Monday, 22 June 2009

Psephological = pretentious political phraseology

Amber Taylor’s word of the day is one I’ve never used and hardly ever encountered. You’d think that was odd, since “psephology” is another name for my field of research, but I doubt most political behavior scholars could define (or even pronounce) the term. From a position of ignorance, I’d probably think it referred to reading bumps on people’s heads or something. (A Google News search suggests the term is reasonably common in India of all places, and gets some play in Britain and Ireland, but is rare elsewhere.)

In short: don’t expect me to order new business cards describing me as a psephologist any time soon.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

A political institutions reading list, revised and resubmitted

Here’s the current iteration of the book list. I’m also thinking of having the students write a book review each of an additional book not on this list.

  • Shepsle and Boncheck, Analyzing Politics.
  • Buchanan and Tullock, The Calculus of Consent.
  • Farrell, Electoral Systems: A Comparative Introduction.
  • Cox and McCubbins, Setting the Agenda Legislative Leviathan (replacing Krehbiel, one of whose books will probably become a book review).
  • Aldrich, Why Parties?: The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America.
  • Baum, The Puzzle of Judicial Behavior, per comments from commenter “prison rodeo” who correctly lamented the lack of anything on the judiciary.
  • Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make, because I need something on the presidency and this one looks promising.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Toward an American political institutions reading list

Here’s what I’ve got for my fall graduate seminar thus far:

  • Shepsle and Boncheck, Analyzing Politics.
  • Buchanan and Tullock, The Calculus of Consent.
  • Farrell, Electoral Systems: A Comparative Introduction.
  • Krehbiel, Information and Legislative Organization.
  • Aldrich, Why Parties?: The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America.

Obviously that doesn’t include articles yet, but I don’t need to figure those out until August or so. Obviously I'm trying to bring in a lot of rational choice here, since our undergraduates really don't get any of that as far as I know; I figure I can get away without Arrow and Downs since Shelpsle and Boncheck cover that territory, but I want something on election systems and I’ve used Farrell before and am happy with his treatment. So, any suggestions?

Thursday, 2 April 2009


The bits of paper I’m hanging on the wall tomorrow (well, later today) at Midwest wherein I discuss “Geographic Data Visualization Using Open-Source Data and R” are now online here for the curious or insomnia-stricken.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Fault in ourselves and not the stars?

Prompted by the Wisconsin Lutheran story, PTJ at The Duck of Minerva objects to the current state of scholarship in political science:

Once people are hired, they also have to figure out what to assign to their students; for that purpose, they need books and articles. Naturally, people want to assign the current, contemporary research in their field if they can, but not only does that not say much about civic engagement or the future of the political landscape, but it doesn’t even say what it does say in a way that is particularly accessible to undergraduate students. “The Role of Parties’ Past Behavior in Coalition Formation,” to pick just one of the articles from the most recent issue of the American Political Science Review, doesn’t exactly sound like a page-turner. And yes, I know full well that other disciplines also have a dichotomy between their contemporary research and the kinds of things that one assigns to undergraduates, but the gulf is particularly pronounced in contemporary Political Science. (At least Anthropology and Sociology have classics that can be profitably read by undergraduates; once one gets outside of the social sciences, the humanities have works of art and literature, and the natural sciences have textbooks and laboratories.) I remember serving as a TA for an American politics class while in grad school; the professor told a lot of stories about how actual politics worked, but the reading material talked about such scintillating topics as fire-alarms versus trip-wires in governmental oversight regimes. So the students, not surprisingly, ignored the reading and listened to the stories.

I think the students were on the right track. If one wants to actually do much serious thinking about civic life and one’s individual responsibility within it, one would be well-advised to stay as far away from the last several decades of Political Science scholarship as possible. Undergraduate education in politics shouldn’t be about learning how to solve extensive-form games; it should be about learning how government works. But contemporary Political Science isn’t much help to that task. This implies that if we want students to come to articulate their own sense of civic engagement, we ought not send them to the Political Science department, but could achieve the same effect by sending them elsewhere. And to make matters worse, people trained in Political Science probably aren’t likely to know how to facilitate this for undergraduates, which further undermines the need for a Political Science department in a liberal arts college.

