Failure of Political Science–the Real Failure

It appears that, in the aftermath of Brexit and the 2016 presidential election, political science as a field is polarizing in opposite directions.  I just came across this post by Will Jennings and Martin Lodge, a pair of UK-based political scientists, who claim that political science has become too much of a bubble by itself, cut off from the wider world.  They claim that the sin of political science is that it tries too hard to be a “science” with too little concern for the wider environment.  They think that political science should pursue more normative concerns, such as “promoting normative foundations of liberal democracy”

With all due respect, I think this is ridiculous.  Not only ridiculous, but outright dangerous and delusional.  The problem with political science, as I see it, is that it already does far too much shilling for the normative values.  Political scientists teaching in policy schools are not peddling “pure science.”  They are peddling in “how-to’s,” and all “how to’s” are grounded on normative foundations–how do you promote markets?  how do you promote democracy?  how do you promote peace?  how do you promote civility?  Indeed, the rise of all the unconventional political movements that have shocked the academia, media, conventional politics watchers, and the public alike–Brexit and Trump election the foremost among them–came about precisely because these possibilities were systematically understudied by those who felt that these things should not take place.  Political science, if anything, should be a real science.  It should be stripped completely bare of any pretense of normative values and focus on how people organize themselves, how they coordinate themselves for collective action, whether they are “good” or “evil,” how institutions of different varieties can bring stability, peace, and order or instability, violence, and chaos, or some combination of all these, under different conditions, for whom, and why.  It is not the job of a biologist to declare that evolution is moral or immorality.  Why should it be the duty of a political scientist to make pronouncements on the moral value of “liberal democracy,” whatever that really means anyways?

If one were to truly value “liberal democracy,” the goal should be to understand what makes it work, what strengthens it, what subverts it.  The first step should be to define the moving parts as precisely as possible and to devise and evaluate theories of what they work–and, far more importantly, how they might fail.  Only with such understanding can the contributors to increased stability of democratic governance be reinforced and the potential threats kept away, coupled with appropriate humility that our understanding is imperfect and we need to keep learning.  That is science.  That is not how political science has been operating.  It has been throwing about facts, figures, and theories as if they are final pronouncements on truth so as to influence policymaking and draw attention to ourselves.  That sort of approach breeds scientism, better known as cargo cultism, where theories are gods that cannot fail, only be failed by the data.  That must be avoided.

Jennings and Lodge are right on one respect.  The bubble that the political science academia has been surrounding itself with limits the perspective.  Academics cannot see the possibilities in which their wondrous theories can fail.  Taking a closer look at the reality is an absolute necessity, and if that requires closer engagement with the real world, that must be done.  But engage in “normative thinking”?  What the heck does that mean?  Are Brexit and Trump election somehow “immoral” developments that must be lectured against?  If academics lecture at the Trump supporters, will they see the error of their ways, put on sackcloth and repent?  If Jennings and Lodge really believe that, they are deluded beyond redemption.  What is needed is a cold acknolwedgement and analysis of the reality, and that requires a clinical and dispassionate approach to reality.  The reality is that millions, constituting a plurality in case of Brexit, and a “political plurality” in case of Trump, made the decision they did willingly, given the choices that they were offered.  No So who are these people, why did they do it, and what other choices would they have chosen, had more alternatives been available, and, if the goal is to have them find “better” choices than they did, what could have been done to fix the institutions of politics so that they could have been presented with better choices that they’d have chosen willingly?  All these require moralizing or normative thinking.  Just cold, dispassionate, and “scientific” look devoid of any shilling.

I think arguments like this is exactly how we wind up throwing out baby with bathwater. The importation of economic and other modelling techniques into political science has taken place too uncritically, with too much naivete about what gets lost in the assumptions.  Critical and creative re-examination of the assumptions and good hard thinking into the possibilities that might arise if they are loosened is in order, not mushy thinking about so-called normative values and shilling for “liberal democracy.”  We need political science to be a real science, not wishy washy prop for wonkish policy advocates.


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