The GOP War on Political Science

To its detriment, the party sees political science research as an advancement of a "liberal agenda."

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Statues of former Presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush are seen during a tour of the new George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas on April 24, 2013.

When I was a kid, one of the more memorable experiences I had was when my grandfather took me to the dedication ceremony of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The ceremony was particularly poignant for him. He helped Kennedy campaign for President in 1960. For me, it was one of the early factors that inspired me to study political science. The Boston Marathon bombing and the fire at the library brought this memory flooding back.

This week, President George W. Bush's Library and Museum opened at Southeastern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. Like any Presidential library opening, it's the symbolic culmination of our past President's tenure. 

The Bush library gives academics an opportunity to understand the "decision points" that he followed to handle 9/11, execute the Iraq War, and also how he pushed his legislative agenda. It will give visitors a way to touch presidential history, and, of course, inspire young people to get interested in politics.

However, there's a big contradiction in this country between giving political scientists a window into presidential politics and supporting other areas of political research. Last month, the Senate quietly passed Senator Tom Coburn's, R-Okla., amendment to the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013. The amendment puts a significant restriction on what areas political scientists can study with National Science Foundation funding: only national security and economic development.

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These are, of course, important research topics, but there are many others that require examination by academics. Just to name a few: campaign finance, voting behavior, income inequality and the contrast between urban and rural politics. Getting an objective, scientific window into the dynamics of these areas informs political thinking, and also provides the public context into how these things work.

One major study that is in jeopardy of being cut is the American National Election Study. It is the gold standard of voting behavior research. It has produced a deep understanding of how people vote, and why 50 percent of the voting eligible population decides to stay home on election day. In 2002, the research was used to inform the Help America Vote Act, a law that established funding to make it easier for people to vote.

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The GOP doesn't like political science because many studies expose the political problems women, Hispanics, and African-American's face. The party sees this research as an advancement of a "liberal agenda," but this view is to their detriment. Research on Hispanic voters a few years ago predicted how important they would become in presidential elections. Republicans are now making an active play to Hispanics; winning their loyalty is essential to the long-term health of the party. This certainly explains why immigration reform has moved back to the top of the political agenda. American National Election research provided an early predictor of this trend.

One may conclude that it makes sense to cut this budget, but it represents a tiny fraction of this year's $1.3 trillion in expenditures. Let's take partisan politics out of funding political science research, and urge your Congressmen to restore funding for political science research.

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