Thomas Frank is annoyed with Ezra Klein, All These Effing Geniuses: Ezra Klein, Expert-Driven Journalism, and the Phony Washington Consensus. In particular, he has a problem with a recent Klein article, How Political Science Conquered Washington. And I have to admit: Klein’s article is weak. There is much to say about structural factors that affect politics. But there are also major limits.
Frank’s problem is the way that number crunchers often use “hard data” to argue that this or that can’t be done. Frank brought up Nate Cohn’s recent article about how the Democrats can’t take the House back because of natural factors rather than gerrymandering. Cohn’s advice is extremely limited: move to the right or wait for demographic shifts. Frank rightly pointed out that this misses what has really gone on with the Democrats losing rural areas: their shift away from economic populism has allowed the Republicans to gin up cultural resentments to get people to vote for them.
The big problem here is that the banner of “science” has a tendency to shut down creative discussion. Cohn looked at the maps and like Estragon announced, “Nothing to be done.” But this is just status quo apologetics. It tends to push out any thoughts that might be bubbling up from real thinkers rather than number crunchers.
Let me give you an example of this that only I seem to have noticed. Political science has shown that at least since World War II, the party that wins the White House is primarily determined by the nation’s economic trend. But as a result of this, people who pay attention (at least on the left) are focused on nominating “safe” candidates who are not going to swamp the economic fundamentals. To me, this means that when elections like 1992 and 2008 come along, Democrats should nominate actual liberals instead of moderate and even conservative candidates like Clinton and Obama. But we don’t get this.
The reasons we don’t get this more radical thinking is that Ezra Klein’s supposed improvement of doing journalism based upon “experts” rather than politicians is no improvement at all. Basically, he’s traded in the politicians for the people the politicians were talking to. And this has the distinct downside of implying a kind of scientific rigor that just isn’t there. There are experts worth listening too. I read Paul Krugman every day. But in a normal world, I would often disagree with him. It is just because the right in this country is so crazy that we still have to fight for intellectual ground that everyone thought was settled forty years ago. But Krugman really is a major creative thinker. And as a result, he too is largely marginalized, even though widely read.
I think the problem is not so much that Washington loves experts. It is rather that there is a kind of affinity fraud going on. Why does Washington continue to listen to Dick Cheney? Because everyone “knows” that he’s a good guy. And he must be smart and knowledgeable. He was the Vice President! Or why do we still hold Bill Clinton in high esteem? He’s the guy that set the policy to allow the mortgage excesses that made the housing bubble so much worse than it normally would have been. But he must be worth talking to because, well, he’s the kind of guy who is worth talking to.
Of course, these aren’t academics. But there are always academics providing the intellectual support for the more public figures. Look at Greg Mankiw. This widely respected economist was for economic stimulus during the Bush administration. But once Obama was in office, he was against stimulus. And then, during Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, when it looked like Romney might be the next president, Mankiw softened his position, getting ready to be completely for it once a Republican was again in the White House.
If political science has revolutionized political journalism, it has been done by the likes of Nate Silver and Sam Wang. But the thing is: neither of them are political scientists. When the actual political scientists at The Monkey Cage put together an election model, it jumped around excessively. If the election turns out to give the Democrats the Senate, it is going to mean that forecasting models that did the best are the ones that paid the least attention to the political science.
Of course, Thomas Frank’s larger criticism is that the experts that Ezra Klein so loves are the ones who for decades have told the Democratic Party to move to the right on economic issues. And they’ve been wrong. The Republicans have done quite well doing exactly the opposite. It is hard not to conclude that the political scientists don’t know much more than anyone. They just have a patina of credibility that actually makes them more dangerous.
Having said all this, I think we can learn a lot from political scientists. But as Sam Wang has noted in election models, a lot of what political scientists think they know is really just noise. It’s important to know what is useful and what is not. But most of all, we shouldn’t forget that political science is fundamentally just history. And we should not use it to limit what we can do politically. That will just keep us moving on the same track that is destroying the middle class, impoverishing the poor, and enriching the rich.