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 (Lse.ac.ukTwitter). 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?

The Strange Death of Parliamentary Democracy

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


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One hundred years since the battle to end all battles at the Somme, the aftermath of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU offers a stark reminder of the court politics of a different era. Once again the officer class has sent the ‘tommies’ over the top with little thought for what lies ahead. The ‘sun-lit meadows beyond’ that the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson spoke of seem distant at best. Whatever the long-term social and economic consequences of Brexit, the political ramifications of Brexit have displayed a terrifying decline in the political elite’s commitment to representative democracy and a breakdown of the norms and conduct of political debate.

New Politics and Labour

These dangerous times for representative or parliamentary democracy are most prominent in the two main political parties. Take the Labour Party and its leadership crisis. Here the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn suggest that a (non-binding) vote of non-confidence by parliamentary colleagues has no legitimacy. Legitimacy is seen to lie in the election of the party leader by a majority of party members. It is claimed that the future of politics lies in ‘movements’ rather than party organisation. This is no longer about party meetings or canvassing, and winning elections, but about expression of a political worldview and set of values. A disregard for the engagement of political parties in parliamentary processes has been at the heart of so-called militant tendencies on the left for a long time. For these elements, participation in representative democracy is seen as a sell-out to dominant (capitalist) interests. These elements have received a lease of life in the name of ‘new’ supposedly kinder politics. We are now at a place where there is a split between a party in parliament and a (proclaimed) movement outside parliament (though there is little evidence of how large that movement is, despite support for Corbyn in the leadership election last year). This is a dangerous sign for the future of representative government. After all, political parties are supposed to play a dual role – the first is to provide for responsiveness to the views of voters, and the second is to participate in responsible government (and opposition). Suggesting that legitimacy for party leaders lies in a movement undermine the crucial role that political parties play in government. This is politics by an elite that looks different from the Bullingdon boys, but is still an elite nonetheless.

The Death Throes of Club Government and the Conservatives

The leadership battles in the Conservative Party currently resemble the courtier-intrigue of a Shakespearean play. Whatever the twists and turns of the contest, the preceding events of the referendum campaign point to an important decline in the understandings of representative democracy by party leaders. One of the distinguishing (and problematic) features of the Westminster system was its lack of formal checks and balances. The ‘elective dictatorship’ was held in check by ‘responsible’ club government – social ties and conventions were to ensure appropriate behaviour in government. As many have argued, ‘club government’ has been in fatal decline since the days of Margaret Thatcher, given hyper-innovations, such as liberalisation and internationalisation. The last ‘club’, united by a shared school and university background, appears to be the world of British politics. This, as Michael Moran has argued, sets up the stage for tragic failure: a world in which internationalisation and regulation have constrained the levers of the political elite. In turn, this raises the incentive to engage in spectacles and posturing, whether these include grand events such as the Olympics, building projects such as airports, or battle-bus style campaigning to rage against the ‘loss of control’. The consequences of these spectacles are unlikely to come cheap, if only in terms of taxpayer expense. Not least, the prevalence of stage-managed events is itself a source of public cynicism about politics being contrived and out of touch with ordinary folk.

Populism and Illusions of Governing

More fundamentally, offering the spectacle of regaining ‘control’ plays straight into the hands of those politicians with outright disdain for political institutions. Appeal to ‘decent’ and ‘hard-working’ people offer a rhetoric that divides any population into, on the one hand, those who are ‘deserving’ with common sense and the undeserving feckless and undeserving ‘elites’ on the other. This then leads to the rather bizarre spectacle of elite, career politicians campaigning on an anti-establishment and anti-London ticket (a phenomenon that has been well-documented in the US since at least Jimmy Carter). In doing so, they further undermine the role of parties in contributing to responsible government and opposition.

The same holds for the SNP. Here, the vote of a UK-wide referendum has been reinterpreted as a vote of a separate country that stands apart from the rest of the UK. Political opportunism has to be always seen as part of the (legitimate) political game, but it dangerously conflates one issue (the UK’s relationship to the EU) with another (the future relationship of different ‘nations’ in the British Isles).

More generally, then, the increased use of referenda and other methods of direct democracy in British politics should not necessarily be seen as advances of participation. Rather, they should be seen as attempts by party leaderships to overcome their own internal party conflicts. In the case of Labour, direct elections of the leader offered the dual promise of reduced trade union influence and symbolic gesturing that office-seeking was somewhat checked by the party. In the case of David Cameron and the Conservatives, it was an attempt to maintain illusions of ‘governing’ (i.e. ‘control’) by offering voters a choice while the real world has turned ever more into one that demands compromise, bargaining and dealing in trade-offs. That is not the kind of world that fits easily into the legacy-seeking worldview of the debating rooms of the Oxford Union.

