Politics and Canadian political science
The two are unrelated. Sort of.
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Today’s column is about a very real fight.
A desperate struggle ‘twixt the forces of purity and evil.
“Anyway,” political scientist Emmett Macfarlane wrote on Twitter last week, “I'll take critiques about my not knowing anything about politics because I don't ‘do politics’ more seriously when they come from people who don't have jobs where half the work involves obfuscation and making society more stupid.”
[Some of] the people who 'do real politics' for a living shit on those who study and analyze it for a living because they know (and often publicly state outright) that what they care about is winning votes for their party - not improving lives, good governance, or principle.
Somewhere else on Twitter another political scientist had taken issue yet again with a criticism from someone involved in politics that the political scientists didn’t know what they were talking about.
“The media work I do as a poli sci prof is, to me, a source of pride, a demonstration of the usefulness of academia outside the proverbial ivory tower,” Stephanie Chouinard wrote. “But recent comments about our profession from politicos on TV and several [Canadian politics] podcasts have given me pause.”
I couldn't help but notice how often political scientists are portrayed by operatives as useless idiots who should stop taking up public airtime and be relegated back into the ivory tower, where they belong. So, what gives, folks?
Chouinard offered some explanation to bolster her defence of her profession and public comments from political scientists about daily political news.
Maybe there are things we don't see because it's difficult for Canadian political scientists to build first-hand knowledge of the ground work, as *any work* with *any #cdnpoli political party* automatically makes us suspect of bias.
Maybe it's because the 24hr news cycle means we often get used as "filler". Or because some of us in the #polisci field - we all know this to be true - are not disciplined enough to say "no" once in a while and too often talk outside our realm of expertise.
Maybe it's all of the above. I think some criticism is warranted. It makes me reflect on the broader ethics of public engagement as a so-called "expert". Perhaps something the #polisci discipline should be thinking about, esp. in a political context prone to disinformation. /fin
There’s meat in Chouinard’s defence and she does acknowledge that at least some of the criticism of her profession is warranted. To be fair, let us also grant that not all Canadian political scientists are useless commentators on Canadian politics. Macfarlane, for one, is indispensable in any serious discussion of the Canadian constitution. Except when he screams that the country is falling apart merely because he disagrees with something, like the completely meaningless declarations of the Saskatchewan and Alberta legislatures about sovereignty.
But then again, he was not alone in banging the drum of panic about the sovereignty acts or the language bill in Quebec. Plenty of others joined in as well. And it all came to nothing.
One of the difficulties for some in grasping what this dispute between “politicos” and political scientists is about might confuse a great many, including the newsrooms, since most people think that political scientists actually know about politics the same way a medical doctor understands how the human body works and can explain what’s causing the pain in your knee and how to fix it, which is really the same way a plumber can tell what is wrong with your plumbing or a carpenter can fix the sag in your floor.
A clue to the understanding why that isn’t so, to understand the confusion, look at Macfarlane’s reference to how things *ought* to be in politics. You can find a similar sentiment in something Chouinard wrote before her defence of political scientists making public comments.
I'm not arguing against any of that. What I'm saying is *many* folks went too fast yesterday and came to (wrong) conclusions. Playing gotcha is not going to get us anywhere - this goes for both media and politicians. But of course, some folks are never keen to show grace.
Both Chouinard and Macfarlane are not offering expert professional opinions in either example on what is going on. They are instead imposing a definition of the problem that includes a moral judgment and then suggests a remedy about how it ought to be done better, not in the sense of efficiency, but in the sense of what would be morally, ethically, or intellectually correct.
They offer a value judgment, which is to say they are not offering an observation, explanation, or opinion about politics as a social phenomenon, as a part of life. They are offering a political opinion about politics. They are taking sides in the debate itself, in the process.
After all, as the classic definition by David Easton goes, politics is the “authoritative allocation of values for a society.” In other words, politics is about who determines what is important for a society, how the members of a society determine what is important, why they think it is important, and even who the members of the society are in the sense of who actually makes those decision.
What Macfarlane and Chouinard did intheir comments was tell us how things ought to be. It’s like interviewing a doctor about heart disease who tells us the heart should be made differently, with six or seven chambers instead of four. In Chouinard’s case, the events she was describing - the so-called “gotcha” of a daily skirmish - is part of the process itself. You have to understand what is going on and you can only do that in the in the context of a looming election, the perceived weakness of the current federal government, the struggle for power and the ability to authoritatively allocate values. All of which she ignored. In other words, playing gotcha is very much going to get us anywhere - whether you mean society generally, the politicians, the media and everyone else. Decrying gotcha rather than exposing where this fits in the scheme overall lacks a crucial sense of context and perspective we’d expect from someone who understands politics as an activity but isn't actually involved in the particular contest.
