This piece is not clear about who it is that I’m addressing. The Democratic money people, the mercenary pros, most of the Democratic elected officials, the media, and part of the Democratic rank and file are quite happy with the neocon / neoliberal Democratic party we now have. (These people think that the Democrats are winning when they elect neoliberals, and from a purely partisan point of view they are right). However, a considerable proportion of the rank and file (and probably some of the pros and elected officials) wish for a different, less centrist, less passive party, and these are the ones who are being misled by bad social science.

For the Democratic leadership, the bad social science is an indispensable tool. They do not want to give their left wing anything at all, but they need that demographic to win elections, and to a considerable degree this accounts for the stupidity, dishonesty, and negativity of the uninterrupted succession of lesser-evil election campaigns.


The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do….


Beginning in 1977, upon his appointment as head of the Begin government’s Ministerial Committee on Settlements, Ariel Sharon sought to create “facts on the ground” which would render Israel’s Occupation irreversible….


Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?…


The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

As my few readers know, in my political writing I have especially advocated left populism. I have been relatively silent over the last year or two, partly for personal reasons but mostly because of discouragement. The Democratic Party, the media, and the intelligentsia seem irrevocably committed to anti-populist pluralist liberalism, the national security state and neoliberalism seem impregnable, and even the populace itself may be hopeless. (By this I do not mean the caricature redneck bigots, but the large bloc of voters who have thrown in their lot with interest-group liberalism, and thus have become incapable of majoritarian or populist politics: “Get along, go along”, “What’s in it for me”, and “Can’t fight City Hall”.)

Oddly enough, however, populism never quite disappears, and recently there’s been a 4 against 1 pile-on with Thomas Frank on one side and  Ezra Klein, Nate Cohn, John Chait, and The Economist on the other — see links below. I will make my usual points here, with only a few citations from these sources.

Two of Franks’ points seem quite solid. First, the Democratic Party has been a party of experts since the 1950s — if not the 1930s. The change Klein notices is merely a change in political journalism — partly the result of the new scientific methods he’s celebrating, and partly because an actual change in how politics works. Second, this party of experts hasn’t been doing too well since 1968, and the only wisdom the wonks have to offer is to say that the Democrats should move to the right and wait for the demographics to change.

The Economist:

When it comes to taking back the House, Mr Cohn says, Democrats have two options: tack to the right or “wait for demographic and generational change”.  Mr Frank simply cannot accept that these are the only options.

This strategy has been tried before. In 1960 Chester Bowles published The Coming Political Breakthrough as part of the Kennedy campaign. His major thesis is that demographics would make the Democrats invulnerable and that they  would stay in power for a long time. By 1968 his theory was in shambles. The Democratic coalition had dissolved, and the Republicans had picked up the pieces. It’s been getting worse ever since.

For Chait this is science against anti-science, and he is incredulous that Frank wants to disagree with the scientists who have explained that things are hopeless:

I pointed out that Frank and West alike held in common a lack of familiarity with even the basic concepts of political science, which can explain how structural limits (like divided government and polarization) constrain the domestic powers of a president in a way that cannot be broken with ideological willpower or inspirational speechmaking.’The fatalism here may be science-driven’, he concedes, ‘but still it boggles the mind’. Let that phrase roll around in your head for a moment. Frank has just told you everything you need to know here.”

Chait and probably the others portray Frank as a science denier, but Pol Sci is a limited science heavily corrupted both by academic politics and by external interests. It is good at what it does, but terrible at what it does not try to do. It describes what has already been and projects that into the future. It even tries to predict some future changes (e.g. demographics), but it does not really take into account the remaining unpredictability (which is where the opportunities lie). And that is why the wisest Democratic advisers are at their finest when explaining that nothing much could have been done or can be done, and that defeat was and is inevitable.

Contrast the Republicans. They have hired plenty of PhDs, but they keep them under their thumb. The Republican leaders are opportunist demagogues, ideologues, scam artists, and petty criminals, and their politics is venturesome, opportunistic and experimental rather than realistic and passive. When public opinion goes against them they try to change public opinion. When they’re losing they don’t accept defeat but try to change the game. In short, they are political actors rather than normalizing administrators. Many of the wise men of the Democratic Party seem to be against political action in principle.  (Might this not be a necessary characteristic of anti-majoritarian, anti-populist, pluralist liberalism?)

Republican methods have obviously not led to good government, but they have led to victory. The realist wonks of the Democratic Party never tire of telling us that you have to win elections in order to get anything done, but then they immediately also tell us that the only way to win elections is to forget about trying to do anything. Is this really the wisdom we need? Shouldn’t we hope for a less passive, more experimental social science which would test hypotheses in action and not only in studies of the past?

Chait-type sophisticated liberals purport to regret the rightward slide, but this slide hasn’t really harmed anything they really care about, at least not so far. They don’t necessarily want the national security state, permanent state of war, mushrooming inequality, etc., etc., but none of these issues is at the top of their priority list, and in fact, many quasi-liberal Democrats have tacitly accepted the permanent state of war and the dominance of finance as either inevitable or positively good or both. For them, Obama is doing things just right, and his critics on the left are simply enemies. They pretend to want the same things we want (damn those Republicans who force them to be conservative!), but that’s because they need our votes.

There’s more to this, of course.  The most influential Democrats and the most influential media are very well off and have little to gain from more populist policies. The party pros don’t care at all about issues and only want to keep their jobs. And finally, the majority of Democratic donors are out and out bad guys.

So we’re doomed.


Another way to think of “political science” would be to define it as an applied science like engineering. Engineering is about desired results, not scientific truths, and experimental proposals are expressed something like “Find a way to do X”. Negative results are noted but merely motivate a further search for positive results. Thomas Edison discovered 10,000 things that didn’t work before he found the one that did. You would hope that Democrats, liberals, and radicals would be less radically empiricist than Edison, but it’s much more important that they don’t quit after the first unsuccessful trial.


I’ve wondered at times whether some of the incapacities of political science come from adherence to an obsolete model of determinist, predictive science, from the time before chaos, complexity, fat tails, fractals, etc. were thought of.  The future can be known, it is real, and we must accept reality. Short term electoral results are in fact one of the things that can often be predicted if you have enough data, but only if you hold the really important political factors constant. This is very convenient for political pros who want to limit politics to immediate term electoral politics, and avoid (and prevent)  big politics.

Ezra Klein, Thomas Frank, Nate Cohn, Jonathan  Chait, The Economist