An International Phenomenon?

The recent developments in British politics may appear a peculiarly national malaise. They are however consistent with much wider international trends. One such trend is growing bifurcation among electorates between cosmopolitan and provincial places, as one of us has highlighted in work with Gerry Stoker. Another is the dominance of constraining policy frameworks in order to attract international private investment. The latter has reduced discretionary scope for doing politics as governments have lost control over much of their policy agenda, in areas such as taxation and migration. The former encourages divide and rule style of politics that sits uneasily with the myriad ways of parliamentary government and decision-making in international organisations. Pledging that ‘one can have one’s cake and eat it too’ and not be laughed out of the court of popular opinion suggests that politics is treated as student union-type entertainment, and worse. After all, it is not the jester that speaks truth to power that is being feted, but the jester for jester’s sake.

We do not have a rose-tinted view about the pragmatic functioning of parliamentary democracy, in Westminster or elsewhere. Nevertheless, the explicit disdain for responsible government through representative democracy by engaging in political games and posturing without compromise might at first sight appear attractive. It unfortunately resonates more closely to the politics of Weimar than the traditional views of Westminster. This disdain might make for catchy tweets and photo-ops, but it will do nothing in the long-term for the legitimacy of political institutions. In fact, it reduces the actual ability to solve policy problems, and ultimately it will foment the public mood of disillusionment.

Budgetary Politics in 2014 and beyond…

By Martin Lodge (London School of Economics) and Will Jennings (University of Southampton)

Cross-posted at the UK Political Studies Association blog.

Beyond the substantial shakeup of the pension system, increases in ISA allowances and the tax threshold, tax-free childcare, as well as reductions in beer, bingo, whisky duties, what else can be said about the recent budget?

Budgetary politics are inherently about politics and ‘the margin’: it is about creating specific winners and losers, as well as seeking to minimize the unintended electorally damaging effects. Chancellor George Osborne’s 2014 budget has been no different. The cap on welfare spending was one of those traps that governments like to lay for their opponents, the appeal to the ‘grey’ vote may please the most Conservative-leaning part of the electorate and the capping of the carbon price floor responds to calls from manufacturers. However, once the headlines regarding the immediate winners and losers are forgotten, the budget has long-term implications for executive politics and governance in the UK. In particular, it marks a further move towards postponing bad news and hard choices to future generations.

First of all, the announced changes to pension rules, allowing people to cash in their pension pots on retirement, makes an optimistic assumption about human behaviour, namely the ability to plan for the long-term (precisely the sort of  short-term bias pensions were designed to mitigate). Existing annuity arrangements may have been problematic, but it is not clear how much input the newly privatised Behavioural Insights Team had on this decision given uncertainties about how wisely people will behave when a lump sum becomes available to them. Will the state establish a default ‘choice architecture’ so as to guide behaviours? Or will it be required to step in for those who run out of money? Similarly, the extension of the Help to Buy Scheme ignores the risk of fuelling a house price bubble. These examples illustrate the sorts of unintended effects that budgetary politics can generate – and the potential clash between the long-standing world of distributive politics – handing out giveaways to swing and core voters – and the supposedly new world of nudging (‘evidence based’) behaviour. Furthermore, they also illustrate the usual optimism-bias in terms of estimating future level of tax receipts.

Secondly, the budget confirmed that tightening in public spending will continue long into the future. It offers benefits to certain parts of society today at the expense of further public spending cuts that will start to bite in the middle of the next parliament. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that long-run public finances have been weakened, with permanent tax giveaways being paid for “by unspecified spending cuts and temporary increases in tax revenues”. This budget marks another episode in the attempts of the coalition government to redraw the boundaries of the state. It has drawn cover from the trend of hardening public opinion against redistribution and against government provision of a social safety net. However, whether a seismic redrawing of the state is possible, let alone desirable, in an age in which the population is ageing, the national infrastructure is creaking, the economy remains in need of structural and geographic rebalancing, and climate change likely to entail growing costs, is questionable.

Most of all, this latest budget reveals the defining fault line of contemporary politics. The politics of tax and spend continues to be a central and highly visible part of the toolbox of British government. The temptation to generate uncertainty over the stability of tax incentives (green taxes), to provide ‘good news’ in a pre-election year at the expense of future generations, and the disregard for long-term engagement with the challenges facing modern societies and states, has been reinforced by this highly political budget. This budget may have addressed some of the potholes of contemporary electioneering ahead of the 2015 general election, but it has not even started to address inherent, long-term problems faced by the state.

Martin Lodge is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, Department of Government & Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation, London School of Economics

Will Jennings is Reader in Politics and Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance, University of Southampton