Sunday, May 9, 2004

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The political science of blogs

David Adesnik has a marathon-length post on moderating a Harvard panel with a Boston Globe journalist and discussing what he's learned via blogging. He concludes:

The question I was left asking myself after the debate was what questions I might have asked if I had been in the audience but hadn't been a blogger. Probably exactly the same ones that the actual audience asked. They were intelligent. They solicited important information from the guest. But from the perspective of a blogger-slash-backseat journalist, they seemed so elementary. And that made me realize just how much I had learned by spending a couple of hours a day on this website for the last eighteen months

It also made me realize how specialized and pedantic bloggers' media criticism is. Even the most intelligent "normal" people out there have only the vaguest sense of how bloggers read the newspaper. Much like scholars, bloggers tend to think of their analytical methods as being a secret treasure, while critics think of them as the product of some kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Yet in contrast to scholars, bloggers are rapidly winning bigger and bigger audiences.

Bloggers are also getting the attention of those they criticize. In contrast, politicians ignore what political scientists write (while obsessing about the media)....

The final thought I had about today's discussion was that if I can look back on myself from two years and say "Oh my God, I can't believe how ignorant I was!", who might look at me now and say "Oh my God, I can't believe how ignorant he is!"

Oh my God, I can't believe how ignorant Davi--- just kidding.

More seriously, David has hit on one of the reasons I've given for blogging -- it can command immediate attention in a way that an article in either International Organization or the American Journal of Political Science cannot. Score one for blogging.

And yet -- there are two important caveats to David's thesis that blogging is more influential than political science. The first is that it may be that either activity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for influencing the body politic. Using myself as an example -- I got my gig at TNR Online because they liked the style and content of the blog. But, they also liked the fact that I was a professor of political science. My academic credentials probably opened a few doors that have been more difficult to open for a Kevin Drum or a Steven Den Beste.

The second caveat is that, while many political scientists yearn for "policy relevance," it comes in different forms. One way is to become a public intellectual/media whore and directly address one's fellow citizens. There are other, more permanent ways, however. John Maynard Keynes once observed that, "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." A good political scientist can have that kind of long-run influence as well. I doubt that politicians ever listened to what E.E. Schattschneider, David Mayhew, Hans Morgenthau, or Graham Allison said on a day-to-day basis -- but the political world they live in was partily constructed by their ideas.

posted by Dan on 05.09.04 at 01:53 AM


Good points. Blogging has interested me in this "backdrop of ideas," which, as a non-academic, I've had little knowledge of. (I just finished On Liberty and Utilitarianism and I have a copy of Leviathan on order, and I'm picking my way through Justice as Fairness). Brad DeLong recently put up a list of books for a "reading course" in response to a reader of his blog asking what books he thought would form a really good basic grounding.

Would you consider doing the same?

posted by: Lisa Williams on 05.09.04 at 01:53 AM [permalink]

I think what has happened to blogging is a sort of emergent phenomenon, an effect of the 'hive mind' as Denbeste has described: to be read, bloggers have to compete. And this competition was an unexpected surprise.

It's a wonderful result, as honesty, accuracy, and creativity are exploding all over this subset of the Net, like flowers up from the the dirty lava of St. Helens.

Such a happy turn! I hardly bother with banal media sources anymore.

posted by: William Palmer on 05.09.04 at 01:53 AM [permalink]

So political scientists have to die before they can have any influence? Hmmm....

I guess I'll stick with blogging.

posted by: Kevin Drum on 05.09.04 at 01:53 AM [permalink]

1) Actually , I would argue that Keynes was wrong. Practical men are not "slaves of some defunct economist" --they are, if they are successful, slaves of some very live rich man with an agenda. The same is true of Economists and what are laughingly called "public intellectuals".

2) That is why most American public discourse is an exercise in deceit. The most basic discussion of public policy should address fundamentals:
a) Who are the power groups involved, what are their agendas, and what options for action do they have?
b) What are the positive and negative consequences for the American people?
c) What should the government do to support/restrain such factions in order to promote the general welfare?

