predisposition to be a liberal or if your heightened sensitivity to threat makes you more likely to support strong punishment for lawbreakers? Who cares if liberals tend to look at pleasant things and conservatives tend to look at scary things?

In my view, Bartels’ questions suffer from two major limitations that should give us pause before we dismiss biopolitics research as an accurate, but ultimately meaningless, parlor trick. The first limitation is that there are lots of reasons we might care about whether there are deeply-held individual differences, or perhaps an underlying construct(s), that systematically affect how we approach, encounter, and behave in the political world. The second limitation is that Bartels’ critiques about “genopolitics” could be leveled at most all other areas of research in the social sciences; that is, his complaints are not unique to biopolitics even though he only makes them about biopolitics.

I should note that I am a biased source. I spent five years on the faculty of the political science department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, have two papers under review that rely on the biopolitics perspective (one of which is co-authored with biopolitics pioneers John Hibbing and Kevin Smith and their students), and taught a biopolitics undergraduate research course. I’m biased in favor of considering the possibility that this work might be useful. So keep that in mind as you read.

First, Bartels asks,

If we could identify the genetic factors that make some people more likely than others to support abortion rights while opposing the death penalty, we could indeed “explain” why some people are more likely than others to support abortion rights while opposing the death penalty. But would doing so help us understand why that particular combination of views is more prevalent now than it was a generation ago? Or why support for the death penalty has declined substantially over the past 20 years? Or why abortion has been a more salient partisan issue in recent political campaigns? I don’t see how.

One piece of an answer to Bartels questions might be found in research examining assortative mating over time; that might produce more of these kinds of predisposed combinations of people.  I would suspect that this would be a smaller piece of the puzzle than explanations focusing on familial socialization, changing social mores, media coverage, and so forth, but that’s just one possibility. Perhaps combinations of threat sensitivity and disgust sensitivity (measured physiologically) across individuals would explain it as well.  If there are more people today who have a combination of high threat sensitivity (more likely to support the death penalty) but low disgust sensitivity (more likely to support gay rights), combinations like the ones Bartels asks about might be partially explained. More likely, one or more of these explanations interact with environmental factors like familial socialization, the formation of party coalitions, economic growth, or the widening of access to the political world to women and non-whites.

Bartels also notes that,

Pinning down the genetic bases of allegiance to a political ideology as it is defined at any given moment would leave the key creative role of what Hans Noel calls “the coalition merchants” still very much in the dark.

I think it is worthwhile to take this question seriously, especially as a big fan of Hans’ research.  Biological and physiological predispositions might help us understand why some coalitions are durable and others are not. Are coalitions that formed for short-term political expediency reasons not as likely to last when they have to bump up against people’s predispositions over and over again? What is the likelihood of a coalition surviving after one election when a particularly salient issue brought together what should be, biologically and physiologically speaking, an unlikely coalition (if indeed we can figure out what a biologically likely coalition would be)?  Genes play a role in shaping party strength, but not party ID, after all. Are coalitions that link together particular personality traits, physiological traits, or genetic characteristics more likely to last than others? Maybe so, maybe not, but that’s an empirical question I would love to see tackled in the coming years.

Note, this is NOT claiming that there is a liberal gene, a conservative gene, or that humans evolved to become polarized. It is to say that it is possible that different combinations of bedrock predispositions like threat perception, wariness of outsiders, and the like may combine in individuals in a variety of ways that might make some coalitions more likely to be durable than others.  Surely, there are lots of ways to be polarized and some fit people’s responses to threat, for instance, and some don’t. To me, it is worth it to figure out which is which. As Hans Noel points out this morning, we can’t know the genetic makeup of the man who delivered the “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1896, nor can we learn the biological predispositions of his supporters and opponents, but we might be able to conceive of experiments where we take biological information we learn about people and see whether particular traits, constructs, etc. make cooperation more likely, association with out-groups more likely and so forth, especially under environmental manipulations like dealing with a highly salient issue, a large institutional impediment, and so forth.

Second, it seems as though Bartels is holding biopoltiics research to a higher standard than all other kinds of social science research. Bartels finds Fowler and Dawes’ defense of this kind of research “remarkably uninspiring” with respect to the authors’ suggestions about ways it can contribute to traditional political science.