Chouinard complains about how the system works, which of course doesn’t explain how or why it is this way let alone how we might get to the place of moral betterness that she seems to have. She isn't alone. Another supposed observer class - journalists do this too. Veteran journalist Michael Harris did precisely the same thing a few months ago in a Hill Times column:
The extreme adversarial system that our democracy has morphed into has replaced dialogue with tedious talking points. None of us really knows who Justin Trudeau, Pierre Poilievre, or Jagmeet Singh really are. We know them through soundbites, screw-ups, and scripted lines aimed at skewering the other guy. We know them when someone throws a stone in their direction. But we don’t have a clue of what they really think.
This misses the most fundamental point about our political system: it *is* extremely adversarial. It is that way on purpose. It is supposed to be this way. This is not a new observation and it is also bullshit.
Harris would have you believe there were good old days when things were morally better. There weren’t. Politics was just as vicious then as now, whenever then was. He merely confuses style or nostalgia with the substance of what is going on. It’s like saying he liked it better when men wore suits and fedoras rather than tee shirts and jeans. It’s all just ways to cover the body.
People wore more clothes made of heavier fabrics 60 or 100 or 200 years ago because homes and offices were not as well-heated as they are today or the modern materials have more insulation value or are cooler or we actually have fabrics that are lighter weight.
Or we have a wealthier society that allows people to own lots of clothes instead of suffering through all seasons with the same heavy clothes made by hand from sheep’s wool, spun by hand on a wheel in the kitchen by the fireplace that was the only source of heat in the entire small dwelling.
Chouinard is right too, when she notes that media use political scientists as filler and that some of her colleagues are not keen enough to say no when the topic is outside their lane. She might equally have noted those of her colleagues who take every request do so because it helps their career advancement, their self-promotion, their branding. You can decide for yourself why Peter Cowan and CBC asked a political scientist with *no* experience in or meaningful knowledge of political strategy or tactics to offer a supposedly expert opinion on political tactics or why the guy with zero experience in or knowledge of tactics thought he could offer an informed opinion on a subject he knows nothing about.
Chouinard also leaves out the role the media and the political scientists knowingly play in active politics. They are all too often not neutral observers when they make comments. They are frequently avtivistslike the local crowd of profs who media call in to advise expertly on stuff they know little if anything of.
Journalists take the private messages from political operatives and use them in their own talking points or in supposedly neutral opinion pieces like the sort we saw in the transition from the Pea Seas to the Liberals in late 2015. This is something we are all too familiar with in Newfoundland and Labrador since 2003. You know the media and Poli sci players by name. Some are still here. Others got the bigger jobs they were angling for. And still more crossed or will cross from one side of the stage to another and back again. They know how to play their own games, part of which is excluding those who will happily point out the game and name the players for others who don’t see it. *Those* people seldom turn up as filler or as preferred guests on shows hosted by the players. It is an incestuous part of the charade that Chouinard, MacFarlane, and others get caught up in but never really acknowledge. They just whine about how horrible it all is.
What we are talking about here is a feature mostly of Canadian political scientists. They are like Canadian foreign policy, which tends to take on the tone of - as one American put it long ago - the stern daughter of the Voice of God.
It’s the moralising in everything down to the refusal to get openly involved or get close enough to what they are supposedly interested in to be able to see how it works and describe that accurately. Ian Brodie, for one, stands out both for his willingness to get involved and convey the insights that come from having been then. His work stands out far above that of many of his colleagues including the popular Donald Savoie who, despite his time working in the bureaucracy actually seems to get a great deal dead wrong about how politics, including the politics of the bureaucracies themselves, actually work.
There is also a certain laziness in modern Canadian political science, which we should not ignore. It is far easier to talk endlessly of models and vague generalizations and to dismiss as irrelevant anything based on the work of research into actual things like elections and party finance and candidate recruitment because the results don’t fit the assumptions behind the model. You still get paid. The result is that to those who actually are or have been involved in politics, Canadian political science all too often sounds like intense arguments about angels on the heads of pins or the need to correct imbalanced humours to heal a supposedly sick body. That’s why the people Chouinard calls politicos blow raspberries at the poli sci crowd.
As for the people who get involved in politics for the love and understanding of politics, they know each other immediately. They get along with one another, for the most part, despite working for different teams and each share the scorn for the players who pretend to be above it all. The real political people know about and care about the struggle, which is about making good decisions and good policy in a political system that is complex and that the misinformation and misdirection from the players can make more difficult, especially when, as in Macfarlane’s tweets it reinforces popular cynicism about politics and politicians. The political people know the real struggle is not between purity and evil but about making sure the players don’t eat all the Jam Jams on the rest of us.