Penn Political Review

A Response to Ezra Klein’s “Poli Sci 101”

Ezra Klein’s column in the Washington Post on Sunday – “Poli Sci 101” – continued a conversation that’s been going on for a long time in the blogosphere over the relative merits of journalism and political science. Klein belongs to a group of “wonky” bloggers who tend to use data and research in making their points, while disparaging the use of simple, accessible narratives to explain (for example) shifts in the poll numbers. He repeats a number of by-now familiar points in his column, such as: speeches don’t matter, the founders were not completely right about everything, and politicians are not beholden to lobbyists. But the gist of it was that the fate of a politician’s career does not hang in the balance of every day-to-day headline-making kerfuffle. Klein finishes with sage advice: “Worrying less about tomorrow’s polls and news releases and more about the effect of today’s policies could make for better bills — and happier, more successful politicians.”

John Sides picks up on this and elaborates:

In fact, Ezra’s point and my quote suggests quite the opposite: political science really does empower politicians. It tells them to ignore a lot of gossip and trivia. It tells them not to sweat every rhetorical turn of phrase. It tells them that as useful as Mike Allen’s Playbook might be in some ways, it captures a conversation that the vast majority of American voters knows nothing about.


I assume this would be sweet, sweet music to politicians, many of whom complain routinely about things like the media and the time they must spend fundraising for their campaign, and profess their true passion for crafting public policies big and small.

A lesson of political science is that the stuff they hate is not as important as they fear, and the stuff they love is what they can spend more time doing.

I agree completely, and hope that politicians (and their aides) will take more time to turn off the TV set and read policy papers. I hope they feel more empowered to think about substantive issues and follow the horse race less, or less obsessively.

It’s also important to add that these insights should empower not just the politicians, but also the voters and consumers of political news. When our news cycle is determined to stir up two controversies a week, most of which fade into the background within a day or two, it can be difficult and discouraging to follow. If I spend a long time away from my computer, when I get back to my RSS feeds I am more or less guaranteed to read at least one post which revises the views stated in an earlier post which follows up yet another post responding to something somebody else said that morning. And if it were necessary to read all of those in order to truly understand the political scene and the important issues of the day, nobody would understand them who wasn’t paid to do so full time. But the good news is: it’s not all relevant! I don’t have to follow everything Sarah Palin tweets to be a responsible citizen.

The flip side of this is that I don’t have to follow everything Ezra Klein says in order to be a responsible citizen. To complete the circle, not only should politicians and readers feel empowered by this sharper focus on what matters, but so should writers. Bloggers shouldn’t necessarily turn into academics, publishing papers on a quarterly basis and spending most of their time in archives or laboratories. But they should spend more time reading and less time writing. I’ve long felt that political bloggers have fallen prey to the same 24-7 tendencies as cable news: constant output, shifting attention, etc. And while I vastly prefer the blogs I read to anything on television, the sheer volume still frustrates me. I don’t have time to read it all.

Now, Ezra Klein writes as much for the benefit of all the other full-time commentators, opinion-makers, analysts, aides, politicians, and assorted wonks who do this for a job as he does for my benefit. And there are sites that aggregate a bunch of political commentary from across the web – RealClearPolitics, Andrew Sullivan, the Atlantic’s Politics page – but aggregation won’t hide the fact that most blogospheric analysis is small-bore and reactive to short-term events. If we want to promote responsible, policy-focused discussion at all levels, we ought to revisit the way our reading and writing are structured. Is the political blogosphere a club for people who read politics obsessively and for fun? If so, then it’s just as much entertainment as MTV, and only slightly more of  a public service.

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About The Author

John Gee is a senior in the College majoring in Intellectual History. In addition to PPR, he is a member of the Residential Advisory Board and the Philomathean Society.

1 Comment

  1. Laura Paragano September 16, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Something I often find myself struggling with (and I sincerely hope that ails the conscience of other bloggers) is the fear that by blogging I am only making the volume of opinions in the blogosphere more dense and convoluted. Of course, that may be the Roman Catholic guilt speaking, but I place it upon myself to at least make sure that what I say is either a new, useful insight for people to take note of or information I feel is interesting and necessary to help my readers become more educated. Of course, trying to be entertaining fits in there too.

    Certainly, it’s fair for people to be under the impression that blogging, as Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur, unfairly establishes a platform that allows the civically illiterate masses to flourish and rule. He would say that misinformed blogs are undermining work that experts have spent years studying and analyzing. In that sense, I suppose Ezra Klein would also agree that there are the closed-minded, belief driven bloggers who appeal to emotion over rationality.

    And I agree with you that 24-hour news media weakens itself through “constant output, shifting attention, etc,” and often turning to blogs instead as a source of information. But I hardly think that volume is a problem – and if it is, you’re viewing the blogosphere wrong.

    It could be the case that the most popular blogs are the most polarized. Often, however, it’s not going to be every radical government conspiracy theory that will be taken seriously by enough readers to gain momentum. Most of the popular blogs are the ones that are impassioned, well enough informed, and inspiring. And in that respect, they are ones that do serve as a public service.