One such suggestion is using genetic control variables in non-genetic research.  I can’t imagine Bartels being uninspired to include education, ideology, or partisanship as control variables in research. If a variable has a theoretical reason to be in a model and there are previous empirical demonstrations that the variable is (minimally) statistically significant and (even better) substantively significant, I have a hard time imagining the justification to keep that variable out of the model lest all of our other estimates be greatly biased and, plainly, have our model be wrong. Indeed, if a non-biological variable was discovered to explain the amount of variance some biological variables have been shown to explain in some circumstances, it would be very surprising indeed to see a blog post asking “so what?”

Bartels further asks, “But even if genopolitics allowed us to diagnose liberalism more quickly and reliably than an opinion survey, how would we “treat” it? This is not a standard we apply to the lion’s share of survey research. One can imagine non-survey researchers pouring cold water on the idea of creating the American National Election Study (ANES) by claiming that even if partisanship is shown to affect voting behavior, how could we treat partisanship or change it? Going further, we can’t change one’s age, race, or gender, so if those factors affect vote choice, civic engagement, or political knowledge, should we conclude that there’s nothing we can do about it and thus not study it?

Starting a national face-to-face cross-sectional survey (and regular panel studies) of 1,200-2,400 Americans from scratch is a lot of effort, but I wouldn’t argue (and I certainly don’t think Bartels would either) that the ANES “does not look worth the effort.” Most political scientists know little about biology, physiology, and even psychology – but most political scientists knew nothing of survey research in 1948. Now, one of the papers of mine I referenced above states, “Our results do not call into question the validity or future utility of traditional survey techniques but they do indicate that, by routinely excluding physiological information, knowledge of the public’s full response to various stimuli of interest is incomplete.”  In other words, I’m not forecasting that biopolitics research is likely to become as ubiquitous and far-reaching as survey research, but I am arguing that it is far more consequential than Bartels suggests.

Most importantly, it is quite likely that the biggest effects of biopolitics will be uncovered when they are interacted with tried and true variables that are measured in more traditional ways. Biological-environmental interactions have the potential to show us a great deal and I fear that a quick dismissal of biopolitics research because it isn’t immediately obvious how findings in the biopolitics literature might “matter” could prevent us from knowing things we want to know like:

  • Why do some people behave against their “biological type?”
  • What helps those who see the world in deep-seated, fundamentally different ways get along?
  • How can the stress of politics be reduced so that the anxious or ambivalent are more likely to choose to participate?

Though Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes’ seminal research demonstrating the power and durability of partisanship in the classic book The American Voter was similarly dismissed by critics noting that the research was conducted during an abnormal period of partisan stability, I think Bartels is on much firmer ground in his skepticism that the current political alignment in the United States just so happens to match many of the conclusions the early returns on biopolitics research provide. He writes:

But wouldn’t it be a very convenient coincidence if politics and biology just happened to align at exactly the moment when political scientists became interested in genetic explanations? And what of nineteenth-century American politics, which was at least as intense and “polarized” as our own, but organized around quite different “bedrock divisions”?

To me, that is a very astute empirical question well worth the effort to explore.

The State of the Parties: Epilogue

November 8, 2013 Leave a comment

I had a great deal of fun this weekend during my first visit to the quadrennial State of the Parties Conference at the Bliss Institute on the campus of the University of Akron.  I learned a great deal, had fun meeting new people, talking with old friends, and working a bit with co-authors.

I presented some work on my joint project with Ted Carmines and Mike Ensley examining the uncertainty facing American political parties given that elites divide their preferences along one ideological dimension and the people divide their attitudes along two. Our panel will be on C-SPAN in the coming weeks, probably after Thanksgiving. I will post a link when my 15 minutes of fame come.

Also on our panel were two interesting papers giving evidence for the interesting idea that dislike for the other party is a driver of partisan polarization in the electorate.  The first, from David Kimball, Bryce Summary, and Eric Vorst provided evidence that partisans are systematically likely to find that the other side makes them feel angry and afraid. Alan Abramowitz showed evidence of increasing negative affect for the other party as well; his analysis of the American National Election Study data showed that people’s placement of the distance between their own ideological position and the position of their party has not changed much but that the distance between their position and the other party has grown dramatically.

Though I missed the presentation as I was across the hall watching another panel, one of my favorite papers was one from Thad Kousser, Scott Lucas, Seth Masket, and Eric McGee that sought to deal with the particular difficult issue of estimating how much endorsements actually matter to voters. Using a unique, multi-pronged, research design that included a survey experiment and a regression discontinuity analysis of a primary election, the authors found support for the idea that endorsements do matter, to the tune of 10-15 percentage points in a primary under some conditions. Particularly interesting to me was that the survey experiment showed that the background of the candidate mattered with respect to the size and statistical significance of the post-endorsement bump; that is a novel finding about the contextual factors influencing the impact of endorsements.

