60. Can Political Science be a tool for everyone who observes politics?

Human society is changing in so many ways that any individual observer attempting to spot patterns from an armchair would do better to give up and take a nap. This cliché about the rate of change is a good part of the reason for widespread Anomie (see Durkheim) in the developed world. As advanced cultures, and as well-educated individuals, we do not know what to focus on or which moral foundations to anchor our identities to. Like with any other subject, information about political trends and events is incredibly abundant, together with the overflow of associated interpretations. It is cognitively tiresome to pursue good answers yourself, and it has never easier to latch on to opinion-setters such as podcast hosts and TV charmers like Bill Maher and John Oliver (pardon the exclusively liberal examples). I doubt whether any astute observer of events in 2017 would argue that the few advanced democratic citizenries on earth are in general making enlightened voting decisions, or holding public officials to account in a way that political theory likes to contemplate. This cannot be a surprise, and I have heard people and even academic papers speaking about voting qualification exams on more than a few occasions this year. I am not actually expressing panic because we are not really worse off than any historic political cultures, but I am curious about the kinds of steps that are considered in pursuit of the “Enlightened citizen” from Robert Dahl’s brilliant democratic checklist. There is one in particular that I have positive intuitions about, if little else.

Slow civilizational progress, while not inevitable by any means – see collapse of Rome and the state of Western Europe for the thousand years that ensued – can be sketched out in fairly obvious terms. Technological tools and painfully acquired freedoms make learning widely affordable and as populations we learn the value of education. We make sure we vote to keep improving it, eventually learning more about all relevant aspects of social life in a virtuous circle. This dreamy picture is a staple idea in the minds of most democratic citizens, but it is not so much a suggestion for improvement as a general hope. The suggestion that I would like to question is the following: Could a small increase in public understanding of some basic concepts from Political Science and Economics make a tangible difference in our ability to act as ‘enlightened’ citizens? As a prolific online time-waster I get the sense that Science in general is in fashion right now. As a political science postgrad and news consumer I see that we are quite clearly on the ebb of the eternally pulsating politicization wave. So why should I never expect to get an answer if I ask somebody on the street to tell me the name of a political scientist? Why is the normal response, when pressed for one, that it does not even make sense to speak of a science of Politics? Psychology is bloody complicated too, but its concepts filter down into common parlance all the time, with noticeable effects on social interactions and our relational expectations of one another. Maybe the notoriously shaky science of nutrition serves as an even stronger example. My intuition is that some of the concepts in my field could effectively improve political observation and debate, but that the many barriers might be too big for this article to ultimately be worth the trouble. I will look briefly at three concepts and what use I believe they could have, followed by a reflection on what it might take for them to filter down into the mainstream without dangerous simplification.

The general feeling I want these ideas inspire, is the importance of a change from anger and apathy, towards the point of view that political action is challenging by nature. There are dynamics in political relationships, and hard facts about human psychology that create all sorts of inevitable dilemmas. They tend to have cooperative solutions, but finding these relies on a great number of people taking a slightly more scientific perspective on what is admittedly a field where emotions – because of real life consequences – are never far below the surface. Greed and corruption should be punished with public shame and serious penalty, but a recognition that the individuals in positions of power are largely interchangeable with us, and that we would often act similarly to people we morally abhor is an important step towards sobriety in political observation.


  1. Backstage and Front-stage politics


In a dense but wonderful assessment of the state of the advanced democracies of Western Europe and North America, Yannis Papadopoulos urges the use of the terms backstage and front-stage as an analytical lens. The front-stage is the spectacle on television, including parliamentary debates and ‘big deal’ policies. In terms of true influence this stage has experienced a hollowing out over the last three decades in favour of the backstage. By using the word backstage, the author does not hope to espouse the conspiratorial attitude that is common among people who are sick of politics; “Businesses and the 1% are really in control.” While what is called interest group politics belongs to the backstage, it also includes all the technocrats, unelected administrators, public-private service providers, and transnational organizations. Governments have had to respond to new challenges, and there is some logic to putting more policy-making power into less ‘elected’ hands. Sometimes change is slow and it is not helpful if the boss is voted out every few years for reasons of ignorance. Do you smell the dictator in me?