Now, I’m not saying that every liberal arts college ought to go around eliminating its Political Science department. (In fact, Political Science departments at most liberal arts colleges I know are actually quite far removed from the mainstream of the discipline; I don’t think this is an accident.) But I am saying that the decision makes a certain amount of sense, since the discipline of Political Science is so far away from the goals of a liberal arts undergraduate education. And that’s too bad—bad for Political Science, not bad for the liberal arts.

Laura at 11D voices her concurrence to this line of thinking. And while it is tempting to agree, I think this is a symptom of a larger problem with political science as a discipline. Nobody, for example, would suggest that a physicist studying muon decay in a particle collider should somehow make his or her research directly relevant to people building nuclear reactors, yet somehow we (or some of we) expect cutting edge political science research to be directly relevant to the average citizen, and if it isn’t then it’s the fault of the research agenda.

I think this results from fundamental confusion about the endeavor of political science: political science is not civics, just as psychology is not Dr. Phil. Yet in “Intro to Psychology” they don’t teach Dr. Phil—they explain the basic findings of psychological research. So why do we teach civics in our introductory courses rather than teaching political science? (And the answer isn’t just “the Texas legislature says we have to,” because in point of fact we could make up 6 hours of anything related to U.S. and Texas government to fulfill the Texas gen ed requirement, yet we all end up doing the same old civics-based crap for the most part.)

To the specific points made by PTJ: yes, there are accessible, “classic” works in political science that can be fruitfully used with undergraduates. I’ve used works such as Key’s Southern Politics, portions of The American Voter, and excerpts from other scholarship from the 1940s-1960s successfully in a number of undergraduate courses. Yes, undergraduates do like “stories” instead of theory… but they prefer that in virtually any discipline. Math students would much rather listen to stories about Newton fleeing Cambridge during a plague rather than learning the calculus he co-derived,* yet I don’t think any serious person would think that the students are right in that circumstance.

Moreover, animating the theory of fire alarms versus police patrols in congressional oversight is part of the responsibility of a professor, and could be easily be tied to real contemporary political concerns (think of the treatment of detainees in the War on Terror, where Congress reacted to dramatic media coverage much more readily than to, say, John Yoo’s memoranda on the topic), just as explicating the whole business going on with the cave is the job of a professor who’s trying to explain Plato. And I dare say the APSR‘s normative theory articles are no more penetrable to the average undergrad than the game-theoretic stuff, so this isn’t an issue of the “teched up” research agenda oft-lamented in the discipline. And, no, I don’t think undergraduates need to “solve extensive-form games” but I think it’s reasonable to expose them (at least at a very simple level) to theories like the median voter model or spatial models of realignment that do explain how “actual politics” works. And, no thanks to the rewards structure of our discipline, there are quite a few good books out there for students that do these things for students at the junior and senior levels.

On the broader question of whether political scientists should be inculcating a sense of civic engagement in students rather than publishing research, I am probably one of those odd ducks who doesn’t think it’s our job to push students to engage in political activity without some evidence that the student is actually interested in doing so. (I think it’s a perfectly legitimate position for a citizen in a liberal democratic republic to not want to have anything to do with politics.) But I realize I’m an outlier in this regard, and there is certainly no lack of research and writing by prominent scholars on youth participation and civic engagement (both Russ Dalton and Martin Wattenberg have books on the topic, and they’re both in the same R-1 department, to say nothing of the whole Putnam coterie) and other “practical politics” concerns, even if it’s not appearing in the contemporary APSR.

* Although modern calculus is more derived from Liebnitz’s approach that Newton’s; Newton’s notation is better reflected in differential equations.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Death of a discipline

Inside Higher Ed reports (as does the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) that Wisconsin Lutheran College has decided to eliminate its political science department and, with it, two apparently-tenured faculty members to better focus on its “liberal arts mission.” I find myself in agreement with the thoughts of Michael Brintnall, executive director of the APSA:

“It would be thought to be a central component of a liberal arts education,” [Brintnall] said. “The subject matter is too central to civic life and understanding where we are going in the world to not offer the content.”

