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The Utility of Research and Political Science

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

When asked what I am studying at college, the inevitable rejoinder that follows my answer of “political science” is often either a slow nod of the head with a look of tacit confusion, or the blunt, “Oh…and what exactly are you going to do with that?” Those who think they know what political science entails seem rather perplexed as to what political scientists actually do. It is in instances like these that articles such as Henry Brady’s and David McKay’s shed some much-needed emphasis on an oft misunderstood avenue of study. In the following, I shall contend that political science certainly has the potential to impact the development of high-profile political events, and it can also help serve to explain trends and patterns that appear across time in the political arena.

 In his article “Law and Data”: The Butterfly Ballot Episode, Brady details the actions of a small cadre of political scientists who were ushered into the political spotlight immediately following the contentious 2000 presidential election. Firstly, he and his band were asked to assess whether they believed there was a possibility that voters mistook Buchanan’s spot on the butterfly ballot for Gore’s. In order to verify this, Brady’s team needed to produce statistical evidence that would suggest the seemingly disproportionate level of support for Buchanan in the contentious district was not merely a regular outlier that could have occurred in any district. Following the publishing of their academic papers confirming that the butterfly ballot was most likely to blame for the voting discrepancy, a flurry of activity ultimately lead to the group meeting with the presiding judge and presenting their findings (Brady.) Even though ultimately the judge hearing the case ruled that he could not constitutionally order a recount, and the Supreme Court denied the appeal, the influence of Hardy and the other political scientists should not be downplayed. In a moment of national importance they were able to utilize their expertise in data analysis and research to craft both academic and accessible explanations and arguments for what happened in Palm Beach, FL. Even though they were never allowed to testify in court, there is no doubt that their research had an impact and would have had a greater impact if the case had been heard. Thus this is a clear example of the immediate impact of political science on the political landscape.

 David McKay’s “Divided and Governed? Recent Research on Divided Government in the United States” attempts to cover a wide range of research and discussion on the phenomenon known as divided government, wherein democrats appear to be favored in local election but republicans are favored in national elections. Divided government is seen as a relatively new trend emerging in the late 1960s, and divided government “is almost universally perceived as a bad thing,” (McKay.) Throughout his article, McKay highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the relevant literature in an attempt to account for the cause of divided government. Because it is perceived as a negative trend and indicative of weak parties or a weak political system, it is imperative that we come to understand the underlying cause of the sudden increase in division of government and the shift in voter trends that brought it about. In doing so we can alleviate potentially debilitating political issues associated with divided government or, at the very least, we can understand the problem better in order that we might craft a better solution.

 In sum, political science should not be denigrated as the undergraduate degree of choice for would-be bureaucratic pencil pushers or some catch-all degree for otherwise undecided college yuppies. Instead, political science offers us the ability to not only study and understand the political events that are constantly unfolding around us, but also to directly impact those events as they occur. I believe this is tantamount for the future of our political culture as the complicated web of interactions between the sociopolitical, economic, and religious spheres all become more and more complex.

[1] Brady, Henry E., Michael C. Herron, Walter R. Mebane, and Jasjeet Singh Sekhon. “”Law and Data”: The Butterfly Ballot Episode.” PS: Political Science and Politics, 2001: 59-69.
[2] McKay, David. “Divided and Governed? Recent Research on Divided Government in the United States.” British Journal of Political Science, 1994: 525.

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