Caitlin Jewett’s paper dealing with primary elections presented evidence that the Republican Party’s recent reforms to their primary elections have not achieved their goals of giving more voters voice in the nomination process.

Moving away from elections and to governing (and a bit more inside-baseball political science wonkiness), Mike Ensley, Michael Tofias, and Scott de Marchi’s paper shows that since the well-used DW-NOMINATE scores measuring the ideological position of lawmakers’ roll call votes generally operate in a way that assumes lawmakers die with their ideological boots on, some of the non-linear movement that lawmakers do is being masked. Simplifying a bit, the way that the DW-NOMINATE scores work, lawmakers don’t really change how liberal or conservative they are while serving in Congress – and if they do – the change is linear.  Ensley and friends use a procedure that shows that some lawmakers do shift their ideological position across their terms (and not always in linear ways).

I have to change flights now, but I will write more in the coming days about other interesting work presented at the conference.  Thanks to John Green for organizing yet another useful meeting assessing the state of the parties.

Categories: Uncategorized

The State of the Parties: Preview

November 6, 2013 Leave a comment

I am taking the long way to the State of the Parties conference at the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics on the campus of the University of Akron.  Drove to Milwaukee to fly to Philadelphia to fly to Akron.  Not my most efficient decision, but it was a cheap one and since the Bliss Institute is paying for my ride, I figured I could try to save them a bit of cash.

I have long read and enjoyed the volumes that come from this conference and am excited to be presenting the first paper tomorrow morning (here it is) on a panel that is apparently being recorded for later broadcast on C-SPAN.  The paper, co-authored with Ted Carmines and Mike Ensley, examines why American political parties can’t get beyond the left-right divide, highlighting why a centrist third party rising is a non-starter, why the parties have a hard time appealing to potential supporters whose views don’t perfectly match the positions the parties are offering, and why merely focusing on maximizing the turnout of their own core supporters is not enough to sustain a durable majority. We’re excited to present the paper and get some great feedback from a really great slate of scholars who are attending the meeting.

Here are all of the papers that are being presented over the next few days. Once again, John Green and his great team have put together a wonderful set of papers. I will post some highlights in this space on Friday.

Friendships, Constrains, and Incentives in Politics: What to Cover?

November 1, 2013 Leave a comment

Friendships, Constraints, and Incentives in Politics: What to Cover?

 

You can get a pretty good Sharks/Jets scrap going between journalists and social scientists by claiming that either 1) the president needs to spend more time befriending members of his own party and the opposite party to govern effectively because personal relationships matter in politics or 2) presidential schmoozing is a bigger waste of time, resources, and effort than buying a laserdisc player.

I was reminded of this during a morning Twitter conversation with Politico’s Alexander Burns. Our downright cordial disagreement started with Burns’ tweet about Dylan Byers’ story describing President Obama’s off the record meetings with opinion columnists and journalists like David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, and Ezra Klein. The article made the point that presidents might be able to affect news coverage, or at least columnists’ treatment of key issues, by cultivating relationships with the columnists so that they better understand the president’s thinking.  Burns tweeted, “And yet it’s somehow a laughable idea that it would be good to have personal relationships with members of Congress?”

I replied that it wasn’t laughable, but that it wasn’t “likely to change much” because reporters and politicians have different incentives and constraints.  We went back and forth a bit and ultimately generally seemed to agree that there is fodder for interesting and important journalism here, but that pinning the hopes of democracy on White House Schmoozefest 2013 is not a great idea.

I think that journalists and political scientists could learn from each other on this issue.  Personal relationships have not been convincingly shown to “matter” systematically, but I also think that those of us in the academy are too quick to dismiss the possibility and could spend more time considering the conditions that might need to be present to make personal relationships more likely to play a role in governing.

I think there are two reasons this back-and-forth between serious journalists (those who aren’t claiming that a round of golf and some extra leadery leadership is going to save democracy) who claim that meaningful relationships within the ranks of a party and across the aisle can make real differences in governing and scholars who think that looking for causal effects in such endeavors is quixotic.