There is an argument to be made that the political dimensions of life can be explored in other social science and humanities disciplines—principally, through history, economics, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and psychology—but somehow I doubt Wisconsin Lutheran will be devoting the attention those dimensions deserve in a well-rounded education.

Then again, Wisconsin Lutheran may have made the right decision in its current circumstances: according to the Journal Sentinel article, the abolition of political science only affects 5 majors directly. Considering that we had political science majors beating down the doors at Millsaps, which isn’t much bigger than Wisconsin Lutheran, I’m not sure what is going on with that.

þ: John Sides and Steven Taylor.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Be still my heart

From the description of the memisc package for R:

One of the aims of this package is to make life easier for useRs who deal with survey data sets. It provides an infrastructure for the management of survey data including value labels, definable missing values, recoding of variables, production of code books, and import of (subsets of) SPSS and Stata files. Further, it provides functionality to produce tables and data frames of arbitrary descriptive statistics and (almost) publication-ready tables of regression model estimates. Also some convenience tools for graphics, programming, and simulation are provided. [emphasis added]

How did I miss this package before? It makes analyzing NES data—heck, any data with value labels and missing values—in R an almost sane thing to do.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Repurposed content

Herein I present a rant on one-tailed tests in the social sciences; feedback welcome:

Unless you have a directional hypothesis for every coefficient before your model ever makes contact with the data, you have no business doing a one-tailed statistical test. Besides if your hypotheses are solid and you have a decent n, the tailedness shouldn’t determine significance/lack thereof.

Thought experiment: assume you present a test in a paper that comes out p=.06, one-tailed. That means you have a hypothesis that doesn’t really work to begin with (sorry, “approaches conventional levels of statistical significance”). More importantly, if you just made up the tailedness hypothesis post facto to put a little dagger (or heaven forbid a star) next to the coefficient, you really did a two-tailed test with p=.12 and then post-hoc justified it to make the finding sound better than it really was.

Now here’s the center of the rant: I really don’t believe you actually knew the directionality of your hypothesis before you ran the test and were willing to stick with it through thick and thin, since I know that you’d be figuratively jumping up and down with excitement and report a significant result if the “sign was not as expected” and it came out p=.003 two-tailed (p=.0015 one-tailed, opposite directionality), rather than lamenting how it turned out with p=.9985 on your original one-tailed test. I dare say nobody has ever published an article claiming the latter (although I might give it a positive review just for kicks).

And I really don’t feel the need to have these discussions with sophomores and juniors, hence why I prefer books that just talk about two-tailed tests (aka “not Pollock” [a textbook I really like otherwise]) so I don’t feel the need to rant.

See also: this FAQ from UCLA, which is a little more lenient—but not much.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Footnote of the year

“I have witnessed members walk up to other members on the floor and simply start yelling at them for having cast a certain vote or committing some other perceived misstep.”—Rep. Daniel Lapinski, “Navigating Congressional Policy Processes.” In Lawrence Dodd and Bruce Oppenheimer, eds. Congress Reconsidered, 9th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2009.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Get your learn on

My APSA Teaching & Learning Conference paper co-written with my colleagues Lynne and Marcus is now done; I’m looking forward to my quick trip to Baltimore to present it and catch up with the methods-teaching crowd this weekend.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009


Syllabi for Texas Government and Congress and the Presidency are now done. Yay?

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

On the motion to recommit

Over at OTB, I look at proposed changes in parliamentary procedure in the House which continue the chamber’s bipartisan slide towards majority-party dictatorship—or, perhaps to riff on Matthew Shugart’s observations regarding the House, irresponsible party government.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Make my job easier

Andrew Gelman links a paper by Christian Grose and Carrie Russell I am discussant for at SPSA in three weeks. (Incidentally, it’s the only paper for the panel I’ve received so far—but since I’m not exactly on-schedule with my paper, I can’t really throw many stones about it.)

