Monthly Archives: February 2014

Kristof, Gerrymandering and Polarization: The Limits of Public Intellectuals

Not surprisingly, a number of scholars pushed back against the Nick Kristof column that I blogged about in my previous post, echoing many of the points that I made (see here and here and here and here and this Instagram and, of course, this wonderful parody). The general consensus (but see here!) is that Kristof doesn’t fully appreciate the growing frequency with which political scientists are using social media, in addition to more traditional news outlets, to make their research much more accessible to journalists, pundits and, for that matter, the general public.  This Presidential Power blog is case in point! At the same time, he is perhaps less sensitive to how the professional incentives that motivate political scientists’ choice of research topics and methods differ from those that influence how Kristof’s “public intellectuals” go about their jobs. Most notably, political scientists are engaged in a collective enterprise in which their research must pass muster with their peers through, ideally, a process of blind review.  That means the research must be thorough, theoretically explicit and empirically grounded.  This process of research and review often takes considerable time – months or years in the case of a book. Moreover, it is not enough to assert that our research helps explain some pattern of behavior or political outcome.  It should also be clear about how confident we are that we understand that relationship or outcome.   In short, political scientists live in a probabilistic world, in which what we think we know is usually conditional and is often revised in light of additional research.

This means by nature we tend to recoil from the hyperconfident and often more entertaining assertions that are the pundits and bloggers’ stock in trade.  Moreover, we are usually better at rejecting pundits’ sweeping assertions than we are in replacing them with our own equally sweeping (and empirically validated we hope!) generalizations.  To illustrate, consider what political scientists think they know about the relationship between gerrymandering and partisan polarization in Congress, compared to what I think many (most?) journalists believe.  In my last post, while listing several assumptions embedded in conventional media reporting that I believe do not have strong empirical support, I noted that political scientists have not found persuasive evidence that gerrymandering causes polarization. In response, Blake Hounshell (who is Politico Magazine’s deputy editor)* tweeted: “I’m by no means anti-intellectual but am unpersuaded by many of these alleged ‘debunkings’….I mean gerrymandering doesn’t lead to polarization?  Defies all logic.”

And, in Blake’s defense, it does make intuitive sense that gerrymandering by state legislatures in the process of redrawing congressional district lines should contribute to partisan polarization.  If a state legislature controlled by a party is successful in redrawing district lines to reward fellow partisans running for Congress, then there will be less competitive elections, which lead to a more partisan outcome which translates into a more polarized Congress. For political scientists, however, having an intuitively plausible theory is only the first step in the research process. As it turns out when they look at the empirical evidence, political scientists generally find that gerrymandering of this type contributes very little to the polarization we see in Congress today.  Rather than summarize a body of research, a couple of brief counterfactuals will help illustrate the broader findings.  First, in states that encompass a single House district, like my home state of Vermont, gerrymandering is obviously not a factor, and yet we find that the voting records of representatives in these states are becoming more ideologically extreme as well.  To illustrate, compare the House voting records of Jim Jeffords, who represented Vermont in the House from 1975-89 with that of Bernie Sanders, who took office in 1992! Second, as this graph shows, it is clear that voting in the Senate has become as polarized as the House across the same time period, even though redistricting doesn’t affect Senate representation.

These two examples suggest that gerrymandering may not be the primary cause of partisan polarization. When empirical findings don’t comport with theory, it is makes sense to revisit the assumptions underlying that theory. In this vein, upon further reflection it becomes clear that there are geographic and political limits to the ability and willingness of partisan legislators to draw district lines in ways that contribute to their partisan advantage in the House.  First, court rulings mandating that congressional districts must adhere to some admittedly ambiguous standards of contiguity and compactness, in addition to having the same population size, eliminate some of the more extreme shapes these districts might take in the name of partisan advantage. Second, residential patterns show that Democrats are more likely to be bunched up in urban areas, in contrast to the more widely dispersed Republican voters, which again limits how far one can go to advantage one party by drawing partisan districts of equal population size.  Third, efforts to maximize a party’s number of likely seats through gerrymandering may also create opposition-party controlled districts that are less competitive and thus that strengthen the incumbency advantage of the opposition legislators.  This also means that the majority party can be more susceptible to getting swamped in electoral waves – something party leaders must keep in mind when pushing redistricting plans.  For all these reasons (and others), we need to be careful in assuming that gerrymandering is the primary cause, or even an important cause, of political polarization in Congress today.

Note that, if accurate, this line of research suggests that some common reform proposals floated by pundits and bloggers, such as placing “neutral” commissions, judges or even computers in charge of redistricting, are not likely to make a huge dent in the degree of polarization afflicting Congress today.  Of course, to say that pundits overstate the impact of gerrymandering on polarization is not to say the two have no relation.  Sean Theriault estimates, if I recall correctly, that redistricting may contribute about 10% to the level of polarization in the House since 1973, primarily through the creation of new congressional districts. However, the prevailing view among political scientists is that when it comes to explaining partisan polarization in Congress, other factors are likely much more important.