The first reason is journalists’ fault: I think they overestimate the importance of personal relationships because personal relationships are incredibly important to the job they do.  Even with major advances in coding, digital journalism, and big data journalism, journalists rely on the cultivation of sources to do their jobs. They work hard to earn the trust of sources and cannot do much of their work without having earned this trust – trust in an adversarial context no less.  For journalists, relationships are paramount.  For politicians, relationships among their own are important, yes, but I have not seen evidence that makes me think they are more important – when it comes time to make a decision about voting on a bill, for example – than the general ideology of a lawmaker’s district or state, the presidential electoral map, the degree of homogeneity within a party in the government, the ideological distance between the two major parties in the house and senate, lawmakers’ own popularity, and so forth. The second reason is scholars’ fault. It is really hard to study personal relationships among lawmakers, so we don’t. I am overstating a bit here, but not by much.

Bah Humbug: Relationships Aren’t That Important

Political scientists regularly poo-poo the idea that the cultivating of relationships between the president and members of the opposing party is worth very much when it comes to forging legislative compromises. After all, both Barack Obama and John Boehner profess to like each other and yet there are not many people making the argument that the president and the congress are breaking any records for government competence, effectiveness, or even effort. The fact is, Democrats and Republicans have deep substantive disagreements across a wide range of important political issues and claims that “if only they were better friends, or if only Obama would “lead” things would be better” do not stand up to reason or the evidence.

From reason’s perspective, why would we expect party leaders, and then a majority of that party’s rank-and-file to abandon their core principles because they like the president? Perhaps, one could argue, they wouldn’t have to abandon their principles, but compromise. After all, governance in our system requires compromise and lawmakers don’t seem to be willing to do much of it. But why compromise if you prefer the status quo? For example, if you would rather have the government shut down than spend more money, you’d still rather have it shut down than agree to a smaller increase that you negotiated down a few billion dollars.

Moreover, each party has to manage its own coalition. Liking President Obama was doing Speaker Boehner no favors with the Tea Party wing of the GOP. On the other side of the aisle, and as Burns pointed out to me, Democrats are not always with the president and there is some reporting suggesting that many in his own party don’t particularly like him. That said, when the president has needed his party to stay unified – in passing the Affordable Care Act and in the government shutdown fight – he has had them.

Put another way, sports reporters often wonder about whether offensive linemen won’t block for a running back they don’t like. Maybe not, but not blocking for that jerk running back makes it more likely that they will lose and suggests that the linemen are not good enough to keep around and pay to play football anymore. It just isn’t clear that we should expect personal relationships to affect policy making in the way they affect who gets a tip from a source and who does not. I know that when I was a reporter, a source my colleagues (who did not know her or his identity) called “Mike’s sieve,” really liked me while a similarly placed lawmaker leaked exactly nothing to me in 18 months. I tried, successfully, to cultivate a good relationship with the first source but was never able to do so with the latter. It affected my work as a journalist.

When I worked on a political campaign for congress in the 2000 election cycle, however, I had a great relationship with my contacts at the congressional campaign committee; they loved the work I was doing, they professed excitement about my candidate, and talked to me all the time. . .but never gave us a dime because we could not prove that we had a chance to win.

Of course, that’s just one case, but even old standby examples that relationships matter, such as the vaunted and much-chronicled relationship between President Ronald Reagan and former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, don’t pass the evidence test – at least not with flying colors. For instance, the government shut down plenty under their governance. Moreover, and while there are other metrics to measure governance, the warm and friendly Reagan vetoed 78 bills and had his vetoes overridden nine times. The chilly and aloof Obama has vetoed two bills and never had any overridden.

But Wait. . .

That said, it is curious why even though scads of evidence in political science suggest personal networks affect preferences and behaviors and that party networks affect nominations and polarize legislatures political scientists are not all that willing to accept the premise the personal relationships might be more important in governing situations than we think.

First of all, politicians tell us that this matters.  All the time.

When I was on the faculty at the University of Delaware, moderate Democratic Senator Tom Carper came to speak to the intro to American politics class.  He made the interesting argument that the clamp down on lobbying gifts made it harder to get to know people on the other side of the aisle and that relationships across party lines were crucial to getting things done. He noted that these “golf junkets and such” forced folks to spend time together and that time often led to the development of friendships that were useful come compromise time.  That’s why he helped start an informal meeting across party lines of newly elected lawmakers in Washington – to help begin to institutionalize cross-party contact. I remember thinking to myself, “this is a really interesting potential research question to take a hack at part of the question surrounding personal relationships in politics: did lobbying laws cut down on bipartisan lawmaking?” Did I do anything about it? Nope. I still think someone (far more versed in the legislative politics literature than I) should.

