Although I’m a card-carrying political scientist, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the state of the discipline. Even so, I like to see my profession in the news. So I’ve been amused to find that political science has become the bone of contention in a spat between Ezra Klein and Thomas Frank. Klein argues that social science research has improved political journalism; Frank contends that it’s become an alibi for the status quo. Jonathan Chait and Freddy DeBoer weigh in on behalf of Klein and Frank, respectively. Klein’s followup is here.
The dispute is nominally about the relation between political science and the left. But it actually revolves around the right. Specifically, it’s about explaining Republicans’ electoral success since 1964, which both sides treat as a mystery on the order of Fermat’s last theorem. Basically, Frank attributes conservatives’ success to a decades-long campaign of “organizing and proselytizing and signing people up for yet another grievance-hyping mass movement.” Klein, on the other hand, argues that it’s mostly about the partisan realignment of the South, which has always been conservative, but used to vote for Democrats. Although Klein focuses on the House of Representatives, Chait makes a similar case about presidential elections.
The academic debate has strategic implications. If their relative strength is determined mostly by structural considerations, there’s not much Democrats can do to take control of Congress. On the other hand, Republicans will have a hard time winning the presidency with a coalition based in the inland South and Mountain West. Essentially, the parties will have reversed the positions they held in most of the period between between World War II and 1994, when Republicans owned the White House and Democrats dominated Capitol Hill.
Considered in this broader context, the progressive heyday of the mid-’60s was profoundly aberrant. A temporary constellation of factors—including America’s overwhelming economic advantage following the war, political participation by the youngest baby boomers, and the halo conferred on Johnson by his predecessor’s assassination—combined in a political moment that was without parallel before or since. Since the end of Reconstruction, the American norm has been regionally and institutionally divided, relatively conservative politics. The Republican ascendance since 1964 is in many ways a return to that norm, rather than a puzzling deviation from it.
Frank finds that conclusion too upsetting even to contemplate. Klein accepts it with weary resignation. But neither has any right to be as surprised as he seems to be. Rather than more training in statistics, progressives might benefit from a refresher course in history—which used to have a much more prominent place in the study of politics than it does today.