In recent years, though, there have been signs that views are shifting. In June 2007, Ezra Klein, then an associate editor for the liberal journal The American Prospect, put out a request for links to bloggers “who aggregate and keep track of political science research.” The call yielded almost no response—evidence that, while economists had colonized the wonkier regions of the blogosphere in the same way they’d taken over many D.C. policy shops, political scientists had largely ceded the terrain. But Klein’s item caught the eye of Henry Farrell, a professor of political science at George Washington University and a contributor to the early group blog Crooked Timber. The post, Farrell says, made it “very clear that there was a demand out there for political science”—and he encouraged his GW colleague John Sides, who’d been tinkering with the idea of a blog devoted to expanding the field’s audience, to meet it.
In November 2007, The Monkey Cage—the name comes from an H. L. Mencken line about the nature of democracy—was launched. It had two central goals: to publicize political science research, and to provide commentary on current political events—a task, Sides presciently acknowledged in a mission statement, that might involve “testing and perhaps contesting propositions from journalists or commentators.”
The site quickly established credibility among political scientists. And it has attracted a respectable audience as a niche blog, drawing more than 30,000 unique visitors in peak months. But perhaps The Monkey Cage’s greatest influence has been in fostering a nascent poli-sci blogosphere, and in making the field’s insights accessible to a small but influential set of journalists and other commentators who have the inclination—and the opportunity—to approach politics from a different perspective.
That perspective differs from the standard journalistic point of view in emphasizing structural, rather than personality-based, explanations for political outcomes. The rise of partisan polarization in Congress is often explained, in the press, as a consequence of a decline in civility. But there are reasons for it—such as the increasing ideological coherence of the two parties, and procedural changes that create new incentives to band together—that have nothing to do with manners. Or consider the president. In press accounts, he comes across as alternately a tragic or a heroic figure, his stock fluctuating almost daily depending on his ability to “connect” with voters. But political-science research, while not questioning that a president’s effectiveness matters, suggests that the occupant of the Oval Office is, in many ways, a prisoner of circumstance. His approval ratings—and re-election prospects—rise and fall with the economy. His agenda lives or dies on Capitol Hill. And his ability to move Congress, or the public, with a good speech or a savvy messaging strategy is, while not nonexistent, sharply constrained.
These powerful, simple explanations are often married to an almost monastic skepticism of narratives that can’t be substantiated, or that are based in data—like voter’s accounts of their own thinking about politics—that are unreliable. Think about that for a moment, and the challenge to journalists becomes obvious: If much of what’s important about politics is either stable and predictable or unknowable, what’s the value of the sort of news—a hyperactive chronicle of the day’s events, coupled with instant speculation about their meaning—that has become a staple of modern political reporting? Indeed, much of the media criticism on The Monkey Cage is directed at narratives that, from the perspective of political science, are either irrelevant or unverifiable. In the wake of the special election in Massachusetts, Sides wrote numerous posts noting the weakness of the data about voter opinion there and faulting journalistic efforts to divine the meaning of Scott Brown’s victory. “Yes, I know political science is a buzzkill,” he wrote in one. “And no one gets paid to say ‘We don’t and can’t know.’ But that’s what we should be saying.” This is the sort of thing that John Balz—the son of veteran Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz, and a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Chicago—might be referring to when he says the field produces what are, “from a journalistic perspective, unhelpful answers.”