A call to action in political science

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EDITORIAL: It’s time for political science to update its disciplinary standards on public engagement. We can value neutrality, science and objectivity while passing judgment against actions and proposals that endanger democratic institutions. These do not conflict if we agree on core values.

About a week before the election, several hundred political scientists signed a petition, including myself, which expressed concern over Donald Trump’s actions and proposed actions that violate the most fundamental values ​​of American democracy. This was a non-partisan action taken in the interest of preserving the republic. The petition expressed a judgment on the values ​​shared by the institutions which have most fundamentally contributed to the perseverance of our form of government.

For example, threats to lock up a political opponent violate the due process clause in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments; encouraging the suppression and intimidation of voters violates the democratic standard of universal suffrage; the questioning of the independence of the judiciary threatens the legitimacy of the separation of powers and the checks and balances; intimidating journalists violates the freedom of speech and press freedom provisions of the First Amendment; Calling for the proliferation of nuclear weapons threatens national security and our position in international treaties.

It is fair to say that a public petition like this deviates from the standards of our discipline. Political science is based on the application of the scientific method to questions and puzzles of politics. We are looking for evidence to falsify existing ideas, theories and assumptions. We use logic and evidence to make discoveries and move forward. It is essential for this process that the scientist or observer is neutral, objective and detached. In the academic discipline, these norms have appropriately translated into strong norms against taking political positions of any kind.

And I think these standards are correct. As a teacher and scholar, I strive to be politically neutral and as objective as possible in my written and public speaking engagements. Showing bias in favor of a candidate, party, or ideology is to reject the objectivity that characterizes scientific examination of issues.

However, it is possible to adhere to the scientific method while simultaneously expressing a bias or judgment on particular issues. For example, is it biased for a nutritionist to show that malnutrition is bad? Is it biased for an economist to show that hyperinflation has negative consequences? Is it biased for a doctor to show that high blood pressure and high cholesterol lead to an increased risk of heart disease? Maybe yes. Such statements express a bias and a preference for a particular outcome.

When nutritionists, economists, or physicians express normative judgment, they do so on the basis of common values ​​for human growth, broad economic health, and individual health. Political scientists may also have common values ​​on which we can agree. It would be appropriate to make observations and express judgment when it appears that political actors or institutions violate these values.

There may not be general agreement on the policies to be adopted in order to maintain civil liberties, civil rights, the rule of law, national security or economic prosperity. But I suspect most political scientists agree that constitutional and republican democracy in America is valuable. And if we agree that the preservation of this form of government is a common value, then it is also appropriate to speak, write and verbally oppose actions or proposed actions that jeopardize the integrity of the institutions that support our preferred form of government.

It is impartial to judge actions, real and proposed, which would lead to violations of the Constitution and the rule of law. To be fair, these judgments are not always straightforward. As Dara Lind explains, even a proposed register of Muslims can be implemented in a way that does not violate the current rule of law or the Constitution, despite the general policy which seems rather totalitarian.

Unfortunately, the political actors in our current politics who have made proposals that threaten democratic norms and institutions mostly belong to one political party. Therefore, expressing an objection to radical policies can make many political scientists uncomfortable because it appears to be a partisan act. However, it behooves us to make the observation that policies, such as internment camps, are violations of the Constitution (in the form of denial of due process).

It may show a lack of neutrality to publicly express opposition to proposed policies that violate the Constitution, and disciplinary standards in favor of neutrality may appear to conflict with such public opposition; however, if we agree on common values ​​associated with the preservation of democracy, then we can also agree that it is appropriate to speak out on violations of the institutions that have contributed to the preservation of democracy.

In addition, it is our responsibility to do so. For we are the academics who most clearly understand the relationships between institutions, behavior and policy outcomes, and who can most clearly explain how threats of disruption to existing institutions can threaten the persistence of democracy.

So how do we maintain our credibility as a scientific discipline while engaging in the public sphere in a way that shows normative judgment? I have some advice:

Political scientist‘s guide to responsible public action:

  • When you observe or learn about proposals or actions that represent threats to democratic institutions or violate the Constitution, report it in public.
  • Write, speak, and publish in a variety of places in a way that uses research and literature in our field to demonstrate the consequences of proposals that threaten grassroots institutions.
  • Be specific and realistic about how the actions or proposals may weaken or violate core American values ​​and democratic norms.
  • Focus on the agreed values ​​of American democracy (eg, civil liberties, civil rights, due process, respect for the rule of law) rather than the partisan or ideological components of actions and proposals.
  • Collaborate with the media, the public and others on these issues; look for venues that offer wide exposure rather than speaking to a disciplinary audience, as is usually the case.
  • Focus on evidence-based, theoretically rigorous conclusions that highlight or provide appropriate context for current events.

By being objective and scientific, we remain neutral, while showing how actions and proposals violate or threaten basic democratic institutions. Articulating and enlightening the public on these points is not only consistent with our academic mission; it is our responsibility.


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