The Affordable Care Act and the Identity Crisis of “New Liberals”

Supporters of the Affordable Care Act.

The Supreme Court decision to uphold the constitutionality of the principal components of the Affordable Care Act provided President Barack Obama a tremendous political victory. This much is obvious. After all, the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” had become the signature piece of legislation of the Obama era. However, the magnitude of the decision’s impact will be felt primarily not by the Obama administration itself but rather by its liberal supporters.

American liberals of my generation – “new liberals” – came of age during the post-9/11 Bush years. In contrast to generations before us, we crafted a political identity entirely in opposition to a very divisive and partisan presidency. This has been both good and bad for liberals. On the one hand, new liberals have not been ideologically constrained by any single policy platform. That is, as long as we opposed President Bush, it did not matter what our political stance actually was. We were all “liberals.” On the other hand, as liberals would soon discover, little consensus existed on positive policy-making. As a result, though liberals managed to forge an individual political identity—and a collective ideological identity in opposition—this same group of people had not created an exclusive party (i.e. Democratic) identity. Riding on that wave of resistance liberalism, we felt that we willed Democrats to electoral victory in 2006 and 2008. But, not identifying purely as Democrats, we remained cautious with our support.

Barack Obama, more than any figure, came to symbolize the rise to prominence of this new generation. To us, he wasn’t a Democrat, he was a liberal. When Obama came to power in 2009, we all expected him to advance all of the policies we wanted. However, in domestic as well as international politics, liberals quickly became aware of the difficulties of governance. The Obama administration, cognizant of these challenges, chose to moderate its policies to a significant degree. It dragged its feet on gay rights, immigration, the environment, Guantanamo and personal liberty, and, most critically, health care reform. Many new liberals, dismayed, felt—and still feel—that Obama should have pushed a more liberal agenda. For these supporters, eight years in opposition had been a long time to wait for ultimately uninspiring policies.

Social identity theory, often imported by political scientists from social psychology to explain political behavior, can help explain how the nature of Obama’s policies may influence new liberal support in the fall election. The logic of this theory argues that when individuals make political decisions, they adopt the social identity that affords them the greatest tangible or intangible benefits. In a good example of this logic, a recent paper in the American Political Science Review by Moses Shayo argues that the lack of support among poorer Americans for redistributive policies in the United States stems from the intangible benefits brought about by identifying as American (i.e. patriotism) rather than as part of the lower class. In most European countries, by contrast, individuals support redistributive policies because of the benefits from identifying more closely with their social class.

On the eve of Obama’s bid for re-election, new liberals are being told to follow the party line in opposition to the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. For many of us, however, this is proving rather difficult. Though it provides little in terms of tangible benefits, the liberal identity, forged in opposition, gives an ideological freedom that liberals cherish. The Democratic identity, by contrast, affords less ideological freedom but greater benefits in terms of actual accomplishments. Thus, the desirability of the Democrat party identity vis-à-vis the liberal ideological identity depends entirely on the value of the accomplishments of the party in power. This is why the Affordable Care Act matters immensely for Obama’s erstwhile supporters.

While they may still vote for Obama, new liberals may not provide him the critical grassroots support afforded in the 2008 election. In that election, because Obama was not burdened with a substantial policy record, new liberals did not have to choose between their political identities. In the past few years, the presidency of Barack Obama has inextricably tied him to the more moderate policies of the Democratic Party, not liberals per se, forcing new liberals to decide between two competing political identities in the fall election. For this reason, the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the Affordable Care Act, a fundamentally liberal policy, will prove critical to Obama’s efforts to retain the support of new liberals. Now, identifying as a Democrat has suddenly become much more attractive. As a result, new liberals will find it much easier to forego their ideological identification in favor of the party identification that support for Barack Obama in 2012 necessitates.


War Junk: New Book on the Failures of Obama’s Afghan Surge

Foreign Policy is carrying an excerpt from the new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by the Washington Post’s always insightful Rajiv ChandrasekaranIt’s essential reading and does more than anything else I’ve read recently to capture what made the Obama administration’s ‘civilian surge’ in Afghanistan so unfocused, short-sighted and counterproductive. While the focus here is on the flawed American effort, unfortunately, from personal experience I can testify that the pathologies Chandrasekaran identifies were endemic to the international engagement much more broadly and with very few exceptions.

