So early this month Ezra Klein wrote a Vox essay entitled “How political science conquered Washington” that rankled a few folk.  I was OK with it, particularly as others have backed Klein’s argument with more data.

What’s fascinating, however, has been the truly dyspeptic responses to Klein’s thesis. For exhibit A, there’s Thomas Frank’s Salon essay, which opens with “nearly every aspect of this argument annoyed me” and goes downhill from there.  

Frank commits two sins, one of reading comprehension and one of letting his own anger get in the way of his reasoning skills.  Klein’s argument was that political journalists were embracing political science as a way of understanding phenomena like persistent policy gridlock, polarization, and election results.  In other words, journalists rely on political scientists to explain what is happening inside the Beltway, not what should be happening inside the Beltway.

Frank, however, seems to think that Klein is arguing the latter, and that causes him to get real angry real fast:

The characteristic failing of D.C. isn’t that it ignores these herds of experts, it’s that it attends to them with a gaping credulity that they do not deserve. Worse: In our loving, doting attentiveness to the people we conceive to be knowledgeable authorities, we have imported into our politics all the traditional maladies of professionalism.
The powerful in Powertown love to take refuge in bewildering professional jargon. They routinely ignore or suppress challenging ideas, just as academics often ignore ideas that come from outside their professional in-group. Worst of all, Washingtonians seem to know nothing about the lives of people who aren’t part of the professional-managerial class.
How well-known is this problem? It is extremely well known. One of the greatest books of them all on American political dysfunction, David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” (1972), is the story of how a handful of poli-sci geniuses got us into the Vietnam War. How political science conquered Hanoi, you might say, except that it didn’t exactly work out like that.

And with that last paragraph, Frank wins a Vizzini Award:

To be pedantic about it, if Frank’s definition of “poli-sci” includes the cast of characters in Halberstam’s Best and the Brightest, then he’s really expanded the meaning of the term.  None of the protagonists in Halberstam’s book had a Ph.D. in political science. (UPDATED, 10/3/14: Two of them, McGeorge Bundy and Dean Rusk, had poli sci teaching appointments, but none of the characters practiced the kind of political science Klein was writing about.)  If Klein had written a piece entitled “How the Eastern Establishment conquered Washington”, I would understand Frank’s ire.  But that was neither the title nor the point of Klein’s post.

Now, defenders of Frank might argue that what he’s really talking about is the kind of gravitas that passes for “expertise” in Washington.  But, again, that’s very different from the kind of political science that Klein is talking about.  I’ve got my own thoughts about the DC kind of expertise that are somewhat more charitable than Frank — but, again, that’s not really what the rest of the known universe defines as political science.  If one broadens Frank’s critique to economics — which he does — I can kinda sorta see where Frank is coming from. Even here, however, Paul Krugman’s recent observations are more on point.

Frank eventually pivots back toward the kind of analysis that Klein actually was talking about, at which point it becomes clear what’s frustrating him: political scientists are predicting that Democrats don’t have a chance to win back the House anytime soon without moving towards the center..

A data-minded commentator like Nate Cohn is able to look out over the blasted moonscape of Appalachia and conclude that a party of the left has nothing it might conceivably offer the people there. If Democrats wish to win back the seats that Republicans have taken away from them in such stricken areas, the Dems must either become more conservative themselves or sit audaciously on their butts for a couple of decades while some new generation is born and grows up to populate the boarded-up towns and collapsing houses of the deindustrialized hinterland. Those are the only choices.
The fatalism here may be science-driven, but still it boggles the mind.

This is not Frank’s first dust-up over political science, and I suspect the residue from that conflict has affected how he thinks of academics who “ignore ideas that come from outside their professional in-group,” as he puts it.  I don’t wish to sour him any further to my profession, though I’m not sure that’s possible. Rather, I’d suggest that just because political scientists aren’t advocating the same political strategy for Democrats doesn’t mean that they’re useless.  It’s just that their purpose (analyzing elections) might be different from Frank’s purpose (boosting a party of the left).  But I wish Frank well in his quest to defeat the median voter theorem and Romer-Rosenthal.

As for political scientists, we really should feel flattered by Frank’s attentions.  Could be worse:  could be boring.