The rise of the social sciences and what it can offer to policymakers

By Gerry Stoker and Mark Evans. Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by him here.

We are all in this together

The social sciences are more relevant than ever in helping solve the problems of public policy. You might think that there are neat lines to be drawn between science-based disciplines, the social sciences and the humanities (these are traditional ways of expressing divides within the University sector) but in practice those lines are often blurred. There is an overlap in areas of interest and a sharing in methods used.

When engineers move from the laboratory to the field and propose solutions to deal with water management and distribution in developing countries that involve the establishment of complex human institutional devices, are they doing science or social science? When a randomised control trial looks at behaviour in classrooms in the hands of educational studies researchers (normally classified as social scientists) rather than the trialling of a new medicine by medical researchers (usually classified as scientists) is it any less scientific? The distinctions between types of academic study are not without value but they can lead to a false sense of difference that is neither helpful nor justified.

In particular we see no great value in making claims that some subjects are ‘hard’ science – physics, chemistry, mathematics and medicines for example – while others are ‘soft’ science such as the social sciences that would include economics, sociology, political studies, human geography, social policy and range of other disciplines. The ‘hard’ sciences deliver useable knowledge and the ‘soft’ sciences offer mere informed speculation might be the claim that follows the distinction. But such a proposition does more harm than good and overlooks a crucial question for the policymaker and for that matter a citizen. The issue is not how academia draws up its dividing lines but rather about which types of research can contribute to the problems we confront: does the research tell me what we need to know? The core concern is not how you know but what you want to know. If knowledge is going to be useful it has to be knowledge about something we need to know about.

Our argument is that if anything the social sciences has become more relevant because what we as policy makers and citizens need to know more about is how to make human-influenced or human constructed systems work more effectively. There are relatively fewer purely natural systems and increasingly systems that are either human influenced or human dominated. The domain of human dominated systems is that of the social sciences without doubt, but so too to a degree is that of human-influenced systems. The argument is that the social sciences rather than being the poor cousin of the sciences of natural systems has rather an expanding empire.

What can social science deliver? Not laws but insights

But can it deliver? There are many reasons why evidence from social science does not influence policymakers or is ignored in citizen debates. Lack of clarity about what social science research can offer is one stumbling block that could explain why social science might struggle to establish itself. In the nineteenth century and in several periods in the twentieth century, some advocates of social science suggested that what was on offer was either a full-blown or embryonic ‘science of society’. The prospect of generating general laws – true for all time about human behaviour – has now faded but the sense that somehow social science has failed to live up to that unrealistic promise perhaps explains a sense among policymakers and citizens that social science has not delivered. After all no less a citizen than the United Kingdom’s Her Majesty the Queen did feel it necessary to ask after the financial crisis of 2007/8 during a visit to the London School of Economics why economists had not been able to predict it. To offer powerful spot predictions asked of social science something that it was not able to deliver. Indeed research tends to find complexities and variations in behaviour that make the quest for neat and frugal laws of social behaviour a mission impossible.

What social science can offer? It can provide empirical evidence but also conceptual apparatus to challenge and develop existing understandings of issues. Good research may deliver sometimes solutions but it also may often a better debate about potential decisions. That contribution can stretch beyond initial conceptualisation of policy options to the processes of implementation. Although we might have evidence that something works at some place and at one time policymaking stills needs evidence that it will work in other cases or more particularly in the case in hand.

The policy process is best supported by continuous acts of exploring, investigating and yes research. Social scientists, policy makers and citizens should be working alongside one another in these tasks. Problems are more likely to be tackled, subdued and ameliorated. They may go away in one form, only to reappear in another form, at a later time. Learning and discovery are therefore at the heart of good policymaking and its needs to be at the heart of the relationship between social science and policymaking. Discovery captures the sense of exploration, challenge, checking and rechecking that is required for effective policymaking in a complex world. It also engages with the sense that there are many unknowns in any policy decision and that a sense of open investigation is therefore essential.

