Political Science Gets a Dose of Humility


Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Scott Lucas at Politico attended the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association held last week in San Francisco — hey, so did I! — and wrote what I think is a not-unfair summary of what a lot of us were saying. Granted, it's a little hard to tell; there are a lot of political scientists there — the conference spills over to three different hotels, with multiple panels during each time period, so there's no way to talk to more than a fraction of those who are there, or attend more than a fraction of the panels. And we political scientists do a lot more than study U.S. politics, and even the Americanists are divided into all sorts of subspecialties, so, again, it's hard to generalize.

But I do think it's fair to say that a good number of political scientists are expressing some humility over the events of the last two years, or at least aspects of what has happened. It really does vary. Those who study voters in presidential elections, from what I can tell, believe that 2016 wound up as a fairly normal election except for the flukish Electoral College/total vote split. I'm not sure whether we've learned anything new about the presidency or Congress this year. The real wrong calls were from some of us who study presidential nominations (yes, myself included). 

My impression is also that there's still a split among political scientists between those who are running around with their hair on fire about Donald Trump's threat to U.S. democracy and another group who agree Trump is no friend of democracy but anticipate that the republic will muddle through, even though it may take on some damage. There's been some speculation that those who study comparative politics have been particularly anxious about Trump while we Americanists tend to be less panicked; I'm not sure that's true.