Political Science Went Public. American Democracy Got Worse.
Public-facing political science is a civic enterprise. We don’t all do this for the perks of having less time for research and receiving hate-mail. The project, at its core, is about communicating social science findings to better inform the media and the public. This blog, specifically, began as a way to counterbalance the common assumption that political parties are bad, hoping instead to highlight how parties are essential and even good for democracy.
No doubt many of us still feel committed to this part of the public scholarship mission. During the last six years or so, it has felt especially crucial, and public-facing work has proliferated, even as the space has changed. More importantly, though, the task has changed. Initially, it seemed like sharing knowledge on its own would be a contribution to the health of democracy. And maybe it has been – I like to think that, at the margins, we have made things a bit better by informing the conversation. But the fact remains: threats to American democracy have grown while we’ve been building up the public-facing aspect of our discipline.
In some ways this has been a big moment for interaction across subfields, as American politics scholars have suddenly grown very interested in the findings of their comparative colleagues. The latter group has generously shared its collective knowledge about the health and survival of democracies and how to conceptualize, assess, and respond to threats posed by anti-democratic actors and movements. A bit more slowly, the mainstream American politics field also began paying more attention to scholars of race and American political development who have been focused on these issues for many years in our own backyard.
But the moment has nonetheless posed real challenges for many of us trained in the American politics tradition. I want to reflect here on three dilemmas in the study of American politics that are relevant for the twenty-first century crisis of democracy and that seem, to me at least, to defy straightforward answers for scholars.
Polarization is destructive. The alternative may be worse.
The idea that polarization is a problem to be solved still motivates a great deal of the civic space where political scientists are involved. This approach offers goals that are straightforward, if difficult to achieve: talking to people you disagree with. Figuring out how Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve policies they can agree on. Reducing extremism.
Over time, others have raised objections to this conceptualization. One is the asymmetric nature of polarization: once we had evidence that the two sides had different attitudes about compromise and ideology, it was hard to treat polarization, intellectually, as a single problem. The difference between the two party coalitions is not just in their ideas but also their composition: that one party is far more diverse racially and religiously is a significant factor for thinking about how polarization works.
In practical terms, this leaves a lot of questions about moderation and compromise as ideals. As historian Thomas Zimmer has put it, polarization can also be understood as the result of progress on race and gender issues. Viewed in that light, it doesn’t seem like something to shy away from, or a problem by itself.
Where this gets challenging is that many of the critiques of how polarization functions, especially when combined with US political institutions, are valid. Intractable divisions and hostile feelings between members of different parties does appear to undermine democracy. It’s not really clear what political scientists should recommend, or even what theoretical framework is most fruitful for us to study.
“Leadership” is cheesy and imprecise and also really important.
Studying the presidency in modern political science has long been tricky. The “small-n” problem has guided scholars to topics that can more easily be studied at a larger scale: Congressional roll call votes, mass voting behavior, or features of the executive branch that fit these parameters (executive orders, for example). These are all good subjects of study and I’m glad this work exists. But presidential administrations, as few as there have been, are still worthwhile subjects of study. There’s excellent work in this area. But it still carries a bit of a stigma under the prevailing methodological ideas.
It's not just about degrees of freedom. When you get deeply into the questions about studying individual presidents and administrations, values, leadership, and styles/approaches become really important. And it can be difficult to talk about that in a social science context without someone bringing up the long-criticized work by James Barber (breaking American presidents into psychological types). Just because typologies can fall into pseudoscientific traps, and concepts like leadership are difficult to define doesn’t mean these things aren’t important.
The Trump years illustrated why these factors matter, to the point of it being cliché and almost not worth mentioning. The quality of the decision-making process, the ability to exercise restraint and judgment, the capacity for follow-through – these are all factors that are difficult to quantify and yet shaped the most important moments of the Trump years. While Trump is the starkest example, there are numerous examples of this from other administrations – recent and historical – that are difficult to otherwise explain. Yet, like with polarization, we seem to struggle with a framework, in this case to incorporate these concepts into a vision of rigorous social science.
Institutions are essential to democracy. And also an obstacle to it.
I touched on this problem in my piece after January 6, 2021, and it seems worth revisiting now. Institutions became a political science buzzword after the 2016 election – would Trump destroy them? Would they hold? Would they constrain the president?
These questions turned out to defy easy answers, and the later years of Trump’s presidency highlighted other problems with institutions: activists and commentators questioned the nature of policing, as well as the structure of the Electoral College, and the Senate. In the U.S. context, institutions have as often as not embodied racist compromises or worse. Our clunky apparatus for choosing a president is out of sync with contemporary expectations about what democracy means.
Democracy requires stable institutions, but many of our institutions need revisiting. This same logic applies to norms, which can preserve democracy or be an impediment to it.
Questions about the Supreme Court illustrate some of the problems with “preserving institutions” as an objective. Comparativists warned us about judicial independence, and while the Courts were generally unconvinced by some of Trump’s most autocratic impulses (especially after the 2020 election), the Supreme Court has essentially become a wing of the conservative legal movement, enacting unpopular decisions without much institutional check. In other words, it’s not exactly clear whether this fits the definition of an independent judiciary or one that’s been coopted by an autocratic political movement. And if the latter is true, then what? When do we know that an institution has become so toxic, or corrupt, or anti-democratic, that preserving it can no longer be a viable goal? With dissatisfaction with the court as an institution growing and no clear institutional checks in sight, this is not an abstract question.
At the intersection of some of these problems are other tendencies that I see public political science fall into that may not be achieving our intended results. One example is the dismissive attitude toward reform movements and broad political dissatisfaction. While I admit that questions about term limits and third parties have occasionally had me feign an interest in sports in order to get away, the fact remains that political scientists have been good at explaining to ourselves why these aren’t real solutions to our problems. We’ve been less successful at taking these perennial favorites as starting points for what Americans think is wrong with the country. We’ve spent the last decade trying to explain the findings of our field. Maybe we should spend the next one finding new questions to answer.