Jonathan Cohn

Ten Things Political Scientists Know That You Don't

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That's the title of an excellent essay by Hans Noel in the current issue of The Forum (pdf, free guest registration).  Actually, regular readers of my Plain Blog and of The Monkey CageSeth Masket, and Brendan Nyhan will know quite a few of these things (such as how few voters are really independents, but odds are you'll find at least a few that you didn't know -- and even better, Hans gives a bit more complete explanations for some things that we bloggers often give shorthand versions of.

For example I've referred before to the idea that tabulating individual voter preferences into something that we want to call majority preference is problematic, but I haven't really gone through and explained why.  Hans gives a much more detailed (and easy to follow) explanation.  And it's important; indeed, part of the case I'm always making against majoritarian versions of democracy rests on the finding that in most cases voting doesn't actually do what we want it to do.

So what are the ten items? (my wording except where indicated): 

  • Fundamentals matter in elections

  • Public Opinion is actually complex and hard to figure out

  • Elections don't necessarily do what we want them to do

  • Mandates are fiction "created after the fact by people who want you to think one thing or another"

  • First past the post tends to yield a two-party system

  • Political parties are essential for democracy to work

  • "Most independents are closet partisans"

  • Interest groups are on balance good things

  • All groups and parties have some sort of leaders; there are no spontaneous mass movements

That's nine.  The tenth, and perhaps the best part of the essay, is a list of things that people believe are true, but political scientists haven't been able to either prove or disprove, at least so far.It's a nice job, and I highly recommend it.

But wait: there's more!  The current issue of The Forum is chock-full of articles about the intersection of political science and practical politics.  I'll have to wait to recommend things until I read them, but (among others) I see pieces by Seth Masket, by John Sides and Henry Farrell, by Jacob Hacker, by Burdett Loomis, and by the journalist Rhodes Cook that all look promising to me.

(I don't usually put in a disclaimer, but every once in a while I should mention that political science, especially the broad subfield of American politics, isn't all that large a discipline, and various authors I'll recommend are friends or acquaintances or former softball teammates from grad school). 

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