Come on in. There are plenty of options

For those seeking to use the social sciences a good starting point it is helpful to recognise the breadth of the approaches and methods available. There are new forms of discovery just waiting to be found. We want you to be able to touch base with the latest best practice on the use of Systematic Reviews, Randomised Control Trials, the analysis of Big Data, design thinking, qualitative techniques for comparison using Boolean and fuzzy set logic, citizen social science, the use narrative from policy makers and citizens. Of course some of the methods that we refer to have been on the shelves for a number of decades but we now know better how that to apply the method across a range of policy arenas. Other methods are relatively more novel within social science but again they have been growing examples of their application in the context of policy making.

Our point is that good policy requires good social science and there is richness in methods of research that is not fully appreciated. Of course you also need to think about choosing the right method for the right policy challenge. You also need to be clear and not naïve about how evidence plays into the complexities of the policy process.

Note: These ideas and understandings are expanded further in our recently published book Gerry Stoker and Mark Evans (eds) (2016) Evidence-based policymaking in the social sciences: Methods that matter. Bristol: Policy Press.

Responsibility for Refugees

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, You can find more posts by David here.


How should responsibilities for refugees be distributed? According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2014 there were 19.5 million refugees among a total of 59.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide. 1 Developing countries hosted 86 % of this refugee population (up from 70 % ten years previously.) 2 Lebanon (26 %) and Jordan (9.8 %) have the highest per capita ratios of refugees worldwide. 3 Is this a fair distribution of responsibilities?

Considerations of fairness have been much to the fore in the political rhetoric of debates concerning current flows of Syrian refugees into the European Union (although to put this into perspective, from the beginning of the crisis up to the end of 2015, the total number of asylum applications from Syrians in the European Union reached 681,713, 4 while in the same period the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey amounted to 2.18 million 5). But at least one of the difficulties in this debate is that there is no agreement among states, globally or within the EU, concerning what would count as criteria of a fair distribution of responsibility for refugees.

The current EU crisis also illustrates a further question that is urgent in the contemporary context: what are the limits on state’s obligations to refugees? Is it, for example, sufficient to have done one’s fair share or, in the absence of established criteria, to have done what a good faith effort to work out one’s fair share required? Or do states that have done their fair share have an obligation to take up the slack consequent on others failing to do their fair share?

In ‘Refugees, Fairness and Taking up the Slack’ – available open access here – I argue that in circumstances where not all states do their fair share, human rights protecting states are morally obliged to do more than their fair share, i.e., that refugee protection takes priority over fair distribution of responsibility for refugee protection. However I also draw attention to the prudential point that effective refugee protection is likely to depend on states being willing to do their fair share. Combining these claims, I argue that states have a duty to come to arrangements that, as far as plausible, aim at ensuring a fair distribution of responsibilities.

If the political task is thus that of establishing effective mechanisms for determining fair shares and generating reasonable compliance among states, what are prospects for the fulfillment of this duty? The article provides some reasons for thinking that any general rule for directly determining fair shares is both open to reasonable disagreement and is liable to be skewed by states’ perception of their own interests. It further argues that we have little reason to be confident that states will support the establishment of effective compliance measures – a point sadly illustrated by the failure of EU cooperation in the current refugee crisis.

Refugee crises as political crises are always a combination of a crisis of production and a crisis of response. As things stand, there is little reason to think that both types of crisis will not continue to recur. What this suggests is that we need both to recognize that the existing refugee regime – for all its limitations – is a considerable political achievement – and to acknowledge the extent of the hard political work that will be needed to address current and future refugee crises.


What Just Happened? Thoughts on the election

By Hal Wolman. Hal Wolman was the founding Director of the George Washington Institute of Public Policy (GWIPP) and served in that capacity from 2000-2012. He is an emeritus professor in the Department of Political Science at the George Washington University and a Research Professor in the George Washington Institute of Public Policy. Dr. Wolman is also a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.

Donald Trump won.

The election was very, very close.  The switch of a relatively few votes (less than 1% in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) would have given the election to Clinton.  If that had happened there would have been a quite different narrative.  This was not a massive shift in voting behavior, but a shift on the margins.  That said, see first sentence above.

