Like many academics who study American elections, I found 2016 to be a humbling experience. There are many things that those of us who study election mechanics — campaign finance, what polling data have to do with voting, how different population groups vote, how effective political advertisements are — got wrong.
Any conscientious political science professor will be able to tell you how the election results have affected our teaching and our dealings with the public. We’ve become a bit hesitant about making bold predictions. We’ve rewritten our syllabi so that we can help students think about the political and economic circumstances of the Middle American states that provided Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE with his margin of victory.
The American media has provided nonstop coverage of the unfolding Mueller investigation, of the congressional hearings on Russian interference, and of revelations from Facebook and other platforms about data breaches, fake news stories and the like. Yet what I’ve found most striking about the academic meetings I have attended in 2018 has been the inability of political scientists to find a way to talk about such things.
Let me give you a couple of examples. This year’s annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, the largest national association of political scientists, will take place over Labor Day weekend in Boston. Over 6,500 people will be participating in some way or another. However, only four presentations address the involvement of Russia in the 2016 election — and not a single one of these four is by a tenured American academic.
There will be many papers on the quality of election polling in 2016, on the activities of Super PACs and other financiers of the election, and of the television and social media strategies of the candidates. If the conferences I’ve attended so far this year are any indication, efforts will be made to figure out exactly what was different in 2016 from past elections. More than one presenter will make an offhand joke at the end about Russian interference, but that’s all it will be — a joke — lest the presentation sound a little bit too conspiratorial.
Second, there have been at least five national or international conferences on populism so far this year — and I’m sure there have been many others that I haven’t noticed. These conferences have drawn a large number of less quantitatively inclined academics from all sorts of disciplines, eager to try to apply what over the past decade has been a largely European literature on populist demagoguery to the Trump campaign — to explore ways in which Trump does, or does not, fit the same model as populist leaders in Hungary, Poland, or Italy. This has proven (at least from what I’ve seen) to be a largely speculative endeavor, one that frequently devolves into haggling over what the precise definition of populism is.
There are flaws, I think, in both of these approaches. There’s a lot about 2016 that didn’t quite make sense. A lot of campaign spending has not been documented — in part because, as Bob Bauer suggests, it has become easy for foreign governments or organizations to spend money to influence American elections.
We don’t have the ability to track exactly what went on over Twitter or Facebook in the election, which accounts were real and which were fake. And, as Bauer goes on to argue, we may not regain the sort of transparency that enabled us to study elections with the precision we once did.
We don’t really have any precedent for studying what a foreign government might do to influence an American campaign in this way because it hasn’t been done before in the United States. Maybe we’ll get there in a few years, but for now, all we know is that our research is more likely than usual to be incomplete.
At the same time, giving in to the temptation to wax poetic about the state of the world post-Trump too easily descends into political ranting, or to speculation about what might happen. There certainly is a market right now for dire prognostications about the future of democracy. The problem, however, is that this has probably always been the case — there was a glut of books on this topic in the 1990s, for instance, and it’s hard to prove that we’ve really learned anything since then, or that books from that era have been proven to be true or false. In other words, all of this speculation winds up not being particularly scientific, and it’s not going to age well.
I don’t mean to suggest here that there should be a lot of research papers on Russian interference in the campaign — we don’t know enough, yet, about what actually happened, and perhaps we never will. However, it does seem that taking elements of these two approaches might provide a way forward.
Our inability to measure much of what went on in 2016 may provide cause for more theorizing. What really counts as a campaign contribution? What is the difference between trying to influence a campaign and trying to influence the broader political environment? How should we change our understanding of what foreign interference is, given changes in technology and the market?
These are questions that sometimes have narrow legal definitions, but, whatever the result of the Russia investigation is, what we have learned so far suggests that we need to take a step back from measurement and ask some theoretical questions — not necessarily the big theoretical questions we have been asking so far, but questions about what, exactly, we try to define and measure in political campaigns.
Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.