Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘political science

Asymmetric Misperceptions and the Conservative Construction of ‘Public Opinion’

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SurveysThere’s been a lot of buzz about an excellent (but not yet peer-reviewed) working paper by David Broockman and Chris Skovron, “What Politicians Believe About Their Constituents: Asymmetric Misperceptions and Prospects for Constituency Control,” which looks at state legislative candidates’ perceptions of their constituents’ opinions.  The findings are striking, but unlike many others, I don’t find them all that surprising:

Actual district opinion explains only a modest share of the variation in politicians’ perceptions of their districts’ views. Moreover, there is a striking conservative bias in politicians’ perceptions, particularly among conservatives: conservative politicians systematically believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are by over 20 percentage points, while liberal politicians also typically overestimate their constituents’ conservatism by several percentage points.

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Written by David Kaib

March 10, 2013 at 7:54 am

What is Democratic Efficiency?

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Easton modelAlex Sparrow has been interested in the idea I’ve been discussing called ‘democratic efficiency.’  He encouraged me to talk a bit more about how to achieve it, and then since has written about this.  His post is well worth checking out, and in many ways parallels my own thinking. But his use of the term democratic efficiency and mine are a different, so it seems worth taking the opportunity to explain my own position a bit more clearly. I also noticed as I looked through my posts that I had been defining democratic efficiency differently – by emphasizing different elements of the idea.  This no doubt adds to the confusion.

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The Claim of Representation

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Capitol-SenateI’ve been talking a lot about politics as contested claim making, and how taking formal ideas like judicial review and democracy for granted distorts our understanding of politics. Related is the idea that a lot of analytic terms are really just justifications for the status quo, and we’d be better off finding a different set of terms that aren’t tied to such justifications.

This is different from the standard story of politics science, which says that the discipline used to confuse normative ideas for empirical ones, until the behavioralists (pdf) severed the ties between the two, thus truly becoming a science. Since that time, political theory (in essence, the study of normative ideas) has been a sort of odd fit in the discipline–not unlike judicial politics, although for different reasons. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

January 13, 2013 at 5:41 pm

How Judicial Politics is Like Area Studies

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courrtPart of the critique of the standard approaches to judicial politics that I’ve been working on involves looking at the justifications offered for why the field chose decision-making as its standard concept of the thing to be explained, and why decision-making generally came to mean formal rulings on the merits by Supreme Court justices. I’ve argued elsewhere that part of this was a mistaken assumption that such decisions were action as opposed to talk and a mistaken assumption that decisions are necessarily efficacious.* (I say mistaken both because these assumptions are not true, but more importantly  because they obscure rather than illuminate). Once we jettison those assumptions, it means that other actors should be brought into better focus and whether rulings are followed is an open question. This means shifting our attention from decision-making to legitimation and authority, with the more important question being not ‘why did this actor do as they did’ but ‘how will others respond.’ Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

December 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Top Five Posts That You Did Read: 2012

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Here are your top five posts from the last year, based solely on page views. The biggest thing driving traffic – one or two people who have a bigger megaphone than me passing it along.  (My thanks to those people).  Was there anything else they shared in common? Let’s take a look.

Also, don’t miss Top Five Posts that No One Read: 2012.

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Chalmers Johnson Skewers Rational Choice

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I’ve been thinking a bit about areas studies and it’s role in the field of political science, in part as an analogy for judicial politics (forthcoming [Update: How Judicial Politics is Like Area Studies]) and it led me back to this piece by the late great anti-imperialist Chalmers Johnson, defending area studies and the verstehen on which they are built against the academic imperialism of rational choice. It’s unfortunate to me that many dissenters within the field are willing to concede the science mantle to standard approaches, and it’s always good to see someone challenge it on these terms. Even better to note the political underpinnings of these approaches whose proponents insist that they and  alone are apolitical. Read the rest of this entry »

Treat Everything Like a Trial Balloon

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balloon-clipart-5Trial balloons are central to American politics, yet the idea gets very little attention from political scientists.  The basic point is simple–the administration anonymously floats an idea, for example, a name for a political appointment. This can be done by a source that can’t speak on the record, or by writers who are close to administration, portraying it as the writer’s idea.  Once the idea is put out there, the administration waits to see the reaction.  If the name is greeted with praise, or at least indifference, the name is a safe one.  If it’s greeted with attacks, depending on their intensity and from who they come, the administration knows appointing the individual will cause trouble, and another name can be chosen since they never admitted they were even considering the person in the first place.

This makes sense, given a central problem for all actors in the political system–nobody knows exactly what everyone else in thinking, or how strongly they feel. Watching how other people react when ideas are floated provides that information.  It lets you know if your position is popular (within elite circles in Washington, which is what matters for these things) or if a particular stand would mean that you were standing alone. It’s how the boundaries of what’s reasonable and what’s off the wall are drawn. It’s how you can tell if you will be called to account for your actions and whether you’ll be able to defend them if you are.  Since organizing opposition takes time, you can be sure it either won’t happen, or at least won’t happen effectively, if people don’t begin mobilizing long before a final decision, whether that means an appointment, or a legislative vote.

What’s interesting about all this is that all these problems exist regardless of whether anyone intended to float a trial balloon.  It doesn’t matter if reporting merely reflects internal deliberations, or if the story was only the result of a single disgruntled staffer.  In the end, the reaction to the story serves the same function.

Powerful people in Washington understand all this.  They pounce on people for merely suggesting anything that threatens their interests. That’s how they keep such ideas off the agenda, so that what is actually voted on is non-threatening, making wins and losses on the merits essentially beside the point. When Social Security and Medicare were untouchable, it was because the slightest whiff of a challenge to it would bring about a massive mobilization.

Since we can’t know whether an idea being floated is intended as a trial balloon or not–since the whole point of it is to deny responsibility–and since the impact is the same regardless, the answer is clear.  Treat everything as a trial balloon. If someone tries to convince you otherwise, say when it comes to talk of undermining Medicare, they are either bad at politics or trying to keep you powerless.

Written by David Kaib

December 8, 2012 at 11:00 pm

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