Indeed, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.  But the correct response to that – besides saying that the Electoral College is an archaic institution – is, so what?  The election was fought under Electoral College rules, rules that both sides understood and which structured their behavior.  Had it been under the rules of a national popular vote, both candidates and their campaigns would have behaved much differently.  In particular, they would have spent a lot more of their time and resources in California, New York, and Texas, all essentially one-party very populous states which were non-competitive in electoral college terms and which were therefore largely ignored (except for fund raising).  In a national popular election one vote anywhere is as good as a vote anywhere else and the concept of “losing” a state would be meaningless.  Losing California by 1,000,000 votes rather than 1,000 has the same result in the Electoral College.  But it means you pick up 999,000 additional votes in a national popular vote election.  That means candidates would campaign where the most votes are.  And, under those circumstances it’s unclear who would have won.

So why did she lose?  Was it James Comey’s letter two weeks before the election?  Yes.  Was it Wikileaks constant drip of stolen emails?  Yes.  Was it third parties, particularly Jill Stein, but also Gary Johnson?  Yes.  Was it because she was just a bad candidate?  Yes.  Was it poor campaign strategy?  Yes.  Yes to all of these, because when an election is so close, anything that might have slightly pushed it in the direction of Trump could have made the difference.  But, the real culprit was…

Turnout.  Particularly among African-Americans, which was down substantially from 2008 and 2012 when Obama was running.  That’s not terribly surprising – high African-American turnout when the first African-American was running for President.  What’s surprising is that so called experts didn’t see African-American turnout dropping from these levels in 2016.  I suspect that, to the extent the polls got it wrong – and in the end the national polls didn’t get it very wrong – it was because they mis-estimated turnout among Democratic oriented groups.  (There is also some evidence that there were some people who said, out of concern that they would be harshly judged, that they intended to vote for Clinton when they really intended to vote for Trump.  Apparently a couple of polling firms conducted some telephone polls with a live interviewer and some through an automatic robotic type phone poll.  The latter consistently showed slightly more support for Trump, particularly among women.)  In addition the exit polls indicate that a slightly lower percentage of African-American who did go to the polls voted for Clinton than voted for Obama in 2012 and 2008 (again, not surprisingly).

Latino turnout did increase, but not as much as had been predicted.  And despite Trump’s focus on immigration, Mexican criminals, etc., Trump actually got a higher share of the Latino vote than did Romney in 2012!  Who knows why this happened?  (Although these exit poll results are contested.  See here.)

What about women?  Did the fact that the first woman ever to run for President help or hurt Hillary?  Don’t know, at least not yet.  There clearly was a shift of college-educated women from Republican to Democratic voting in 2016, which, since more educated women are likely to be more concerned with feminism (I think), is consistent with some advantage for Hillary as a result of her gender.  But it could also just as easily result from more highly-educated women being put off by the boorishness and grossness of Donald Trump.  Maybe some of each.

The clearest shift in voting behavior – and the one most commented on – is the shift among traditional working class Democrats, particularly in the industrial Midwestern and Middle-Atlantic states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania) from support of a Democratic candidate to support for Trump.  This has sometimes been portrayed as a rural vote, but it was clearly much more than that.  There simply aren’t enough people living in rural areas to make that much of a difference.  Instead it was people in smaller cities – think Scranton or Erie, PA, Akron and Youngstown, Ohio, Saginaw, Michigan, etc. – who were the switchers that mattered, and will matter in the future if the switch was permanent and not just one-off.

Why did this shift occur?  Given the tenor of the campaign, some have attributed it to racism.  Certainly the Trump campaign made it OK for racists and expressions of racism to be more publicly acceptable than they have been for a long time.  Nonetheless, I am not persuaded that racism was the main reason.  Remember, switch means that these are people who voted for an African-American for President in 2012 and 2008.  If they were willing to vote for an actual African-American then, why would racism explain a switch to Trump in 2016?  Maybe these are simply people to whom Trump had a special appeal in terms of a strong Macho (potentially authoritarian) candidate, much more so than a Romney or McCain did.  Working class authoritarianism is a well-documented phenomenon in the social sciences.

