Myths and Realities

March 25 2014

A few lessons from political science:

1. Campaign contributions don’t buy congressional votes. Yes, there is a positive correlation between contributions and voting patterns, but think about it – if you’re directing the NRA’s Political Action Committee, are you more likely to donate to people you know support you already, or diehard supporters of gun control? Study after study shows that contributions don’t buy votes.

2. Spending millions of dollars on political campaigns is a good thing. Well, in some ways – costly campaigns deter some people from getting involved, but political advertising is not inherently evil. In fact, research shows that the more money is spent on campaigns, the more voters know about the candidates, issues, and the candidates’ position on issues. Believe it or not, advertisements can actually be informative, and voters actually show the ability to filter out incorrect or misleading information.

3. Citizens United, while it may have been a flawed decision, is not as big a deal as people make it out to be. The Supreme Court never actually said “corporations are people,” and corporations STILL CANNOT DONATE GENERAL TREASURY MONEY TO CANDIDATES OR PARTIES. All Citizens United did was make it so corporations can now engage in independent expenditures – that is, they can spend money on advertising in favor/against a candidate as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidates’ campaigns.

4. The two-party system is not the root of all evil. Third parties do not lose in American Politics because of the “tyranny” of the two major parties, but rather because of our winner-take-all electoral system (Duverger’s Law). Anyone who complains that Democrats and Republicans don’t offer “real choices” ignores the dramatic polarization that has occurred between the parties in the last 40 years. Moreover, complaining that the two-party system offers a “lack of choice” ignores the fact that anyone can run as a third party if they want to --- but a more effective strategy is to get involved in primaries and try to change the parties from within.

5. Presidents aren’t as important as we think they are. Yes, Presidents are important and influential – but they can’t work magic. This is a simple lesson that everyone gets in grade school, yet it seems to be forgotten when people think about politics – the President has to get the agreement of Congress to get anything done. Peoples’ list of “greatest” Presidents just so happened to be in office when their copartisans controlled the House and Senate (FDR, Lincoln, Washington, etc). Complaining that nothing gets done and then blaming it on the President for not “leading” is completely nonsensical and betrays a misunderstanding of how government works.

6. Political “independents” are usually not very independent. Most people who identify as independent actually are closet partisans – they vote and act and think like Republicans or Democrats while refusing to identify as such. The importance (and estimated total) of independent voters in elections is overblown by observers and pundits.

7. Nate Silver is great, but political scientists have been accurately forecasting elections using statistical evidence at least since the 1970s.

8. Last but not least, political science is not an opinion-based discipline. Just because people have opinions about politics does not make the field opinion-based. Political scientists use all the tools of contemporary social science – use of quantitative and statistical evidence is actually the norm.


A political science PhD student fed up with reading people (inaccurately) talk about politics on the internet.

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