Second, journalists clearly believe these relationships are important too. They spend far more time with lawmakers than political scientists do and are often incredulous at the self-assured, dismissive, “it doesn’t matter” commentary from the ivory tower when it comes to personal relationships and politics. They see odd marriages like the one between Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch as examples of how friendships help to forge compromise and good governing while political scientists see the one or two issues those folks agreed on as being examples of the times they quite rightly decided to work together even though their voting records in general could not be more different.

Ultimately, just because politicians and journalists believe something to be true does not make it so; in my view, this debate is more about how journalists and scholars might best spend their time. Scholars have been increasingly willing to give this advice. As I’ve mentioned before, John Sides and Brendan Nyhan have done both professions a service with these suggestions as has Hans Noel with his useful and fun review of ten things political scientists know that you don’t.  I would love it if a similar list might come from a journalist with respect to questions we should be asking in the academy (see here for a first cut at this ). Panels including scholars and reporters are now becoming commonplace at major political science conferences. I sat on one myself (with scholars like Matthew Hindman and excellent journalists Molly Ball and Jamelle Bouie) at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Washington, D.C. this past August and got as many ideas for my own work from the journalists as anyone else I met during the meeting.

This progress is promising. As a former journalist and current journalism professor, it would be nice to hear what journalists think we should be studying. I think that many reporters would like to see more research examining, or in some cases, like to see political scientists better publicize their research about:

  • Political Friendships and Lawmaking – I still think that it is not likely that major divides between the two parties can be breached after 18, 36, or even 204 holes on the golf course, but I do think that the amount of effort lawmakers expend on legislation, what happens to proposed bills in committee, and the willingness to take a public position against one’s own party can be influenced by personal relationships between lawmakers. Scholars have not, as far as I am aware, done a great job investigating these issues. Historians have done better, but haven’t tried to make a case of systematic effects of relationship under particular circumstances; something political scientists are more interested in doing.
  • Political Leadership – which is hard to study at the presidential level because the N is so small. On the other hand, the first major, enduring bit of research on the presidency argued that presidential power was about the power to persuade; the power to bargain and make adversaries see that your interests and their interests are aligned. Perhaps personal relationships make that process easier.  What is leadership and how would we know it when we see it? How might the talents of particular leaders be enhanced or constrained by unified/divided government, popularity, a growing economy, international crises, etc.?
  • Gerrymandering – political scientists generally argue that gerrymandering is not a major cause of polarization, but there is evidence that redistricting affects other important matters like whether voters are aware of who is representing them in Congress and how term limits produce systematically different districts at the state level.
  • Third Party Candidates – some columnists trot out the “this year is the year for the third party” column as if they are contractually obligated to do so, but political scientists could do a better job explaining how the ideological diversity in the electorate and the rules the parties have developed to make things hard on third parties make it very difficult for any such party to gain much traction, especially over more than one election cycle.

There are many more topics of course, such as interest group’s roles in legislating and electioneering, inter and intra-party negotiations, public opinion, and so forth – but the point here is that what Sides and Nyhan call “known unknowns” – things that political scientists comparatively don’t know much about are the precise things journalists can really add value to in their coverage given their cultivation of sources and investigative prowess – might also be the kinds of things that we scholars should try harder to start studying in creative ways.

Categories: Uncategorized

Gnomes, Lanterns, and Sorkin, Oh My!

Gnomes, Lanterns, and Sorkin, Oh My!

A Challenge to the Practice of “Be a Leader” Journalism

An unstoppable force is finally meeting an immovable object. Cries of “C’mon, LEAD, man” are permeating media coverage of President Obama’s handling of the background checks bill, proposed immigration legislation, and the sequester are running into a small, persistent band of rebels who are, quite rightly, crying foul.

Brendan Nyhan describes it as the “underpants gnome” theory of political influence where super-leadery leadership, complete with arm-twisting, public appeals, and war rooms with names of persuadable congressmembers on a tote board magically lead to partisan political opponents caving to support the president.  Both Nyhan and Greg Sargent have called this the “Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power,” which is similar to the underpants gnome theory, but adds the claim that any failure of the president to bend Congress to the president’s will is a sure sign of a weak, irrelevant commander-in-chief who should be flogged by those who know what leadership is.