Maybe, as some have commented, it was a matter of working class whites as a group, a group experiencing the disappearance of traditional manufacturing jobs, higher rates of unemployment, and lower incomes, feeling left behind, disrespected, and their problems and issues ignored.  To get a sense of this, let’s take seriously the idea of trying to imagine – as we are frequently and rightfully told to do – what it’s like to be an African-American or a LGBT person, but this time let’s put  ourselves in the shoes of the white working class.  Is it possible that they might simply feel that “nobody – certainly not the political and economic elites – cares about me.”  They care about various minority groups, they care about gays, about immigrants, refugees, etc., but I’ve got problems too, and nobody seems to care.  I have no “identity” in a party that is characterized by identity group coalition politics (a coalition of victims as somebody has called it). They might even feel this way without being racist or homophobic (though some of them are certainly that as well).  Example: how does this sound to a member of the white working class?  The Black Lives Matter people say “Black Lives Matter.”  Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and others respond at first by agreeing but then saying, “All Lives Matter.” They are shouted down until they toe the line and say simply “Black Lives Matter.”  Now, I know what the Black Lives Matter people were trying to do and what their concern was.  But think of how this sounds to white working class people, most of whom are not steeped in the history of white privilege or in the understanding of Black social movements.  It sounds pretty much like they are saying “people like me and our lives don’t matter.”  Not good.

What’s the effect going to be of a Trump presidency?  There goes the Supreme Court for a generation unless Ginsberg, Breyer, and Kennedy all manage to hang on for at least four more years.  In terms of policy, who knows?  I don’t believe Trump really has any true policy preferences.  The path of least resistance for him is to simply say, “I ran as a Republican, Paul Ryan is a Republican, he seems to have some strong feelings about policy, I guess I’ll run with that unless someone gives me a reason not to.   That wouldn’t be good, but in many ways it wouldn’t be awful.  As a country we’ve had Presidents with Paul Ryan type thinking before (e.g., Reagan) and we’ve survived it.  On the other hand, he may follow his own idiosyncratic path, which would mean in many cases war with Republicans in Congress as well as Democrats.  The real worry for everybody is in the foreign and military areas.  What’s he going to do when he finds out that Putin isn’t all that nice a guy after all and has insulted him by sending men in plain green uniforms into, say, Lithuania?  Threaten to drop a bomb on Moscow?  Actually drop a bomb on Moscow?  God save us all.

The Left After Trump



By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.

Trump’s election is an unmistakable rejection of a political establishment and an economic system that simply isn’t working for most people. It is one that has delivered escalating inequality and stagnating or falling living standards for the majority, both in the US and Britain.

This is a rejection of a failed economic consensus and a governing elite that has been seen not to have listened. And the public anger that has propelled Donald Trump to office has been reflected in political upheavals across the world.

But some of Trump’s answers to the big questions facing America, and the divisive rhetoric around them, are clearly wrong.

I have no doubt, however, that the decency and common sense of the American people will prevail, and we send our solidarity to a nation of migrants, innovators and democrats.

After this latest global wake up call, the need for a real alternative to a failed economic and political system could not be clearer.

That alternative must be based on working together, social justice and economic renewal, rather than sowing fear and division. And the solutions we offer have to improve the lives of everyone, not pit one group of people against another.

Americans have made their choice. The urgent necessity is now for us all to work across continents to tackle our common global challenges: to secure peace, take action on climate change and deliver economic prosperity and justice.

This was the statement made by Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of Britain’s Labour Party, in response to the Trump victory in the American presidential election. If progressives are to respond to Trump’s victory, Brexit and the rise of right-wing populism across Europe and other democracies including Australia and parts of Asia the leader of one of Europe’s most successful and long-established social democratic parties might reasonably be expected to be on the right track. Unfortunately he is not. Corbyn falls down both in his diagnosis of what is happening and in the wooliness of his solutions.

Misunderstanding the problem

In terms of diagnosis the issue is that neither Trump nor Brexit – let alone other versions of right-wing populism – have built their electoral coalitions based on those left behind by economic change alone. They mobilise a bloc of disaffected working class voters and combine them with conservative supporters of from better-off households. Brexit won the day by combining traditional rural and suburban Conservative voters with more disaffected working class support in urban areas that have experienced economic decline over many decades. Trump won because he managed to peel away enough working class white voters while retaining the middle-class and rural Republican base. A classic pattern of support for right-wing populism follows the shape of a V-curve with most support coming from either end of the political spectrum: the relatively deprived and the relatively well-off.