The paper looks at the effect of being required to vote publicly (for example, in a caucus setting) on voters’ willingness to participate based on a novel experiment conducted during the 2008 Iowa Democratic caucuses. Their research may be some implications for the current debate over card check, although what those implications might be I leave to others, at least until SPSA.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Apparently I'm big in Eastern Europe

Not only do I have a published article in Ukrainian (or possibly Russian), I’m cited in Czech. Would that I had such academic prestige in North America.

Another day, another syllabus

My current draft of my graduate political behavior seminar syllabus. There are a few holes here and there—and I know it’s probably closer to a senior seminar-level syllabus at a more selective institution—but I’m confident I can refine it a bit in the next few weeks while I tackle the easier syllabi.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Corollary of the day

King Politics thinks the GOP anti-bailout faction has the politics of the day wrong:

The time for pragmatism is now, but Senate Republicans don’t recognize that.

Senate Republicans have yet to realize that the GOP lost so many seats in 2006 and 2008 because the American public has a greater desire for pragmatism than ideology.

I think that’s true to a point—but I suspect it has more to do with post-Katrina George W. Bush than any coherent definition of ideology. As much as the Democrats would like to pretend otherwise, ideological is not a term I’d readily apply to the bumbling nature of Bush’s second term. Nor am I really convinced that the average voter is doing much more than engaging in post-hoc rationalized-as-something-else economic voting, which doubtless makes me no fun at parties when I play a public opinion scholar. (“Yes, all this crap matters at the margins, and occasionally elections are won at the margins, but most of the time it doesn’t matter.”) But I digress.

There is a broader lesson, though, in that to the extent the Democrats believe that their recent success is due to their ideology it is at their long-term peril, particularly if they bypass pragmatism in favor of catering to the cobbled-together collection of rent-seekers that passes for the Democratic coalition. To the extent bailing out Detroit is seen as a Democatic handout to its paymasters—particularly with the emerging frame of “the greedy unions are standing in the way” trumping any sort of concept that any deal that tells the UAW to can their contract is essentially an impairment of the obligation of contract (which, believe it or not, is unconstitutional)—the auto bailout won’t go over well in the 48 or so states that don’t host significant Big Three production.

On a related note, Steven Taylor notes the defining-down of the filibuster by the media to mean “failure to win a cloture vote.” While I accept the point graciously, I think this may be more a failure of us as a profession than the media per se; modern congressional procedures (not just filibusters and “holds,” but also esoterica such as the Rules Committee and UCAs), even superficially treated, aren’t a strong point of most American government textbooks, and more often than not that’s the only real government orientation budding journalists will get. I make a point of assigning Barbara Sinclair’s Unorthodox Lawmaking in my Congress classes, but I doubt the average journalist gets that in-depth in their undergrad days. So here at least I think the blame falls somewhat closer to home than we might want to admit.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


Public opinion, voting behavior, parties, and interest groups all shoved together in one unholy syllabus. And the best part is that I couldn’t even figure out how to cram in two books I’ve already ordered, which no doubt will annoy the bookstore to no end.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Finally a thread we can all get behind

The rumor board gets a thread on dealing with non-academics who don’t get the academic job market. Now if we just had a thread for academics who don’t get the nature of the market, we’d be set.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Voters are stupid

That is the only valid conclusion I can draw from these ballots from the Minnesota recount. (þ: Democracy in America) All hail our new overlords, the Lizard People, or at least the folks who vote for them—which may be worse.

Mind you, Frequent Commenter Scott and I used to cast write-in ballots for one of our professors for Lafayette County (Miss.) Sheriff, and I’ve run half-assed campaigns for public office twice, so I’m hardly in a position to complain about people not taking the democratic process seriously.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Putting the southern politics hat on

As James Joyner posts today a recent Strange Maps entry has produced a bit of buzz by showing the overlap between cotton production in 1860 and Democratic voting in 2008. Of course, a map of cotton production in 1860 and Democratic voting in 1908 would also look very similar, but for very different reasons, as Key points out in Southern Politics in State and Nation:

In its grand outlines the politics of the South revolves around the position of the Negro. Whatever phase of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro.