Chandrasekaran raises several factors that defined the lives of many people working on the civilian side. Among them:

  • Restrictive security measures that virtually imprisoned aid workers and political officers in their offices. Getting out to actually meet Afghans and see funding projects was often impossible. The self-imposed fog of war induced bureaucratic narcosis: ever-growing reams of working documents cross-referenced one another with an ever-weakening link to a reality ‘out there.’ Progress, such as it was, became defined by the holding of meetings and the drafting of papers rather than the concrete achievement of real-world objectives.
  • Dysfunctional and sclerotic hiring procedures. Identifying and making use of high-quality people was a perennial challenge, assembling and maintaining a corporate knowledge-base all but impossible. To make matters worse, the personal sacrifices entailed by working in a crisis zone meant that promises of high pay and promotions were used to attract high-quality people. Unfortunately, this often had the effect of attracting people more concerned with high-pay and promotions than the fate of Afghans.

Faced with these frustrations, people grew despondent and often found solace in diversions. At the U.S. Embassy in Kabul,

Some staffers retreated to their trailers to watch movies on their laptops. Others grew homesick and despondent…The most common salve, however, was booze. For those not lucky enough to be invited to a private party in one of the apartments, the Duck and Cover — whose logo featured a duck wearing a combat helmet perched atop sandbags — was the place to go. On Thursday nights, staffers crammed shoulder to shoulder in the pub, downing cans of Heineken, glasses of cheap Australian white wine, and bottles of hard lemonade. The place remained hopping until last call at 2 in the morning, when everyone stumbled back to his or her hooch.

Forget grappling with how to ensure basic security in this war-torn country, even getting right the logistics of the 2010 Mardi Gras celebration on the grounds of its own embassy proved too much for American administrative capabilities:

Hundreds of revelers, including thick-necked security contractors, raggedy aid workers, and suit- wearing diplomats from other countries, packed into a tent next to the main embassy office building. The organizers had procured more than enough liquor, but the partygoers had access to only two restrooms. The queue for the toilets grew so long that inebriated attendees began to relieve themselves elsewhere. The deputy Turkish ambassador urinated on the wall of the chancery building. So did two American men who worked at the embassy. A female staffer pulled off her underwear and squatted on a patch of grass near the flagpole. [U.S. Ambassador] Eikenberry couldn’t do anything about the Turk, but both of the American men were sent home. When the woman was hauled into her supervisor’s office the following day and told she would be disciplined, she claimed to have a small bladder and threatened to lodge an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint. She was allowed to finish her tour in Kabul. The following week, the word came down that there would be no more blow-out parties until the Marine Corps birthday ball that fall, and alcohol purchases at the embassy convenience store would be limited to two bottles of wine or one bottle of spirits per person per day.


From End-Game to Great Game: China and Indo-Pakistani Rivalry in Afghanistan

Geography is destiny,” Napoleon famously observed. As Afghanistan fades fast from diplomatic radars in most Western capitals, things are heating up for Kabul’s regional neighbors, as they jostle for influence in ways that seem to bear out the gnomic remark. Earlier this month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing to sign a joint declaration to establish a ‘framework’ for strategic partnership between the two countries. Though largely ignored by Western media, this development might well portend the beginnings of a scramble for influence in Central Asia reminiscent of 19th century geopolitical competition between the great powers of the region. Back then, the rivals were Great Britain and Russia who attempted to exert influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Today, the relative balance of power between India and Pakistan is shaping Chinese perceptions in this 21st century Tournament of Shadows.

The announcement by Kabul and Beijing to seek a strategic partnership comes just months after virtually all of the major troop-contributing nations—the United States, the United Kingdom, France and others—declared their intention to end combat missions and withdraw the vast majority of their troops within the next two years. Nature abhors a vacuum and the timing suggests that as the era of US hegemony in Afghanistan draws to a close, regional players are about to jump in more forcefully.

