I was given some food for thought by reading a recent article on the relationship between political scientists and politicians. We spend a lot of time on this blog thinking about academic historians, their ideas and whatever influence they may have on the public. But if intellectual history is the study of, as David Hollinger put it, the “discourse of intellectuals,” then there is nothing special about historians as an object of concern.
Political scientists confront similar issues, according to graduate student John Balz, whose article appears in the current (Jan/Feb/March) issue of the Washington Monthly. (By the way, in my personal opinion the WaMo is the best strictly political periodical out there right now. It leans to the left, but is grounded in an old-school emphasis on reportage rather than opinion journalism.) Assessing the influence of the ivory tower on the corridors of power in Washington, Balz finds none. “For decades now,” he writes, “political scientists have bemoaned how little use those who practice politics have for those who study it. Among political professionals–politicians, Capitol Hill staffers, journalists, pollsters, and campaign consultants–economists are prized, but political scientists are spurned.”
Once the situation was different. President Woodrow Wilson was himself a political scientist, and later chief executives made good use of such academic luminaries as Harold Lasswell and Gabriel Almond. Later, amidst criticisms of “irrelevant and obscure research,” political science fell out of fashion in Washington. At the same time, writes Balz, political scientists themselves began to prize the objectivity that came from being far from the centers of power. Robert Putnam, the well-known public intellectual and author of Bowling Alone, sees a dichotomous mindset at work. “You can have Hillary Clinton know your name and political science think you’re a dunce, or have political science know you and have Hillary Clinton never [hear] of you. Most political scientists would choose the latter.”
It would seem that the plight of political scientists is analogous to, though not identical with, that of historians. Both history and politics currently enjoy great popularity, but the vulgarization of these subjects in outlets such as The History Channel and the O’Reilly Factor can leave one wondering if the quest for a bit of disinterested rigor is really so terrible. Both sets of scholars, then, can feel a tension between achieving influence through reaching a wide audience, and doing the highest quality work. One significant difference between the two, though, is that for historians, there is no parallel to government itself. Political scientists may lament (or, occasionally, revel in) their lack of interaction with the governing classes, but for academic historians, there is no public institution of history with which they struggle to define an appropriate relationship.