For those not familiar with Key’s argument, he essentially argued that understanding the politics of the south (at least through the late 1940s, the time Southern Politics was written) required an understanding of how the political structures of the cotton belt states were designed to reinforce the supremacy of “black-belt whites,” the plantation owners who would have been outnumbered politically if blacks had a meaningful right to vote. Democratic single-party rule in the south, and the Democrats’ fortunes nationally, rested on this core of rabid support which saw Republican rule in the south or federal interference as nothing less than an existential threat. Obviously things have changed a great deal due to generational replacement and the changes wrought by the Civil Rights Movement, but it remains an interesting correlation as James points out.

Meanwhile, Kevin Drum argues that the South has lost influence in Washington due to the return of unified government under the Democrats, although a look at the chamber median (I haven’t run CJR on the latest House data, but I assume the results are likely to be similar) suggests that the “Blue Dogs,” most of whom are moderate-to-conservative southern Democrats, will have far more influence over what passes and fails in the 111th Congress than Drum might like.

Also of potential interest, Andrew Gelman looks at the relationship between county-level returns and race in various regions of the country.

Incidentally, I usually juxtapose two similar maps (one from Key, one from Gavin Wright’s work on southern economic history) in my Southern politics course—although I’m damned if I know when I’ll ever get the opportunity to teach it again, which is one of the drawbacks of teaching outside the “real” South.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Continuing on the Latin America policy theme

This Greg Weeks post has been on my “need to blog about” list for a while. In response to a broadside from then-not-president-elect Barack Obama aimed at Hugo Chávez, Weeks writes:

[I]f democracy is the key precondition to good relations with the U.S., then how will we deal with China, Saudi Arabia, etc.? The answer, of course, is that democracy isn’t the litmus test for anything.

I’d dissent in part here; I think it’s clearly been a key part of the U.S.’ post-Cold War agenda (and, arguably, a priority on the U.S. agenda going back to at least the Carter administration) to promote democracy and human rights more broadly, particularly in the Western Hemisphere. But there is certainly a Maslowian dimension to that agenda; we obviously have greater, higher-priority strategic interests at stake in the Arabian peninsula and China, and arguably less leverage, to promote our preferred form of governance in those places. More to the point, there is a clear, emerging consensus of the governments of the Western Hemisphere in favor of democratic practice that does not exist in the Arabian peninsula or East Asia.

Would Chávez and Morales be getting more of a free pass from Washington if they were attempting a right-wing equivalent (whatever that might be) of the Bolivarian revolution? Obviously this counterfactual doesn’t exist to any meaningful degree, but I suspect today the tolerance for a new Allende would be low among Republicans and Democrats alike.

Further adventures in international diplomacy

On Wednesday, TAMIU hosted Todd Huizinga, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey. I enjoyed his talk, which touched on a variety of issues of mutual concern for the U.S. and Mexico, as well as (at least in passing) the likely continuity of policy in the face of the current presidential transition, quite a bit.

I also had the opportunity to ask what I think is the $64,000 question when it comes to U.S. relations in the Western Hemisphere—how can the U.S. successfully promote its foreign policy goals in Latin America when, even though most of those goals are aligned with the domestic interests of those countries (improving the rule of law and developing state capacity, reducing economic and social inequality, replacing the failed models of import substitution and central planning with a more free market economy, etc.), those actions may be perceived as “imperialist”? I think it was a pretty tough question but Huizinga handled it very well—which, I suppose, is what he’s paid to do.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Raining on the realignment parade

John Sides posts a necessary and timely corrective to those commentators hyperventilating over some alleged “realignment”:

For a realignment to occur, there has to be a dramatic and permanent shift in the party coalitions. That shift then ushers in an extended period of party control, which in turn brings with it a notable shift in policy. ... [T]here is little evidence that the 2008 election constitutes a realignment. Why?