Until now, Beijing has been content to be something of a ‘free-rider,’ standing back while the US-backed International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) does the heavy lifting when it comes to providing security. Meanwhile, China’s state-run businesses have reaped an economic whirlwind, capturing prizes like the the concession to develop the world’s largest unexploited copper fields at the Aynak mine. Since winning the concession, 1500 Afghan National Police officers have guarded the mine, while 2000 US soldiers have provided overarching stability in Logar Province where Aynak is located.

From the viewpoint of Washington, China’s influence in Afghanistan is hardly pernicious when compared to the reported actions of some of the other regional actors in the country, notably Iran and Pakistan. Moreover, Chinese investments in places like Aynak are among the most important drivers for Afghanistan’s long-term economic prosperity. But make no mistake: China’s Afghan policy reflects interests that are far broader than just Afghanistan alone.

When analysts talk about China’s intentions in Afghanistan, they typically mention Beijing’s desires to neutralize the Uyghur separatists from Xinjiang Province who once found sanctuary in Afghanistan while it was under Taliban rule. They point to China’s interest in curtailing the proliferation of drugs derived from Afghanistan’s poppy crop. They also mention Beijing’s ambitions to build energy corridors to Central Asia that will reduce its dependence on the narrow Strait of Malacca shipping lane through which the vast majority of its petroleum imports transit, making the country exceptionally vulnerable to naval interdiction in the event of a conflict with a certain superpower.

But, to really understand the promises and pitfalls of China’s Afghan policy, we need to take into account the broader geopolitical chessboard. Take China’s interests in extracting Afghanistan’s rich untapped reserves resources. The country has sizable deposits of iron ore, gold, silver, uranium, lithium, and natural gas. All of this fits into a broader Chinese policy to develop a regional transportation corridor that involves building rail connections that go through Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan. Indeed, Beijing’s intention is to link Kashgar on its western frontier with Central Asia via the Karakoram and, ultimately, Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea, which China has helped finance, build and operate. Designs for regional energy corridors help explain why Beijing is likely to see Afghanistan through a broader strategic lens. It’s also in this context that the triangular relationship between China, India and Pakistan begins to come into focus.

Ever since Beijing and Delhi fought a border war in 1962, China has provided Pakistan with major military and economic assistance, including the transfer of nuclear technology. All this can be understood in classic realist terms: despite their diametrically opposed governing ideologies, Islamabad and Beijing have built an enduring ‘all-weather friendship’ fundamentally based on using each other as strategic hedges against Delhi. From the viewpoint of Beijing, supporting Pakistani designs to use Afghanistan for ‘strategic depth’ helps divert India from focusing on competing with China.

Not that this strategy isn’t without clear risks. Pakistan’s strategy of supporting violent Islamic militants in the region backfired when such groups began to contest the writ of the Pakistani state. Indeed, mounting reports suggest that the Uyghur separatists comprising the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who once operated from Afghanistan are now based across the Durand Line in Pakistan and near the Chinese border.

Still, the Sino-Pakistani alliance continues to bedevil Indian strategists at the highest echelons of power, many of whom see an overarching Chinese agenda of containing India. In an interview earlier this month, India’s recently retired Chief of Army Staff, V.K. Singh, warned that China and Pakistan are working in concert to “outflank” India in Afghanistan.

For its part, Delhi has invested handsomely in Afghanistan, having pledged over US$1.3 billion for reconstruction and development over the past decade and constructing infrastructure projects that bypass Gwadar port. For example, Indian aid figured prominently into the construction of the highway between Zaranj and Delaram that will connect western Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar. Combine this with Delhi’s longstanding ties with the Marxist regime in Kabul during the Soviet occupation as well as its assistance to the Northern Alliance during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, and the contours of another proxy war in Afghanistan are not difficult to imagine were things to really deteriorate between India and Pakistan.

