Tuesday, March 4, 2014

When Is A Controversy Settled in Political Science?

I am deeply disturbed by the fact that most political scientists have settled a controversy on which there is considerable evidence that the conventional wisdom may be wrong. What is the issue? It is party identification, and more specifically, people who consider themselves independents.

The conventional wisdom is that there are really small percentages of independents. That is, most political scientists adhere to the findings by Keith et al. in The Myth of the Independent Voter (1992). There are several recent studies, most importantly, Hajnal and Lee’s Why Americans Don’t Join the Party (2011), that don't support those findings.  They argue that—especially for Asian Americans and Hispanics, but also for Anglos—the decision to consider partisan leaners—that is, independents who lean towards one of the political parties—as partisans is premature. They find that given a viable alternative, partisan leaners are more likely than partisans to choose an alternative to the two major parties. Furthermore, they find that partisan leaners, when tracked over several electoral cycles, are more likely than partisans to vary in their vote choice. Thus, even in terms of voting behavior, there are doubts about their being partisans.

Recently, Seth Masket noted that attributing political behavior to one factor—in this case ideology—is troublesome. The same could be said about vote choice. Attributing vote choice to partisanship could be the correct motivation, but it could not be correct. It may be more complex and involve ideology, issues, personal knowledge, and myriad other factors. The point is that the vote choice is usually limited to one of two major political party’s candidates. So partisanship may determine the choice, but there are also other factors.

Long ago, Thomas Kuhn described the history of science in terms of paradigms and normal science. This helps explain what’s occurring in our attempt to understand partisanship and independents. There have been different views of independents historically (Hajnal and Lee cover this well in their book). The current conception of partisan leaning independents is being challenged. Soon, I predict, Hajnal and Lee’s interpretation will supplant Keith et al.’s interpretation. Until then, however, we will have to suffer through blogs such as this one by John Sides, which supports normal science. I only hope that I’m still alive when the independence of independents is acknowledged by political science. It can’t happen too soon for me!  

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