In a post over the weekend about John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's new book Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder makes a very odd closing point:
Political scientists aren't going to like this book, because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press, which is to say -- a messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition between flawed human beings -- a universe away from numbers and probabilities and theories.
I know a lot of political scientists, and let me take this opportunity to assure Marc that most political scientists love good, dishy books full of political gossip -- the uglier, the better. I love Bob Woodward books and all the Making of the **** Campaign tomes as much as the rest of America seems to love John Grisham novels. Many political scientists have similar feelings on this -- before people become political scientists, they're usually political junkies. And anyone who studies this stuff for a living can't only be aware that politicians are flawed beings -- they have to love them just a little for their flaws. As Seth Masket points out, "If we only cared about numbers and probabilities and theories, we'd have become mathematicians."
I suspect that the difference between my profession and Ambinder's is that while I love these canmpaign narratives, I don't always buy their explanations for why things play out the way they do. Structural factors like the economy matter a hell of a lot as well. The chapter in Game Change on the Edwardses, for example, is really gripping stuff -- but it's gripping because of the tawdriness, not because it affected the campaign in any way whatsoever. Even if theirs had been a fairy-tale marriage, John Edwards still wasn't going to be the president.
Ambinder's passive-aggresive attitude towards my profession is not unique to him -- it flares up every once in a while among political journalists. In some ways, this dust-up mirrors the occasional testiness that emerges between traditional baseball writers and sabermetricians. Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy's recently complained about "the stat geeks, those get-a-lifers who are sucking all the joy out of our national pastime." Yeah, because the last thing the sport would want is for informed people to be arguing passionately about it.
Shaughnessy's assertion flabbergasted most sabermetricians, who clearly love baseball and all of its facets. They just find it silly not to consider the utility of smart statistics when analyzing the support. But a lot of sabermetricians tend to watch baseball with the television on mute so they don't have to hear broadcasters emphasize points that, to them, are superfluous -- just as many political scientists I know rarely watch the cable news shows.
A good narrative, however? We'll snap that up like popcorn.