Most of these voters do not reject the current economic system. Rather they want to be better placed within it. It is long-term employment and wage stagnation that is driving this economic discontent. Beyond that economic discontent how does right-wing populism pull together the two sides of its coalition? It gives people someone or something to blame for that sense of losing out. Populism relies to a great degree on the capacity of leaders to manipulate exasperation with social change, for example ‘by portraying “ordinary people” as the victim of an alliance between those at the bottom (needy immigrants and asylum seekers) and those at the top (the wealthy elite who aspire to even greater wealth and political clout)’. It adds issues of social identity, status and antagonism to the mix to create a distinctive politics of resentment.

There are three lessons to draw from this alternative diagnosis; none of which are central to Corbyn’s analysis. First there is no “unmistakable rejection” of the current economic system; although there anything that can be defined as the political establishment is given a kicking. Second unlocking the V-curve of support for right-wing populism is not a straightforward task because it mixes economic and social resentments. Arguing that we need an economy that works for all will be treated as the vacuous statement it is. In any case it will not cut through the wider sense of resentment against others. In politics there is no real or imagined nature to resentment there is just resentments and whether progressives like it or not they have to be addressed. Third, the only future for building an alternative winning electoral bloc is not simply to appeal to the left behind but to build a wide coalition of support drawn from those who are both winners and relatively speaking  losers from a complex dynamic of economic change. In short do not believe the rhetoric of right wing populists about standing for the left behind. Look at what they do to win.

Coming up with solutions

Here the challenge faced by progressives is that modern global capitalism is – as ever– creating a dynamic of winners and losers. Cosmopolitan centres are the gainers in a new system of global production, manufacturing, distribution and consumption that has led to new urban forms made possible by the revolution in logistics and new technologies. These centres are marked by their intellectual assets, cultural strength and the capacity of their infrastructure to attract people, ideas and skills. These global urban centres are highly connected, highly innovative, well-networked, attracting skilled populations, often supported by inward migration, and display the qualities of cosmopolitan urbanism. Such places will be further advantaged by trends of robotisation and automation in the labour force, and a shift towards service and knowledge economies. At the same time, other towns, cities and regions are experiencing an outflow of capital and human resources, and are suffering from a lack of entrepreneurship, low levels of innovation, cultural nostalgia and disconnectedness from the values of the metropolitan elite. These shrinking urban locations are the other side of the coin; for them the story is of being left behind as old industries die or as old roles become obsolete, human and physical infrastructure decays. Populations may be declining, the skilled workers and the young are leaving in search of opportunity (reinforcing the cycle of decline) and these places are increasingly disconnected from the dynamic sectors of the economy, as well as the social liberalism of hyper-modern global cities in which the political, economic and media classes plough their furrow.

These developments are not temporary or transitional. The scale of change is such that the processes that are in operation go beyond cyclical explanations of growth and decline, since the entire system of production, distribution and consumption is being restructured, generating new divides that have an air of solidity. The situation is such that the position of cosmopolitan cities is self-reinforcing but not without challenges. While not all left behind cities, towns and rural areas can easily be dragged into the slipstream of dynamics of the creative economy by policy interventions.

We are only in the foothills of being able to grapple with the policy issues created by this dynamic of social and economic change. It would be better for progressives to accept that they are far from clear about what to do rather than mouth platitudes about social justice or argue that more investment in infrastructure, housing, education and training will do the trick. Some of these types of interventions have been tried yet they appear to only partially stem the tide of change. To argue for more of such interventions without reflecting on what should be done appears misguided. A display of humility from politicians and experts around the political establishment might encourage voters to listen to them again.

We need action both locally and globally. The importance of a local focus and a commitment to local power is that the right solutions for different areas are likely not to be the same. For cosmopolitan areas of growth the challenges are congestion, housing shortages and sustaining a wider social fabric as the pace of work accelerates. For those areas they can join the new economy as latecomers then a clear specification of the niche and focus of their ambition as well as targeted financial incentives, infrastructure and training would be required. We may also have to accept that some areas will be forever left behind and develop a planning system capable of managing decline and embracing the potential of declining growth in terms of climate and lifestyle gains. Globally the challenge is how to sustain free trade while tackling its social and environmental impacts. This probably means revisiting the global architecture of regulation set up after the Second World War. There is no quick fix and it is important for progressives to be honest about that.

