June 2, 2010 11:38AM

Political Science and Washington D.C.

The Columbia Journalism Review has an article on political science and journalism.  It cites the Monkey Cage blog as an example and explains:

[P]erhaps The Monkey Cage’s greatest influence has been in fostering a nascent poli-sci blogosphere, and in making the field’s insights accessible to a small but influential set of journalists and other commentators who have the inclination—and the opportunity—to approach politics from a different perspective.

That perspective differs from the standard journalistic point of view in emphasizing structural, rather than personality-based, explanations for political outcomes... [C]onsider the president. In press accounts, he comes across as alternately a tragic or a heroic figure, his stock fluctuating almost daily depending on his ability to “connect” with voters. But political-science research, while not questioning that a president’s effectiveness matters, suggests that the occupant of the Oval Office is, in many ways, a prisoner of circumstance. His approval ratings—and re-election prospects—rise and fall with the economy. His agenda lives or dies on Capitol Hill. And his ability to move Congress, or the public, with a good speech or a savvy messaging strategy is, while not nonexistent, sharply constrained.

These powerful, simple explanations are often married to an almost monastic skepticism of narratives that can’t be substantiated, or that are based in data—like voter’s accounts of their own thinking about politics—that are unreliable. Think about that for a moment, and the challenge to journalists becomes obvious: If much of what’s important about politics is either stable and predictable or unknowable, what’s the value of the sort of news—a hyperactive chronicle of the day’s events, coupled with instant speculation about their meaning—that has become a staple of modern political reporting? (emphasis mine)

Political science can, at its worst, be hopelessly abstruse, cliquish, and regressive.  But at its best it can illuminate our thinking about issues, up to and including raising the possibility that certain things may be unknowable (at least by a journalist's or policymaker's deadline), or that things may be structurally determined.  As the snip above suggests, journalists, for understandable reasons, tend to privilege what you could call "agent-based" explanations for phenomena.  They tell Americans that the president's poll numbers are rising or falling on the basis of some speech he gave (or didn't give), or that some particular point of a political campaign determined the outcome.  Turn on a cable news program and you see this sort of uninformed and unfalsifiable popping off all the time.  In most cases, those claims, and even those sorts of claims, are completely wrong, as political scientists know.  On the other hand, journalists' incentives do not lead them to highlight the latest political science research or write articles that could be headlined "Economic Conditions Set to Determine Another Election."  People like stories, so that's what journalists give them.

Question: What political science articles should journalists and policymakers be forced to read--and comprehend--before writing about/making policy on their particular issue area?

For foreign policy types, two articles come immediately to mind (although one was published in an econ journal):

Mancur Olson and Richard Zeckhauser, "An Economic Theory of Alliances," Review of Economics and Statistics 48, no. 3 (August 1966): 266-279.

Some suppose that the apparent disproportion in the support for international undertakings is due largely to an alleged American moral superiority, and that the poverty of international organizations is due to a want of responsibility on the part of some other nations. But before resorting to any such explanations, it would seem necessary to ask whether the different sized contributions of different countries could be explained in terms of their national interests. Why would it be in the interest of some countries to contribute a larger proportion of their total resources to group undertakings than other countries? The European members of NATO are much nearer the front line than the United States, and they are less able to defend themselves alone.  Thus, it might be supposed that they would have an interest in devoting larger proportions of their resources to NATO than does the United States, rather than the smaller proportions that they actually contribute. And why do the NATO nations fail to provide the level of forces that they have themselves described as appropriate, i.e., in their common interest? These questions cannot be answered without developing a logical explanation of how much a nation acting in its national interest will contribute to an international organization....

Since the benefits of any action an individual takes to provide a public or organizational good also go to others, individuals acting independently do not have an incentive to provide optimal amounts of such goods. Indeed, when the group interested in a public good is very large, and the share of the total benefit that goes to any single individual is very small, usually no individual has an incentive voluntarily to purchase any of the good, which is why states exact taxes and labor unions demand compulsory membership. When - as in any organization representing a limited number of nation-states - the membership of an organization is relatively small, the individual members may have an incentive to make significant sacrifices to obtain the collective good, but they will tend to provide only suboptimal amounts of this good. There will also be a tendency for the "larger" members - those that place a higher absolute value on the public good - to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, as the model of alliances developed below will show.

And, to mount up on another of my hobbyhorses (although I partly disagree with the explanation in the article),

Stephen M. Walt, "The Relationship between Theory and Practice in International Relations," Annual Review of Political Science Vol. 8 (June 2005): 23-48.

Abstract: Policy makers pay relatively little attention to the vast theoretical literature in IR, and many scholars seem uninterested in doing policy-relevant work. These tendencies are unfortunate because theory is an essential tool of statecraft. Many policy debates ultimately rest on competing theoretical visions, and relying on a false or flawed theory can lead to major foreign policy disasters. Theory remains essential for diagnosing events, explaining their causes, prescribing responses, and evaluating the impact of different policies. Unfortunately, the norms and incentives that currently dominate academia discourage many scholars from doing useful theoretical work in IR. The gap between theory and policy can be narrowed only if the academic community begins to place greater value on policy-relevant theoretical work.

What articles would you nominate in your field of interest?