In a recent commentary, the learned Ashley J. Tellis remarks:

 Irrespective of how the coming security transition in Afghanistan pans out, one country is on a surprising course to a major strategic defeat: Pakistan. Every foreseeable ending to the Afghan war today—continued conflict with the Taliban, restoration of Taliban control in the southern and eastern provinces, or a nationwide civil war—portends nothing but serious perils for Islamabad. But judging from Pakistan’s behavior, it appears as if this fact has eluded the generals in Rawalpindi.

Although China has greater ambitions than simply using Afghanistan as another arena to put India on the defensive, it’s unclear how far Beijing will go to upset Pakistani decision-makers in their own attempts to do so. Given Pakistan’s still formidable leverage in defining the terms of any Afghan settlement and the overarching centrality of the Sino-Pakistani relationship to both Islamabad and Beijing, it’s premature to follow Tellis in predicting “Pakistan’s impending defeat” in the country.

China’s geopolitical wagon in Central Asia remains hitched to Pakistan. While geography doesn’t act on politics in a deterministic fashion, we ignore Napoleon at our peril: the calculations that drive Sino-Pakistani cooperation remain intact and the the infrastructural investments that both countries have made in Central Asia continue to promote competition with India rather than cooperation.

Register with Obama?

Obama Event Registry

The Barack Obama re-election campaign is now giving couples (or, I guess, anyone that wants gifts) the chance to register with the Obama campaign:

Let your friends know how important this election is to you—register with Obama 2012, and ask for a donation in lieu of a gift. It’s a great way to support the President on your big day. Plus, it’s a gift that we can all appreciate—and goes a lot further than a gravy bowl.

Like the constant emails and advertisements for dinners with Sarah Jessica Parker and George Clooney, this move seems amusing at first and horribly desperate and sad upon further contemplation. Is this the new norm for a post-Citizens United world? I applaud the Obama campaign’s ingenuity but feel genuine concern for the state of our democracy if that is indeed the case.

For more of his musings on politics, follow William on Twitter.

Morsy wins! Morsy wins! (But now what?)

Following the rapid developments in Egypt’s political scene over recent weeks has been enough to give any interested observer an anxiety attack – or a splitting headache, at the least. At any given moment, it’s hard to know whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about the country’s future, or even what exactly is going on. And now, with Egypt’s ‘transition to democracy’ appearing to be in its denouement, things don’t seem likely to slow down anytime soon. Although the ruling junta is slated to transfer power to civilians at the end of the month, it remains to be seen how much control they will actually relinquish in practice.

After days of suspense and delay – and heightened contention between the ruling military and the Muslim Brotherhood – yesterday saw the official announcement of the results from the run-off portion of the country’s first post-uprising presidential election. Voting in this round took place just over a week ago, on June 16 and 17, and Egyptians were forced to wait to hear whether their next president would be Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy, or Ahmed Shafiq, who is associated with the former regime.

After the declaration of Morsy’s victory yesterday, many Egyptians took to the street in what appeared to be a spontaneous eruption of happiness with the result. There seems to be good reason for this outpouring of joy. As a Sunday post by Issandr El Amrani at The Arabist argued:

The celebration in Tahrir and elsewhere shows many Egyptians are delighted at the news, or at least for some at Ahmed Shafiq’s defeat. They are right to be enthusiastic: a Shafiq victory would have been a disaster for most Egyptians, a signal for the resurrection of the police state, and considering that the victory would have been considered stolen by many, probably the cause of much bloodshed

But despite the completion of the presidential contest, and the clear significance of Morsy’s victory, a great deal of uncertainty remains – not only about the country’s path going forward, but also over what exactly transpired in recent days. El Amrani argues:

[W]hat of a Morsi victory? At the symbolic level, it is important: Morsi is the first democratically elected Islamist president of the Arab world, and also Egypt’s first civilian president. His victory signals the defeat, for now, of the felool [‘remnants’] and the patronage networks of the Mubarak regime. In more practical terms, things are more hazy… So many questions remain unanswered that what can best be said is that either SCAF and the Brotherhood have worked out a deal of some sort or the political jousting has only just begun.