My opinion is that political cynicism among intelligent people is harmful, and that reconceptualising politics as necessarily having these two stages can be a conduit for better discussion. When we watch a play, we do not think of the people backstage, who are admittedly ‘pulling the strings,’ as sinister money grabbers. The analogy is weak, but the softening of the evil label has to be useful.  Democracy, or good governance more broadly, never was purely a matter of Rousseau’s General Will. But it stands to reason that an interested and vigilant population is more capable than a bored and apathetic one of holding officials  (elected or otherwise) to proper account.


  1. Principal-Agent Problems


A principal is someone who entrusts an agent to do something on her behalf, so that a voter can be considered a principal, and a politician an agent. It is a problem that we will all realize we understand deeply with a different example.

Imagine paying a psychiatrist, your agent, to deal with your psychological issues, and imagine the psychiatrist falls on some hard times. We can easily entertain the possibility that the psychiatrist deliberately opens up a few emotional pandora’s boxes, and voices firmly the opinion that you will need bi-weekly sessions for the time being. The example is deliberately dark because I now want to emphasize that the agent may often be completely unaware that she is seeing the situation in this dangerously biased way. We do not like to blame ourselves for immoral actions, and it only takes a few logical sounding mental rationalizations to conclude we are helping our principal. Perhaps giving an issue we all understand intuitively a dry scientific name appears silly. My reason for doing so is to encourage us all to think a little more like economists, and consider the principal-agent problem as universal, difficult to eliminate, but fairly easy to ameliorate. Think of getting a second opinion if you psychiatrist insists on more sessions. In politics you can insert accountability tests, or public hearings of arguments, at many stages in a political process. We do this often, it is in fact the raison d’être of political journalism, but this particular flow of accountability testing regrettably corresponds more directly to the profit motive, than the kind of regular, institutionalized measures I am suggesting. Hillary Clinton was dishonest, and if we had a stronger sense of the incentives she and everybody in the secretive business of politics faced, the country may have been spared a clown president in favour of a clearly competent, if sly stateswoman.


  1. Open-access orders vs limited-access orders



It might be nice to take a break from the old democracy-oligarchy-autocracy divides. Political Economists Doug North, J.J. Wallis, and Barry Weingast developed a framework for interpreting social orders in a stunningly good book that anyone patient enough should read: Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. Their idea is that it is more useful to think of the seventeen or so democracies in the world as open-access orders, with the rest of the world falling in the limited-access category. The theory states that any large group of people must find a solution to the threat of violence. Historically, almost every political entity larger than a tribe, and most countries today, solve this problem in one way; a person or organization with power controls access to economic resources and uses this control generate rents in order to maintain a monopoly of power. This system often ensures some stability, but obstructs strong economic progress because of the limited access. Technological progress and other factors that arose in small pockets of Western Europe made it harder for political elites to control economic access, leading to the development of the first open-access orders. I love to think of modern democracies in these terms, because we can apply the framework within such societies as well. We can call a national financial system a closed-access sector even if it is embedded within an open access order, e.g. starting a new bank is impossible! I consider this an important step away from emotionally charged cries that democracy is dead, facilitating an important breakdown of a society’s different subsystems for more fruitful analysis.

I think that when you study political science or economics, you gain a calm perspective of the social world. One of the risks that I try to manage is for this calm to turn into complacency. Things are better than before, so they are pretty great. Most people in the real world are not at much risk in this sense; they pay taxes and hold a rightful scepticism towards their government’s actions and expenditures. Most people also do not have time to immerse themselves in complex social science, or to follow current affairs particularly closely. The three ideas that I just summarized all evoke a common theme. They help the person who reflects on them shift from outrage to cool criticism, from reflex to understanding. Being too familiar with these ideas myself, I cannot gauge whether these proposed effects are realistic, or how much patience is required to internalize them well. The main obstacles to learning of any kind are the time and mental effort it requires, so perhaps my short summaries should shrink further if I ever discuss this again. The other obvious obstacles are stubbornness and a deeply entrenched political ideology. My attempted solution to this has been to choose fairly apolitical concepts that I believe can be read from across the political spectrum without too much eye rolling. The heaviest sighs are likely to come from strong liberals who sense a sneaky elitist and apologetic tone beneath my arguments. Being a political liberal myself, I do not mind the huffing if it means we can move even one inch away from our habitual echo chambers of opinion. I leave it to the readers, especially those who were unfamiliar with the concepts, to decide if the hypothesis stated at the outset was at all satisfied.


Brian van Oosterum – freelance journalist based in New York.

Contact: Brian.o.hdez@gmail.com




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