The final reason why progressives need to work hard on solutions in that those offered by right-wing populists will fail. Controlling immigration will not solve the problems of left behind places such as Rotherham, Yorkshire or Flint, Michigan. Leaving the EU will not save the NHS for Britain. Imagining a global economy where you trade freely and yet you impose barriers on others or where you can access markets without following rules agreed by all others does not make it a reality. The fallout from those failures will be massive but progressives should not assume they will be the automatic beneficiaries. Populists will be good at the blame game. The challenge for progressives is both to offer an accurate diagnosis of what is going on and work in depth on solutions to respond. Corybn’s statement should be a cause of concern, rather than hope.

The Failures of Political Science: Trump, Brexit and beyond…

By Will Jennings and Martin Lodge. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Twitter) and Martin Lodge is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science ( You can read more posts by Will Jennings here.

Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States of America, while in June Britain voted to leave the EU. Political science has widely failed to anticipate two of the defining events of our era, just as it failed to foresee the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago (also on November 9th). Populism is everywhere now and has entered the mainstream. Few could dispute that political science has been somewhat blindsided, having been distracted by the scientific credentials of the discipline, and having itself become an elite technocratic enterprise detached from the everyday experiences and everyday politics of voters.

Donald Trump broke all the rules of the political science textbook of election campaigning. He lied. He did not release his tax returns. He insulted significant parts of the electorate. He attacked the media. He brazenly rode out scandal after scandal. He was not backed by party elites. He did not pivot. He was not endorsed by newspapers. He was not considered qualified for the job by voters. He faced a relatively popular incumbent and growing economy. The polls and poll aggregators predicted a comfortable Clinton win (many academic forecasts were rather more circumspect). Trump defied them all. A not dissimilar story could be told about the Brexit campaign. While some could rightly claim to have diagnosed the conditions leading to each victory, these were surprise events when they happened.

Our analysis did not stand up to the job, and this poses fundamental questions about the direction that the discipline has taken in recent decades and its abandonment of a more critical examination of the nature of politics. Political science has lately glorified big data, replication and high-tech computational methods. But what use are these if hegemonic theories and fashionable methods are ill-equipped for the task at hand?

At the same time, the role of the academic as pundit has increasingly pitched political scientists into the media limelight. While advancing public understanding of politics should unquestionably be a mission for the discipline, this creates pressure to hype findings, condense them into the confines of a tweet, or offer analysis to meet the demands of short-term news cycles rather than posing more critical questions about the nature of social and political change (or questioning the assumptions of our data and models), or even challenge the way in which politics is done and the media package it. This pressures researchers to favour punditry (making bold predictions about outcomes and basking in applause for their foresight) above deeper diagnosis of long-term trends. It also often makes them inseparable from the politics they seek to analyse.

Of course, political science has had much to say about the rise of populism across many advanced democracies, its causes and its consequences. We know a substantial amount about the nature of the U.S. political system and its (lack of) responsiveness to wider societal change, the rise of Euroscepticism, the increasing importance of values and identity in various political contexts, and the notion of ‘backsliding’ by countries on earlier commitments to liberal democracy. Beyond this, there is further scope for soul-searching. This should centre on the role of political science in a context in which it has become acceptable to endorse the rise of ‘illiberal democracies’.

One of these is the nature of knowledge production. Universities in their quest for global reputations have become ghettos for research communities whose international interactions are rarely interrupted by the inconvenient demands imposed by high fee-paying students (and have engaged little with local people living in communities on their peripheries). These networks are reinforced by advances in communication technologies – generating our very own academic filter bubbles. The move towards bifurcating academic careers into research and teaching silos will only increase this disconnection outside the discipline. This is not a context that is able to detect or fully understand societal changes.

Such trends have been further accentuated by the craze to create ‘public policy schools’ so as to inform global elites of students about policy experiences, global challenges and international networking. Such programmes have been attractive in financial terms to universities, they have proven to be a convenient vehicle to attract high profile donors, and they offer opportunities for students to mingle. Interestingly, the fashion of public policy schools arrived just as the attractions of private sector MBAs seem to be fading away. To be close to ‘practice’, the academic gain is access to the questions and concerns of key decision-makers who have a desire to learn about ‘what works’ without necessarily probing deeply into scholarly disputes. More broadly, critical questioning is unlikely to feature on such programmes given that learning outcomes are about enhancing ‘rationality’.

