Thursday, March 14, 2013

Is the American political system healthy?

Raise your hand if you think the American political system is healthy.

I thought so.

Once again, there is an effort to defund political science, this time from Sen. Tom Coburn. Sen. Coburn's letter to the head of the NSF on behalf of that effort says the following: "Studies of presidential executive power and Americans' attitudes toward the Senate filibuster hold little promise to save an American's life from a threatening condition..."

If the system is not healthy, we are all faced with a threatening condition. In light of the apparent problems with the political system, wouldn't you like to know everything you could know about polarization, electoral access and/or fraud, presidential primaries, ideology and compromise, the two-party system, and yes, executive power and the filibuster. We can't even agree on what (if any) ailment the body politic is suffering from. Political scientists know a lot more about it than most. What we need is more knowledge, not less.

Political research on, for example, the filibuster is far from limited to "Americans' attitudes." Scholars can tell us what its consequences are and how filibuster reform might work, which in turn might help us craft reform that does good and not bad. Sounds promising to me.

That's your choice. If you think everything in Washington is just dandy, then maybe we don't need to find a cure for anything. But if you think the system is "broken," or in any way not working right, then we need to know more. Urgently.

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(NOTE: Political scientists and others have defended their research in many fora and in many ways. Sometimes, we accept the premise of critics and argue that yes, political science research is relevant. Other times we note that a standard of immediate relevance is a strange standard for science, because just understanding how things work is important. That's the mission of the NSF. This post was of the first type, but of course the latter argument is even more valid.)


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