As the post points out, numerous issues about the framework for going forward remain unresolved, including the scope of presidential power. Indeed, there still appears to be disagreement over a number of issues such as the now-dissolved parliament that was seated earlier this year, as well as the process for choosing an assembly to craft a new constitution.

The lack of clarity seems almost comic, and would be amusing if it weren’t so dangerous. Marc Lynch provides a very clever assessment of the current off-the-cuff nature of the transition in a June 18 post, “Calvinball in Cairo:”

The best guide to the chaos of Egyptian politics is Hobbes.  No, not Thomas Hobbes — Calvin and Hobbes… [O]ver the last week it’s become clear that Egyptians are in fact caught up in one great game of Calvinball. For those who don’t remember Bill Watterson’s game theory masterpiece, Calvinball is a game defined by the absence of rules — or, rather, that the rules are made up as they go along.. As in Calvinball, the one constant in Cairo’s trainwreck of a transition seems to be the constantly changing rules and absolute institutional uncertainty.

Yet, as Lynch points out, this situation doesn’t mean inevitable triumph for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, the military junta that currently controls the country:

But here’s the thing — Calvin doesn’t always win at Calvinball.  Players succeed by responding quickly and creatively to the constantly changing conditions…Watterson’s game theoretic analysis suggests that Calvinball’s absence of rules does not automatically bestow victory on Calvin.  The game is going to continue for a long time, at least until the players finally settle on some more stable rules which command general legitimacy.  Perhaps the SCAF might not automatically dominate SCAFball?

How effectively Morsy can play a role in shaping the process is still an open question, as is whether the military will actively work to undercut him moving forward. One thing is definitely clear:  his job will not be a simple one, as a Sunday New York Times article explained:

As the first freely elected president of Egypt, Mr. Morsi has a historic opportunity, but he faces a litany of challenges that could prevent him from becoming more than just a figurehead. He will have to spar with the generals, who, just after the election, stripped much of the power from the presidency, and he must overcome the doubts of those who chose his opponent — nearly half of the voters — and millions more who did not vote. Mr. Morsi will also have to convince Egyptians that he represents more than just the narrow interests of the Muslim Brotherhood and to soothe fears among many that his true goal is to bind the notion of citizenship itself more closely to Islam.. He resigned from the group on Sunday, but many people believe his years in the organization mean his ties to it will persist.

Under the assumption that the military and Brotherhood are still jockeying for position, not just playing out the string following some secret agreement, Morsy’s victory seems to be a clear gain for latter. As El Amrani pointed out, yesterday “marks the first time in the last few months that the Brothers have played chicken with SCAF and won.” Whether or not the military will yield in other areas, however, is unclear. The next stage of the struggle is shaping up already, and it appears that it will include a strong focus on the legislative branch, as the Times article on difficulties facing Morsy spells out:

Mr. Morsi’s first test will come immediately. Brotherhood leaders have said that thousands of their supporters will continue to occupy Tahrir Square until the Parliament, which the military council dissolved last week, is reinstated. The military rulers have said that elections will be held for a new Parliament, although those ousted were seated in January. On Sunday, Mr. Morsi threw down his first challenge to the military, saying he would be sworn in only in front of the Parliament whose members were just dismissed.

So the next round of SCAFball is on. With no firm rules governing play, people here in Egypt and around the world will have to wait to see not just how it turns out — but also how the game itself is played.

Drone Strikes and Anti-Americanism

To what extent do drone strikes cause anti-Americanism and an increase in militancy? In a recent Op-Ed in The New York Times, writer and activist Ibrahim Mothana strongly condemns the use of drone attacks in Yemen by the Obama Administration. He unequivocally suggests a causal relationship between their increased use and growing anger towards the United States, stating

Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair. . . . . Indeed, the drone program is leading to the Talibanization of vast tribal areas and the radicalization of people who could otherwise be America’s allies in the fight against terrorism in Yemen.

Mothana begins his article with a jarring quote from a Yemeni lawyer: “Dear Obama, when a US drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with al-Qaeda.”

