What academia can teach us about politics
You can't find a Food Network stew any richer than when political scientists gather: vector autoregression analysis, word of growing cheating on political surveys, talk of faked orgasms, and microscopic parsing of President Obama's speeches meld with revisionist takes on the Tea Party.
It happened again when the Midwest Political Science Association drew 5,000 attendees from around the globe to an annual Chicago gathering. The high-brow feast concluded Sunday but not before hundreds of panel discussions and the surfacing of 4,239 academic papers.
Yes, 4,239, and with lots of footnotes, graphs and vector autoregression analyses. Closing my eyes and randomly picking just four papers in the event's 574-page, phonebook-like program, I give you the following:
"The Effects of Teachers' Race on Adolescent Risky Sexual Behaviors," "The Impact of State Politics and Policy on Fossil Fuel Plant Construction," "Out of Africa: Electoral Failure and the Future of Political Islam in West Africa," and "Political Knowledge of Local Courts: Are Rural Voters More Informed than Urban Voters?"
But this spoiler alert: Show up at one of these -- and, as best as I can tell, I am the only journalist in America who does routinely -- and one may actually come away wiser. You might have second thoughts about some of the media's ironclad assumptions as we dissect politics, especially in an election year, not to mention learning a lot about very different topics, be it decision-making in the German court system, the long-ago efforts of Spinoza and Locke to liberalize Christianity or psychological roots of somebody self-identifying as a libertarian.
Those qualms about our elections involve how much campaigns really matter, especially given the time and energy the media spends on them; how much Americans really care (not all that much) about politics; the assumed impact of negative advertisements; and even the power of the presidency.
When I asked John Mark Hansen, an astute political scientist at the University of Chicago, about what he'd most like to know about the rest of the presidential campaign, he didn't mention how Mitt Romney will do with women, Latino turnout for Obama, policy toward Iran, impact of the Citizens United campaign finance decision, social media, targeting of independent voters, terrorism or trends in swing states.
No, he'd like to know figures about third-quarter personal income growth. That, he thinks, will be a truly significant predictor of who wins. "It's a primary predictor of election outcomes---the better personal income growth, the higher the vote share of the incumbent party."
And "don't overestimate Americans' attentiveness to politics," said John Sides of George Washington University and a prime contributor to the Monkey Cage, a nifty blog on political science. "They are not learning the sorts of detail that reporters (or political scientists) are professionally obligated to learn."
Sides and I were on a roundtable about the possibilities of inspiring more dialogue between political scientists and journalists, and melding a bit more social science into the incremental obsessions of daily reporting. In sum, both could profit greatly by a more active, ongoing relationship and blame can be shared for insufficient communications.
Lynn Vavreck of the University of California at Los Angeles even wondered about the utility of her perhaps running a one-day "boot camp" for political journalists so that the academics can diplomatically vent about all the stuff they feel most political reporters and their editors are missing.
That includes exaggerating the effectiveness of attack ads and of campaigns in general. "This is most in evidence in news coverage of presidential general elections," said Sides, "where I think the ability of campaign events to change voters' minds is routinely overestimated."
As for the power of a president, especially his rhetorical clout, academics who have studied the matter generally think that the bully pulpit is just not anywhere near as powerful as people think. Indeed, here's a Monkey Cage post about just that.
Of course, believing that a president's words aren't as potent as White House reporters must professionally assume, lest their self-images as critical middlemen in public understanding plummet, doesn't stop academics from parsing every word.
Indeed, I sat through one presentation, by a University of Pennsylvania academic, titled, "It's Not the Economy, Stupid: Rhetoric, the Economy and Presidential Approval" that tried to meld an analysis of every sentence (and there aren't all that many) spoken on race by President Obama with data on his approval ratings and the state of the economy.
At another session, I was rather nonplussed by a young Indiana University academic's offering, "Barack Obama, Coffee Drinker: Tea Party Influence on Presidential Rhetoric," in which he claimed to have dissected a variety of Obama speeches for "conciliatory" and "combative" assertions and even came up with a "net combativeness" measure.
In sum, a president who captivated many by deriding red state and blue states divides is becoming less conciliatory in his rhetoric, in case that seemingly obvious reality had passed you by.
And in case you were still wondering how Obama beat John McCain in 2008, a Florida professor disclosed that he's now concluded that the factors included these: it was the Democrats' year, a message of change resonated, the Democrat raised more money, McCain was too old, youth were energized and Sarah Palin bombed.