Executive-type teaching offers higher rewards and the possibility to avoid routine, intensive teaching duties. The quest for global leadership in the name of rational decision-making is likely to come at the price of dealing with concrete problems at the local level (losing the tacit knowledge that is crucial to understanding the challenges facing local societies and communities). These programmes, by their nature, are unable to cope with an environment that encourages post-factual argumentation.

More generally, this raises questions about the role of political science. For those believing in a pure version of ‘science’, the political science discipline is about ‘knowledge’ with little concern for the wider environment. This ignores a much more significant contribution that political science should play in promoting the normative foundations of liberal democracy. This is not to discourage critical analysis and commentary, but a renewed focus on the prerequisites for an open and tolerant society to conduct politics. This would require a much deeper engagement with society beyond one-off events such as open day events and school visits. This requires encouragement for universities to become part of the wider conversation about the importance of certain constitutional and democratic norms.

In other words, political science, if it wants to live in a liberal democracy and be in a position to work openly and freely, needs to return to a concern with protecting the very foundations of liberal democracy. Whether the short term career incentives of academics and the wider environment of populist politics and campaigning media will be receptive to this necessity is questionable. However, the question of what kind of societies political scientists want to inhabit is of fundamental importance: do they want to live in cut-off ghettos of the like-minded, obsessed by sectarian ‘top three’ journal rankings, or do they want to promote and support the conditions for an open society, one that makes science possible in the first place?

Yesterday we woke to the news that the United States of America has chosen a new president: Donald Trump.

By Jonathan Havercroft, Associate Professor in International Political Theory at the University of Southampton (Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by Jonathan here.

What happened?

As was the case with the 2015 UK General Election and the Brexit Referendum many of the pollsters and pundits were wrong in their projections that Hillary Clinton would win the U.S. Presidency. I include myself in that camp, so there is no gloating from me over the outcome.

All I will say is that the rise of polling aggregation websites such as has created a bit of over confidence in the general public (and political junkies in particular) about how predictive polls can be. I am not an expert in survey research methods, but all of my professional colleagues who are tend to be far more cautious about making predictions as they are well aware that polls, and even aggregates of polls can go wrong.

Figuring out exactly how Donald Trump pulled off this upset is a bit simpler. Looking at where he did well at the state and county level in the U.S. shows that he overwhelmingly won white, noncollege educated voters in places such as the upper Midwest (states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin). While these voters have been trending towards the Republican Party for some time, Obama was able to keep enough of them in his electoral coalition to win twice. Enough of them broke for Donald Trump in key swing states that he was able to carve out an electoral college win.

What does this mean?

As has been the case since Donald Trump announced his candidacy, conventional political wisdom has often been wrong. Despite significant cynicism among voters, politicians do often at least try to keep their major campaign promises. In Trump’s case, despite his often overthetop rhetoric, he has been remarkably consistent about what he wanted to if he won the election. Let’s review his core promises.

“Build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it”

It is still difficult for me to imagine how Trump will persuade Mexico to pay for his proposed border wall (short of potentially threatening Mexico with the United States’ military might), but I do believe that it is likely that one of his first goals will be to ask Congress to fund the construction of a wall.

Implicit in this promise was also a plan to for stricter immigration. While he did waffle throughout the campaign about what exactly this would mean, at different points he did promise to prevent all Muslims from entering the U.S., and engage in mass deportations of the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Again campaign rhetoric will quickly run into questions of cost and feasibility, but there is no doubt that Trump and the Republican Party will take his win as a mandate to crackdown on both legal and illegal immigration.

Trade Protectionism

The region where Trump pulled off his upset is often referred to as the “Rustbelt”. It is the part of the U.S. that has experienced the most significant deindustrialization over the last 40 years. Many members of the working class in these regions have lost their high-paying unionised jobs in steel factories and car plants as companies have moved their manufacturing facilities to other countries with lower wages.

Trump has promised to tear up unpopular trade deals such as NAFTA (a trade deal often closely associated with the Clintons) and get better deals. Again, what such better deals entail was never fully spelled out. But a Trump Presidency coming on the heels of a Brexit vote clearly signals that the era of free trade and low tariffs is nearing an end. From a UK perspective, suddenly needing potential trade partners, the timing of the rise of protectionism in the U.S. could not be worse.

