Political Science and the Big Uneasy
On gay marriage, it's political.


It may surprise some readers — even the political scientists — but the American Political Science Association is less, well, political than are a lot of other major associations in the humanities and social sciences.

Yes, APSA’s membership undoubtedly includes a great many more liberals than conservatives. But in the most recent issue of the National Association of Scholars’ quarterly Academic Questions, the editors reproduce resolutions of pious left-wing twaddle on the Iraq War by majorities of the American Sociological Association, the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Anthropological Association. It is difficult to imagine the APSA generating a similar afflatus of self-importance.

Perhaps this is due to the organization’s small-yet-critical mass of conservatives (or at least non-leftists), or perhaps to political scientists being professionally inclined to view politics in all its fullness, complexity, and intractability. But more likely, it’s the group’s constitution, institutional structure, and history.

For it was not ever thus. Four decades ago the APSA was nearly torn apart by the efforts of a New Left group calling itself the Caucus for a New Political Science, which exploited a constitution that lodged the power to elect officers in whoever showed up to the annual meeting. The caucus’s agenda was to bring to the discipline a “radically critical spirit” regarding the issues of the day — in other words, to embroil the APSA in political controversies (such as the Vietnam war) by taking stands enunciating the caucus’s belief in the “inherent weaknesses of the American political system,” which it was confident it knew how to improve. The caucus’s bid to take over APSA’s offices was defeated at the contentious 1969 annual meeting, and thereafter contested elections were decided through mail-in ballots of the whole membership, securing a broader voter base that would frustrate the designs of a tightly organized avant-garde. Future resolutions, and amendments to the constitution, were also essentially walled off from energetic assaults by on-the-spot factions at the annual meeting. But the caucus did win one victory, adding the final sentence (beginning with the word “But”) to the following passage from Article II, section 2 of the APSA constitution:

The Association as such is nonpartisan. It will not support political parties or candidates. It will not commit its members on questions of public policy nor take positions not immediately concerned with its direct purpose as stated above [to encourage the study of political science]. But the Association nonetheless actively encourages in its membership and its journals, research in and concern for significant contemporary political and social problems and policies, however controversial and subject to partisan discourse in the community at large these may be.

There were some caucus sympathizers who thought this sentence a feeble change, and who would have preferred to strike the preceding “will not commit” sentence. Certainly the caucus did not make it substantially easier to push APSA into improvident proclamations on the issues of the day. And since that time the caucus itself has become just another interest group within APSA, an encrustation of the establishment rather than an alternative to it. It’s like a worn-out pair of Birkenstocks in the closet, called simply the “New Political Science Section” of the APSA (one of 39 organized sections).


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