I should add that I am by no means the first to suggest that gerrymandering is not a significant cause of partisan polarization – by my count it has been the subject of at least a half a dozen blogs posts just in the last year by my professional colleagues, and yet despite these efforts it remains a staple of mainstream punditry.  This is another reason why I am skeptical of the benefits that will accrue by heeding Kristof’s call for political scientists to become more active in mainstream punditry. In cases when political scientists have engaged in public discussions, such as trying to debunk efforts to link gerrymandering and polarization, it is not clear we have had much impact. And that may say more about the incentives motivating what journalists report than it does about any failure of political scientists to engage them.

*My apologies – an earlier version of this post misspelled Blake Hounshell’s last name, and didn’t fully identify where he works.

Why Nicholas Kristof Is Wrong About Political Science

It took Nick Kristof’s latest New York Times screed….er… op-ed piece to get me to break my self-imposed blogging hiatus.  In yesterday’s column, Kristof rehashed some by now all-too-familiar critiques of the political science profession.  (Full disclosure: I am a card-carrying member of that profession!)  Kristof’s main point is to lament the declining influence of the “public intellectual” within the political realm – a decline he attributes in part to political scientists’ increasing reliance on quantitative methods as a tool for conducting research.  If prediction is the sine qua non of a real science, then political science, despite (or because of!) the use of quantitative methods, is a miserable failure according to Kristof. Witness the discipline’s conspicuous failure to anticipate the recent “Arab spring”.  More generally, Kristof argues that the discipline’s increasing reliance on statistics makes its research much less accessible to the layperson, which again contributes to the declining role of the public intellectual. Kristof also decries the decline in the number of articles in the discipline’s flagship journal the American Political Science Review that contain policy prescriptions.

I’ve dealt with some of these critiques before, focusing in particular on the role of forecasting as a means of assessing the credibility of the discipline, so I won’t rehash my comments here. (My basic point in the previous post is that political scientists are, in fact, pretty good forecasters, and getting better.) But it seems to me that Kristof is completely wrong about the decline of the “public intellectual” – if anything, the increasing use of social media, including numerous blogs and twitter feeds, has raised political scientists’ public profile to its highest level ever, a point that Erik Voeten also makes over at the Monkey Cage website.  (That website, not incidentally, is a prime example of political scientists’ disseminating their research in easily accessible terms to a very wide readership.)  Indeed, I could point to a dozen such sites that I routinely access to find out what my colleagues’ research says about current events. It was the reason I started this blog more than five years ago – to expose readers to what scholars have learned about the exercise of presidential power in all its manifestations.

As for the decline in policy prescription – I would argue that this is a sign of the discipline’s maturity.  As we’ve developed a better understanding of the complexity of the political world we are less prone to jumping in with policy prescriptions that may be premised on faulty assumptions, incomplete testing or little-to-no data.  This caution is, in my view, to be preferred to the type of almost daily and often questionable policy prescriptions one finds in op ed columns by individuals like columnist Paul Krugman, who Kristof cites as an exemplar of a public intellectual.  How often have we heard columnists proclaim, for instance, that gerrymandering leads to polarized politics?  Or that campaign contributions can buy votes? Or that Americans are increasingly polarized along cultural issues?  Or that Romney’s gaffes cost him the 2012 presidential election?  These are all claims commonly made by Kristof’s “public intellectuals” but which political scientists have spent considerable time debunking.

In my view, the biggest mistake Kristof makes in his column is to characterize academics  as falling within one of two categories – those public intellectuals ( or “rebels”!)  who can speak to the masses about large, important issues, and the stats geeks who publish articles in obscure journals, written in indecipherable language and based on overly complex methods that few people can understand.  Contrary to Kristof’s claim that “academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose”, the tenure process with which I am familiar  rewards those academics who demonstrate clear thinking and accessible research methods. Similarly, the very best doctoral programs within political science expose Ph.D. candidates to a range of methods, both quantitative and qualitative,  so that these students understand not only what these methods can and cannot do, but also how to interpret and present their results in ways that are accessible to others.  And it is not just academics who benefit from this training. Here at Middlebury College at the undergraduate level, we are exposing an increasing number of our political science majors to methods training, including but not limited to basic statistics, so that when they go into the real world, they are prepared to think critically about the findings, claims and counterclaims pushed forward not just by political scientists in blogs and journal articles, but also the opinions proclaimed by columnists like Krugman and Kristof.

And now, I have to go edit my piece on the 2012 presidential election, which argues – drawing in part on basic statistics – that Obama won reelection because of the economy, and not despite it.  Take that, Nick Kristof!