The Leakage Between Political Science and Policy Goes Both Ways

1 September 2021, 0930 EDT

In a recent contribution to Foreign Policy, Paul Musgrave argues that political science theories often “leak” from the academic “lab” to the “wild” world of politics/policy, where they become distorted, and where they get deployed as justifications for bad policies. According to Musgrave, the idea of the democratic peace has been the “most dangerous” such leak. Drawing on Piki Ish-Shalom’s book, Musgrave contends that, by providing part of the justification for the Iraq invasion, the democratic peace idea had “disastrous consequences.”

I agree with much of Musgrave’s thought-provoking argument. He is right that political science knowledge seeps regularly into policy discourse. He is also correct to portray democratic-peace theory as a central part of the intellectual infrastructure that enabled the Iraq debacle. (To bolster this point, he could have cited Tony Smith’s underappreciated A Pact with the Devil) And, he correctly notes that the impact of social-science ideas consists not in directly determining policy so much as legitimating and justifying it.

The production of academic knowledge is not… insulated from politics and policy practice.

I do think that Musgrave overstates the distinction between the academic and policy spheres. He describes the policy world as a “wild” realm, where ideas routinely become oversimplified, abused, and politicized. Academic political science, by contrast, operates in a “lab” characterized by “nuanced, cautious” discussions, “serious and conflicting” debates, and rigorous peer-review processes that kill faulty or false ideas. Such an account implies that the world of academic political science is apolitical and nonideological.

The production of academic knowledge is not as insulated from politics and policy practice as Musgrave suggests. In the United States, there are at least three significant ways that academic knowledge and politics – or policy practice – shape one another. 

First, influence flows in both directions. As I demonstrated in Our Enemies and US, political developments and policy demands shape the production of knowledge in Political Science and International Relations. 

My book did not cover the post-Cold War period, but policy and politics still shape academic knowledge. The case of democratic-peace theory illustrates this well. Although a trickle of democratic peace studies began appearing in the 1970s, they received little attention until the early 1990s, when Secretary of State James Baker, President Bill Clinton, and other officials began invoking the democratic peace. Once it was incorporated into major policy speeches and documents, the demand for democratic-peace research skyrocketed. The study of the democratic peace became a cottage industry.

Furthermore, as I argued in 1995, the definition of democracy used in democratic peace research is a product of the politics of America’s international rivalries. Aspects of democracy that made America and its enemies look alike were discarded while aspects that accentuated differences between America and its rivals became privileged. The idea that a formal constitution was a defining feature of democracy declined after World War I, when the United States allied with constitution-less Britain against Germany’s constitutional government. The notion that freedom from want was as essential to democracy as political freedom was popular during World War II, when America and the Soviet Union were allied against Nazi Germany, only to be discarded when Russia became America’s bitter rival. During the Cold War, the idea that democracy revolved mainly around free and competitive electoral processes became favored by political scientists, as it accentuated the difference between America and the people’s democracies of Eastern Europe. This procedural view of democracy still guides democratic peace research. 

Second, disciplinary politics profoundly shape which ideas emerge and flourish in the academy itself. What Musgrave describes as “serious and conflicting academic debates” are riddled with power relations; research communities marginalize or outright exclude scholarship that questions the basic precepts of their intellectual frameworks. Once again, the democratic peace is a case in point. Debates about the democratic peace occur almost entirely on the theory’s own positivist and ahistorical ground. As Christopher Hobson observed in Perspectives on Politics, democratic-peace researchers “refuse to countenance critiques that do not commence from shared neopositivist premises.” My 1995 article, published in a leading journal, still awaits a “serious and conflicting” response from democratic peace proponents. Ditto for Tarak Barkawi and Mark Laffey’s otherwise influential rebuttal, as well as the books by Piki Ish-Shalom and Tony Smith.  

Finally, whether Musgrave means to or not, his article gives the impression that political scientists are passive or even reluctant actors in the transmission of scholarly ideas to the policy world. He finds the culprits in magazines and think tanks, not in universities.

Political scientists should focus on their own practices rather than shift the blames.

In practice, the boundary between think tanks and universities has become rather porous. If 30 years ago university-based scholars almost never held think tank appointments, today such dual appointments are part of the fabric of Washington. When a scholar with such a dual appointment whispers an idea in the ears of an official, does the responsibility lie with the think tank or the university? There are many other vectors through which political scientists actively transmit ideas to the policy sphere. Scholars engage in consulting to government agencies and NGOs. Informal meetings between scholars and mid-level officials or staffers occur regularly in Washington. Many political scientists actively promote their research findings on social media. There is now a major movement, which includes contributors to the Duck of Minerva, to push academic research into the hands of policymakers.

To the extent that leaks from the political science “lab” enable bad policies, political scientists should focus on their own practices rather than shift the blame to the shoddy practices of policymakers and think tank staffers.