Substitute Yemen for Pakistan and the words would still ring true for many. The use of drone attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the border of Afghanistan is a huge point of contention and controversy in Pakistan. The majority of the country appears to be vehemently opposed to their use, with protests and rallies against drone strikes common. Opposition is both based on the illegality of the strikes – both from an international human rights law perspective and their violation of the country’s sovereignty – as well as the suggestion that a very large number of civilians are killed in the process (statistics, when available, are largely contested). As the recent New York Times article made apparent, the definition of “combatant” is itself frighteningly broad:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

And, as David Ignatius makes clear in his latest piece, drone strikes are a huge hurdle in successful bilateral relations between the U.S. and Pakistan. The situation, and public sentiment, is further complicated by evidence presented (in part through Wikileaks) that the Pakistan government has given tacit approval to the continuation of these strikes. The National Assembly’s recent resolution stalling resumption of Pak-US talks on the question of drones thus rings hallow.

However, in my conversations with some people from the tribal areas (certainly not representative of the population, as a clear selection bias exists), the counter-argument arises that, contrary to popular opinion, drone strikes are the lesser of other evils (with the bigger evils being allowing militants to roam free, as well as military operations carried out by the Pakistan army). Many of these individuals argue that drone strikes are in fact effective and create less damage than the more invasive military operations. They state that it is individuals living outside of the tribal areas, where drone strikes do not occur, who are most opposed to their use.

To be honest, I am having a hard time reconciling these anecdotes with the harrowing accounts featured in the media. In their piece for The Independent from March of this year, Andrew Buncombe and Issam Ahmed profiled FATA residents who had lost loved ones as a result of drone strikes:

Imran Khan Wazir, a day labourer, said his father, Malik Ismail, was also killed at the jirga. He said he was in the market in Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, when he learned the news. “It’s been a huge loss. I’m the only brother, and now I have the responsibility of looking after the family,” he said. “America – stop these attacks. These are wicked acts. Many innocents are dying. Our jirga was innocent.”

Polling data from The New America Foundation indicates that more than three-quarters of FATA residents oppose drone strikes. Meanwhile, other surveys, such as those carried out by the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, have found that less than half of those living in FATA (compared with a far greater number in the rest of Pakistan) felt anti-American sentiment had increased as a result of the drones, which they perceived as damaging to militant organizations. Further research is no doubt needed on the precise mechanism by which drone strikes lead to anti-Americanism and in turn to militancy, particularly in the regions directly affected by the strikes. Given the precarious security situation, clearly this is no easy task.

In discussing the factors that drive anti-Americanism in Muslim countries, arguments swing between those who cite Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization” theory which posits that fundamental differences between social norms and values are to blame, and others who place the blame squarely on U.S. policies.

In a recent research paper entitled “How Deeply Held Are Anti-American Attitudes Among Pakistani Youth?”, Adeline Delavande and Basit Zafar carry out a survey experiment in Pakistan to explore the impact of information on attitudes towards the U.S. They find that “(i) public opinions are not purely a cultural phenomenon, and are malleable, and (ii) the tendency of respondents to ignore information not aligned with their priors can be overcome.” The authors survey young, urban Pakistanis, and expose them to fact-based statements describing the U.S. in either a positive or negative light. They find that many respondents revised their attitudes up when provided positive information, and down for negative. However, the majority (57%) of respondents affiliated with conservative educational institutions did not revise their attitude, suggesting that an individual’s prior beliefs may not be overcome by increased information.

In a country where conspiracy theories are incredibly common (and often proven true) and where information and facts are always disputed, this high percentage is not surprising. In fact, it is the “information” itself that is suspect; there is little that people here view as objective fact.

Lisa Blaydes and Drew A. Linzer indirectly address this issue in their convincing work on elite competition and anti-Americanism in Muslim countries. Since this paper has already been effectively reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and The Monkey Cage, I won’t go into too much detail here. Still, it’s worth re-reading their following conclusion:

Muslim anti-Americanism is predominantly a domestic, elite-led phenomenon that intensifies when there is greater competition between Islamist and secular-nationalist political factions within a country….. Intense competition between political elites along Islamist-secular lines provides these incentives, making it advantageous for elites to foment anti-American sentiment for their own political gain.