Skepticism towards NATO and Military Alliances

While Trump promised to “defeat ISIS”, again his campaign never offered any coherent explanation of how they would do this. Aside from escalating the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, most of Trumps other foreign policy promises were decidedly isolationist.

He frequently signaled that he would seek détente with Russian President Vladimir Putin; and he indicated at several points a desire to rework the NATO alliance, going so far as in one interview to claim that he might not come to the aid of a NATO ally that was being attacked.

This is dangerous for a few reasons. First NATO, and other collective security arrangements, rely on the premise that “an attack against one member state is an attack on all member states”. This is intended to create a credible commitment between all members that will deter potential adversaries from invading any country. If the most powerful member in the alliance (the U.S.) signals that it no longer would be willing to come to the defence of a European ally, members of the alliance could be left defenseless against rival states.

As Russia has already invaded and annexed a portion of the Crimea, many states in Eastern Europe are concerned that a breakdown of NATO could leave them vulnerable to a Russian invasion. Secondly, if Trump does begin to withdraw the U.S. from its international alliances in both Europe and the Asia Pacific, it is not clear who or what fills the void. Does this election signal the end of U.S. hegemony in military affairs, and the rise of some new multipolar regime where every state (including the UK) must go it on its own?

Possible Attacks on the Rule of Law

One of the reasons this campaign was so nasty was because of the personal nature of Donald Trump’s attacks on his political opponents. At different times during the campaign he attacked the independence of judges (threatening one judge who was overseeing a lawsuit against him) and threatening to rewrite U.S. libel laws to make it easier for him and other public figures to sue media outlets for negative coverage.

Most jarring of all was his threat to lock up Hillary Clinton if she lost. The controversy over the handling of State Department emails has dogged her during the course of the Presidential campaign, yet despite several investigations, no one has been able to produce evidence that Clinton has committed a crime. Yet central to Trump’s closing argument during the campaign was a promise the “drain the swamp”.

Trump and the Republicans today find themselves in control of both Houses of Congress, and in a position to swing the balance of power on the Supreme Court to a conservative majority. Americans are fond of praising their governmental system as one built on checks and balances designed to prevent tyranny. But we find a President Elect today who is openly disdainful of the rule of law, without any other branch likely to check any attempt he might make to overstep his authority.

While it seems absurd, it is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that Trump and the Republicans might use this victory to fulfill their campaign promise to prosecute Clinton and her political enemies. President Obama may have to use his Presidential power of the pardon (much as President Ford pardoned President Nixon after Watergate) in order to prevent a constitutional crisis over whether victor of an election can use the powers of the executive branch to punish the loser.

How dark is it?

This is a hard question to answer. If we take Trump at his word and look at his mandate, he is in a position to implement much of his platform if elected. Obviously there are ways for political opponents to resist these actions through both legal avenues and protests, yet all of the most effective levers are in the hands of Trump.

During the course of the Presidential campaign, many on the left openly asked if Trump was a fascist, and occasionally went so far as to compare him to Mussolini or Hitler. I think that this strategy (one that the Clinton campaign played into by trying to brand Trump as unfit for office) backfired. The danger of comparing Trump to the worst figures of the 20th Century is that if he does not seem as bad as them the accuser ends up seeming histrionic.

I think a more interesting, and perhaps disturbing possibility, is that the liberal consensus of respect for the rule of law, commitment to global free trade, free movement of peoples, and collective security between democratic nations, might have been exceptional; and democratic authoritarianism (i.e. popularly elected leaders who reject the rule of law and liberalism) might be more common.

President Erdogan of Turkey, President Putin of Russia, and Prime Minister Berlusconi of Italy are all recent examples of right wing populists who have exercised power in this way. Rather than being a deviation from the norm, the victory of Trump might be viewed as a rejection of the liberal consensus that has governed the U.S. and much of Western Europe since the end of World War II. Coming on the heels of a Brexit vote that was very much fueled by similar sentiments, and the rise of right wing populist movements on the continent, it is worth reflecting on why so many voters are rejecting the liberalism that Westerns have taken for granted for much of the last century.