Tuesday, September 30, 2003

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The limits of political science

Y'know, I've got a Ph.D. in political science, and I've vigorously defended the use of statistical methodologies to understand political phenomena. I truly believe that its possible to create general models of human behavior to explain political events. But one must frankly acknowledge their limitations, so let me admit the one thing political science cannot and never will be able to explain -- the mind of Arianna Huffington:

With her campaign support mired in the low single digits, independent candidate Arianna Huffington announced Tuesday evening that she is pulling out of the California gubernatorial recall race and will work to defeat it.

"I'm pulling out and I'm going to concentrate every ounce of time and energy for the next week fighting to defeat the recall because I realize that that's the only way now to defeat [Republican gubernatorial candidate] Arnold Schwarzenegger," the 53-year-old writer and media commentator said on CNN's "Larry King Live."

"I was against the recall in principle. I've always believed this is not the way to run a democracy. But I also saw the opportunity provided to elect with a simple plurality an independent progressive governor."

Gray Davis, on the other hand, perfectly fits the axiom that the first thing politicians care about is getting elected:

Asked about her possible departure during a campaign appearance Tuesday, Davis said Huffington had brought "wisdom and clarity" to the recall race.

"I believe she's made a contribution to the dialogue that has begun over these last 70 to 75 days," he said. "If she does drop out and oppose the recall, clearly I would welcome her comments between now and the end of the campaign."

Must... resist.... urge... to.... snark!!! [Just link to Mickey Kaus--ed. Good idea!!]

posted by Dan on 09.30.03 at 10:17 PM


Please contact me when you have completed your general model of human political behavior. Sorry, that was a cheapshot.

Though your comment about Huffington is reminiscient of Ernest Deutch's comment about Charles De Gaulle, i.e. that the General's behavior alone was enough to throw off all of Deutch's theories about European integration.

By the same token, Waltz's admission that Bismarck was a "virtuoso" who bent neo-realist logic to his will demonstrates how talented individuals have terrible habit of undermining political scientists' predictive models of their behavior.

Now how about George W.? Surely political scientists can come up with a theory to explain the behavior of someone so much less intelligent than themselves...

posted by: David on 09.30.03 at 10:17 PM [permalink]

I've read you article and comments and can't hand saying that you people have a great sence of what u are doing and talking about. And big respect to you for you know what u're doing!

posted by: Barbara on 09.30.03 at 10:17 PM [permalink]

Let us never forget that Ronald Reagan was equally a "B" Hollywood actor (remember "Bonzo")? Yet he turned out to be a competent Governor and an even more than competent President.

posted by: MenahemD2 on 09.30.03 at 10:17 PM [permalink]

I will give David the benefit of the doubt and assume that his comment about George W. was meant to be a sarcastic swipe at political scientists. If so, please ignore the rest of this post (I will leave their defence to others).

If not, his statement is a cheap shot and demonstrates a great deal about the problem with "intellectuals." Some observations about them: (1) they look down on people they perceive to be less intelligent than they are (which is almost everybody); (2) they equate "book smarts" with ability to be good at everything else, ignoring the voluminous historical record which shows that a politician's level of "book smarts" does not correspond in any predictable way to his/her effectiveness as a leader; (3) they appear to resent the fact that people they perceive to be less intelligent than they are (see comment 1) are more successful; (4) they attribute far greater importance to themselves and what they say than the rest of the world does (which they can't stand, see also comments 1 & 3); (5) they tend to lack grounding in reality (see comments 1, 3 & 4), so when criticized for being out of touch they often retreat further into comment 1 and move even further from reality; and (6) they lose the ability to see that many of their ideas are just plain crazy -- when you spend so long looking at trees in every minute detail, you often forget what a forest looks like and either deny the existence of or have a complete lack of understanding of the trees you have not studied.

posted by: Ben on 09.30.03 at 10:17 PM [permalink]

I don't know that politicians' behavior in general is that hard to predict; "single-minded seekers of re-election" seems to cover it nicely. And that's "Old School" political science by David Mayhew...

As for Huffington, she's a single-minded seeker of operating video cameras.

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 09.30.03 at 10:17 PM [permalink]

Here's a rule-of-thumb for you:

If you have to stick "science" on the end, it's probably not.

posted by: mojo on 09.30.03 at 10:17 PM [permalink]

Arianna mixes a personality that somehow must be superficially charming in person (but definitely not on TV) with a crude and nakedly obvious lust for power and a firm belief that she is smarter than everyone else, and therefore can get by with her machinations without the general public catching on.

Pushing hubby Michael to run first for Congress and then for Senate was her not-so-subtile attempt to eventually become the Republican Party's Hillary Clinton. Once that failed and she dumped Michael for his lack of vote-getting ability, Arianna tried to latch on to Newt Gingrich and ride support of him to political ascendancy. Once that failed, it was off to the role of a pseduo-Ross Perot in the 2000 campaign, denouncing both party's entrenched power structures combined with an attempt to latch on to John McCain and his "plain talking" image in the media. Once that failed, and it was clear the Republicans in power weren't going to give her the time of day, she decided there was an opening now to the left where she could build her own political base.

That's where we are now, but Arianna's blindly misplaced self-confidence in her own common sense (combined with the fawning support some really clueless Hollywood types have given her which inflated her ego to Macy's Thanksgiving Parade balloon-sized proportions), led Huffington not only to enter the recall race, but to challenge Schwarzenegger in such a mean-spirited way at the debate as to make his own replies go over with roars of laughter and support, not just from the bulk of the studio audience but from most viewers at home, judging by the post debate poll numbers.

Arianna's ego makes her think endorsing Davis will actually hurt Arnold's numbers, when her own actions the previous week mean if the endorsement has any effect at all, it will probably be in a negative direction for Gray's recall chances.

posted by: John on 09.30.03 at 10:17 PM [permalink]

A recent poll of Arianna Huffington's brain cells indicated that 42% of them favor the recall, 28% oppose it, 17% don't know, and 13% were waiting for results from her crystal ball.

posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger on 09.30.03 at 10:17 PM [permalink]

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