This struggle over competing narratives finds clear support in Pakistan, and nowhere is it more apparent than in debates and discussion over the use of drone strikes in the country.

Defending the Science of Politics: Wait, We Were Trying to Forecast?

I don’t want to dwell for too long on Jacqueline Stevens’s commentary on political science from this weekend’s New York Times Sunday Review. Professor Stevens deserves credit, not scorn, for engaging the public intellectual sphere in a serious manner, an explicit goal of the political scientists of this blog. While I am certain that colleagues of mine will discuss some of the substantive portions of her piece in greater detail, I merely wish to highlight two points of hers that I struggled to comprehend from an ontological perspective.

First, I cannot fully understand Professor Stevens’s own motivations for her support of the proposed bill to end political science funding. She cites the following as the fundamental reason behind her support:

The bill incited a national conversation about a subject that has troubled me for decades: the government — disproportionately — supports research that is amenable to statistical analyses and models even though everyone knows the clean equations mask messy realities that contrived data sets and assumptions don’t, and can’t, capture.

In other words, Professor Stevens wants to cut off all political science funding because she believes that the type of research that receives the majority of NSF-funding–quantitative research–is inherently flawed. Even if we accept her belief that quantitative political science research is inferior, is it worth it to cut off all political science funding? Isn’t Professor Stevens’s proposal the equivalent of cutting off our proverbial noses to spite our faces? While I agree with Professor Stevens’s contention that we should be careful about “clean equations” that purport to explain more than they can, I do not think that cutting off NSF research from all of political science is a productive way to begin such a conversation. Ultimately, Professor Stevens says that

Government can — and should — assist political scientists, especially those who use history and theory to explain shifting political contexts, challenge our intuitions and help us see beyond daily newspaper headlines.

This proposal suggests a serious discussion about funding allocation, not funding elimination. As I stated above, I think that this is a conversation worth having. However, this  conversation does not mean support for the proposed bill that is making its way through Congress. This bill would eliminate political science funding, including such funding that might have gone to political scientists “who use history and theory.”

Second, I am a bit puzzled as to why Professor Stevens seems to believe that political science is fundamentally about prediction. True, positivism lies at the heart of the social scientific enterprise. However, political science, like all science, is about explanation, understanding, and knowledge. After all, the Latin scientia, from which science derives its meaning, translates into “knowledge,” not prediction. Political scientists are human beings and, as such, struggle to predict the future. For this reason, political scientists, more than most journalists and public intellectuals, are usually careful about the extent to which they can claim to predict future events.

Consider James Fearon and David Laitin’s 2003 article that is the principal subject of Professor Stevens’s critique. As Professor Stevens suggests, their contribution is twofold: to dispel the notion that ethnic grievances cause civil wars and to promote the idea that the same conditions that favor insurgency (i.e. as in weak states), favor civil wars. However, let’s look at the exact language that Fearon and Laitin use. Against the grievances argument, they write that

we find little evidence that one can predict where a civil war will break out by looking for where ethnic or other broad political grievances are strongest.

Isn’t this the exact type of language and research for which Professor Stevens advocates? They present a study about the failures of political science prediction. If anything, they caution against arguments, from political scientists or others, that use grievances to predict civil wars. Moreover, they state that

measures of cultural diversity and grievances fail to postdict civil war onset, while measures of conditions that favor insurgency do fairly well.

Again, notice both the language and caution that Fearon and Laitin utilize. “Fail to postdict” suggests that history has not provided any evidence in favor of the argument that grievances predict civil wars. The use of the word “postdict” suggests Fearon and Laitin’s own hesitation about the performance of their own variables.

The Fearon and Laitin article is just one of many examples of political science research executed with due diligence and circumspection. There are countless others. Of course, there are also countless works of political science that are not nearly as well done and fail to resist the urge to predict beyond the limits of social science. We need to have a frank conversation about the place of such research in the world of political science. However, to support the elimination of all political science research, including that which both I and Professor Stevens would consider of top quality, for the sole reason of having this conversation seems ill-advised.

For more of his musings on political science, follow William on Twitter.