“Politics as Lived” versus “Politics as Is”
Writing in praise of Halperin and Heilemann’s Game Change, Marc Ambinder predicts that political scientists won’t find much to love in the book’s depiction of politics:
Political scientists aren’t going to like this book, because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press, which is to say — a messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition between flawed human beings — a universe away from numbers and probabilities and theories.
Speaking as someone who spends a lot of time around political scientists, my guess is that they — like most people, frankly — won’t be all that interested in the book, and those that are will read it as nothing more than a collection of interesting gossip about the campaigns. Which, you know, is what it is. That said, it’s worth actually addressing the substance of Ambinder’s assertion that political scientists are too sterile and systematic to appreciate the glorious mess that is American politics.
I have little doubt that most political scientists don’t particularly care for the gossip, drama and triviality that characterizes the political dialogue. Contra Ambinder however, it’s not that political scientists are too cold and lifeless to appreciate the human drama, but that political scientists understand that the human drama says little about the actual outcomes of politics. Taking a magnifying glass to “politics as lived” — looking at personalities, staff dynamics, and press relationships — is interesting, but it doesn’t really tell you anything. At basic, elections are determined by the fundamentals: the economy, incumbency, population distributions etc, and the vast majority of presidential elections can be predicted by the macro-factors.
This isn’t particularly satisfying, granted, but political scientists aren’t in the business of dredging up scintillating details about campaigns and candidates. They are in the business of explaining and describing politics as it works. While it’s true that politics is a messy, ugly affair, it’s also true that political behavior can be systemized, organized, and explained. And on the whole, that systemization and organization tells us a whole lot more about how our politics operate than does a bunch of gossipy, barely substantiated quotes.