3) Yet most American discourse only presents one side of the story. Daniel Drezner talks below about his pillow fight with Jagdish Bhagwati --
but I have yet to see Drezner discuss some of the major costs of globalization:
a)That globalization will collapse if not supported by a US military budget of $460 billion/year (including Homeland Security) --yet two thousand years of history shows that that
approach is unsustainable. Because of Bush/Neocon overreach, our projected 2008 federal debt is now $3.8 Trillion more than what was projected just three years ago. The technology transfers of globalization itself undermines the very hegemony and relative military advantage needed to support it.
b) Diversion of US capital to low wage countries also impedes US technological innovation -- we have no energy innovation because of the market distortion caused by the $50 billion/year subsidy that the US oil industry receives from the US government to protect its investments in the Middle East and Caspian Sea areas.
c) I also don't see Drezner and globalization's advocates discussing the costs associated with the hatred aroused by US imperialism abroad --the $1 Trillion in indirect costs of Sept 11 being one example.
d) I also don't see Drezner et al pointing out the profits/benefits of globalization flow to the favored few --while the costs --in blood and money --are dumped on the common citizen.
e) A lobbyist friend of mine, who listens to my complaints with amusement, recently explained that I would understand Congress much better if I thought of each Congressman as the proprietor of a small business --constrained by competition and whose product is political effects.
f) Viewed in that regard, much public discussion makes sense. The "public welfare" is a poor customer/patron -- he does not give out generous grants or lucrative consulting contracts. Nor does he give generous gifts to Political Science Departments at our universities.

posted by: Don Williams on 05.09.04 at 01:53 AM [permalink]

Dan knows very well a major advantage academic political scientists have over bloggers: a captive audience.

I myself had major requirements to thank for many hours of exposure to very left-wing government and history professors in college whose ideology, in retrospect, was more often than not a product of their personal alienation from and incapacity for the world outside academia. And they had a profound influence on me; left-wing arguments about things like globalization and American power in the world send my inner eyeballs rolling skyward to this day as I remember having to listen to this enervating tripe for months at a time in my formative intellectual years.

However, I think it likely that my experience was untypical: that many people were influenced very differently by the professors they had to listen to in college and postgraduate school, notwithstanding the fact that they had little choice but to at least look like they were actually listening. Too, not everyone can have had professors afflicted with the deadly ideological uniformity mine were. The point is that bloggers have no resources of compulsion at their disposal. No one has to read them at all. They have a much smaller window of opportunity to exert what influence they can.

Of course I say that not knowing whether Dan or Glenn Reynolds include their respective blogs in the reading lists they assign to their students.

posted by: Zathras on 05.09.04 at 01:53 AM [permalink]

My MS is in Computer Science --my BS in Systems Engineering -- and hence I tend to view the political system in terms of systems theory.

I therefore was surprised that Daniel Drezner did not include an illustrious member of his own Department -- David Easton -- in his list of political scientists. Mr Easton is among the foremost exponents of the application of systems theory to politics -- e.g., see his book "The Political System" (1953).

posted by: Don Williams on 05.09.04 at 01:53 AM [permalink]

Speaking just for myself, I think it would be illegitimate to require my (once and future) students to read my blog.

Now, if I set up a "course blog" that stuck to the materials of the course--i.e. a forum for class announcements, discussion of readings, etc.--I could envision that as a requirement, though I'd probably only use it in a large class as a supplement to the lecture (and a substitute for discussion sections and the like). But I can't see how students' lives would be particularly enriched by reading about my thing for Jennifer Garner or interneccine warfare in the blogosphere.

On the larger pedagogical point, I go back to the idea of knowledge as justified true belief. You can't have meaningful faith unless that faith is challenged, and I don't think you can have meaningful knowledge unless "what you know" has been challeged. And I think where faculty fail sometimes in this mission is in failing to challenge those who are inclined to agree philosophically with them.

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 05.09.04 at 01:53 AM [permalink]

Don: One possible explanation for Dan's omission is that structural-functional explanations of (domestic) politics have generally given way to behavioral and neoinstitutional explanations. You'll note that none of Easton's books are still in print, while books essentially contemporary to Easton's like "Voting", "An Economic Theory of Democracy", "The Calculus of Consent", "The Semi-Sovereign People", "The American Voter", and the like remain so.

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 05.09.04 at 01:53 AM [permalink]

re: What is more influential - academic literature or blogs? Well, most of the stuff in APSR and other journals is a total snore. More devoted to fine tuning existing theories, rather than boldly creating new ideas. Article writing has become formulaic. Most people, even other academics, don't read the stuff. And, yeah, politicians scoff at it.

On the other hand, I do think that academics can be very influential. When Hillary pulled together a committee to create her ill-fated health program, she tapped public policy scholars. Urban studies experts, like John Mollenkopf are regularly on the morning news in NYC and advise the mayor. The Ford Foundation relies on the input of education professors here in the city to determine how they spread their money. And many academics have segued into politics, like Moynihan. Academic credentials buys a lot of influence, even if the articles don't.

I do agree with you that academic political blogging holds great promise. There's a feedback mechanism. Credentials buys readers. Regular blogging leads to more accessible writing and a better ear for what is popular. Blogging makes one a better academic. Blogging plus credentials leads to other gigs.

(wow, that was some rambling nonsense. think I'll post it anyway.

posted by: Laura on 05.09.04 at 01:53 AM [permalink]

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