If only, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times keeps arguing, Barack Obama was more like a pretend president, like Aaron Sorkin’s Andrew Shepard in The American President, things would start getting done.  Sargent, Nyhan, and others have written about how incredibly absurd Dowd’s argument is and I, and others, have expressed an almost rubber-necking a car accident fascination with her doubling down on the claim even after the president himself mocked it at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and during a press conference earlier this week. The American President ends with Shepard’s big speech calling out his opponents.  The sequel should start with Sean Hannity playing Shepard’s promise from his big speech, “I’m going to get the guns” over and over as Shepard’s high-octane press conference moment failed to sway public opinion and further mobilized his opposition.

Dowd is not alone. She and many other reporters and columnists (like Ron Fournier and David Brooks) seem to believe that the president needs to be more of a leader and that being a leader begets policy success.  I’d like to issue a challenge to those columnists and reporters who believe this. To do so, I’ll use another Aaron Sorkin vehicle, The West Wing, to present the challenge.  When Nobel Laureate and President Jed Bartlet is debating Hunky Dipsh*t McGee, er Robert Ritchie, in his re-election run, Ritchie stumbles upon a convenient, sleek set of ten words that purport to illustrate one of his policy positions.  Bartlet goes all “show me the money” on James Brolin’s Ritchie and says

Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words. I’m the President of the United States, not the President of the people who agree with me.

Truth be told, I’m cutting Sorkin a break here as Bartlet begins the soliloquy by saying “ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns” even though there isn’t much evidence that they can.

But the point here, and the challenge, is this: what do Dowd, Fournier, and others mean by “leadership?” What do they propose that President Obama should do after he drinks with, golfs with, calls, grabs a movie with, arm-twists, photobombs, or subtweets his opponents…and they say “No. We actually fundamentally disagree with you and your ideas. We think that our ideas are better and even prefer nothing to happen to your ideas happening. In fact, if your ideas happen and work, that’s bad for us too. So…no.”

What then? What would the leaderiest leader do? I suspect the answer is “go public.” But, that is a strategy that is rarely successful, especially since most lawmakers who, say, voted against the recent background checks bill in the senate represent people who wanted them to vote that way. What is more, as several folks recently pointed out, supporting the president is a big risk for Republicans who do not want to get primaried – presidential involvement can even further polarize the debate.  Or, as fake President Bartlet once said to a prominent gay supporter who wanted the president to advocate for gay rights, “I’m a human starting gun!”

So, what are the next ten words, believers in the power of presidential leadership? And what are the ten words after that?

I actually think there are useful things for reporters and columnists to do on this score.  This is because I am sympathetic to the idea that millions of people voted for President Obama to try to do the things he said he was going to do. In fact, most presidents, including President Obama, do just that.  But, I do admit that it is very unsatisfying to be told that our institutional structures, composition of the legislative and executive branches, factors that affect elections results, and unlikelihood of success should somehow equate to a claim that the president (or any leader for that matter) should stop trying to implement her or his platform.  Of course the president should try to do what he and someday she says he’s going to do. What’s more, of course reporters should focus on how that process unfolds.

Here is where good journalism can and should come in (and often has! Really!).  Given how hard it is to govern in a highly polarized, divided government, reporters and columnists are in a unique position to position themselves in a realistic political context and and begin to answer the questions: what is the president doing to get things done, why is the president doing that, and how likely is it to work?  It’d be even better if those same questions were posed to Congress too!

Reporters should be investigating:

  • How the president is using the powers of his office to run around Congress when possible
  • How he is or isn’t trying to help, cajole, beg, or persuade members of his own party to be unified
  • What strategies he is using (if any) to target folks in the opposite party
  • What he is doing to engage the public
  • What issues he is spending time, energy and resources on
  • What promises he seems to have abandoned
  • What incentives, electoral and policy, do congressional Democrats and Republicans have that encourage and discourage compromise, stall-tactics, and good governance more generally
  • Finally, how the political landscape (public opinion, partisan make up and rules in the House and Senate, electoral time horizons, the state of the economy, idiosyncratic yet important events that pop up like the Boston terror attack) affects President Obama and Congress’ goals and behaviors.

Stories about these issues can remind voters of what President Obama – and congressional Republicans and Democrats – are up against as they try to produce policy to strengthen the economy, improve education and health care, lower crime, keep the country safe, protect the environment, address social policy questions, and win elections.

The country needs a vibrant, engaged, smart news media to explain how the context (things academics know a lot about) affect what politicians are doing (things reporters know a lot about). To go all Sorkin on you again, we want the truth…we can handle it. We’d even be better for it.

Categories: Uncategorized
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