* First, even if it did, we wouldn’t know for a while. Years, in fact. As Andrew Busch writes here, “No one can tell whether a particular election is a realigning election until the long-term arrives and one can look back.”

* Second, things didn’t change that much. This is why I posted the maps below. Yes, Obama won states that Democrats hadn’t won in a while, and perhaps demographic trends suggest Democrats will have a chance to win those states in the future. But these small shifts in state-level vote margins don’t signal any wholesale change in partisan loyalties or party coalitions.

* Indeed, if you look at the exit polls (see Phil’s earlier post), Obama does better than Kerry among most every demographic. His vote share among the young and Latinos stands out, but the results don’t suggest a reordering of the party’s coalitions. Instead, it looks more like voters of all stripes were displeased with the economy and President Bush and so voted for the opposing party’s nominee.

* The final nail in the coffin is this analysis from Larry Bartels. He compares the 2008 results in each state to the 2004 results. He finds remarkable continuity across these two elections. His further comparison of 2008 to 1932, where you in fact do see big shifts, is further evidence.

Sides also points out that “the concept of realignment isn’t in such good standing anymore,” which is true, although largely because (a) not everybody has been willing to concede that the 1960s saw a realignment in electoral politics due to the reenfranchisement of African-Americans and the connected emergence of the two-party south and (b) the whole concept of “dealignment” had to arise around the same time and substantially muddy the waters.

Based on the data so far, the only possible candidate groups to have motivated “party coalition shift” are young voters and Cuban-Americans; the latter group, while significant in borking up our policy towards Cuba over the post-Soviet era, are insubstantial outside Florida making them weak agents of realignment. There may be a stronger case for youth voting, but my suspicion is that this has more to do with differential partisan activation (GOP-inclined young voters were not motivated by the McCain-Palin ticket, and turned out at lower rates than Democrat-inclined young voters) rather than a definitive pro-Democratic break in the demographic group.

A further corrective: take the graph in Josep Colomer’s post about the election and replace “Obama 2008” with “Carter 1980” or “Mondale 1984” and is there anyone who seriously thinks that it would be wrong? Realignments result from dimensional shifts (parties and candidates capturing a new majority-winning position that was unavailable in the past due to a reconfiguration of voter preferences) that just aren’t in evidence in this election. Colomer seems to believe that this election is “realigning” but there is no more evidence for that than in any presidential election since Nixon.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Your new life as a guinea pig

In the last 24 hours, I’ve been asked to disseminate two survey links. So have at them:

A research team from the Psychology Department at New York University, headed by Professor Yaacov Trope and supported by the National Science Foundation, is investigating the cognitive causes of voting behavior, political preferences, and candidate evaluations throughout the course of the 2008 U.S. Presidential election. This stage of the study focuses on the information people use to inform evaluations during the last few weeks before the election. They seek respondents of all political leanings from all over the country (and from the rest of the world) to complete a 15-minute questionnaire, the responses to which will be completely anonymous. The survey is here.

I also have a briefish survey from some students of a friend of mine at Auburn University, for those with less time to spare.

Standard disclaimers regarding the fact I know this is a convenience sample apply; complain at the principal investigators if you must.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Inside baseball

I’ve been remiss in pointing my readers recently to Zachary Schrag’s Institutional Review Blog, which patiently documents the overreach and misapplication of federal regulations regarding the protection of human subjects to the social and behavioral sciences, including research that by federal regulation is exempt from review by IRBs.

While Schrag is cautiously optimistic that the new head of the Office of Human Research Protections will be an improvement, the continued domination of the process at most levels by biomedical researchers—along with the general sense that, as Schrag notes, “researchers cannot be trusted to apply the exemptions themselves”—is still troubling to those of us who want to conduct human subjects research, particularly secondary data analysis. Technically speaking (even though I dare say most social scientists observe this requirement in the breach), even the analysis of secondary data collected by others and fully anonymized before we see it (e.g. use of data such as the General Social Survey, American National Election Studies series, the Eurobarometer series, etc.) requires IRB oversight and approval beforehand.