After a steady diet of NRO stalwarts like Kevin D. Williamson, Jonah Goldberg, and Andy McCarthy, you might not think it’s possible to be boring about politics, but it is. Case in point: The 2014 American Political Science Association annual meeting, held this weekend in Washington, D.C. I attended it with my wife, and this piece will be my attempt at a Jay Nordlinger–style “Salzburg Journal,” shorn of Jay’s incisive observations and the exotic locale (though D.C. was unfamiliar to me, at any rate; I hadn’t been there since a twelve-hour overnight visit in 1998).
One reason why the APSA proceedings did approach dullness on occasion is that while “political science” used to mean “politics viewed scientifically,” nowadays the emphasis is shifting strongly towards “science applied to politics.” In today’s academy, you aren’t taken seriously unless your paper has at least half a dozen graphs and charts and a bunch of Greek letters, preferably with subscripts. This is science, damn it! The information revolution, which was supposedly the theme of this year’s meeting, may have accelerated this trend; if any old blogger can take a whack at analyzing the constitutionality of Obama’s actions or handicapping the Alaska Senate race, academic scholars need a unique selling proposition to justify their existence, and “analytical rigor” is exactly the ticket.
Perhaps half the papers I heard were festooned with extensive statistical apparatus, which, besides adding the all-important ingredient of rigor (which was sometimes more like rigor mortis), makes an effective protection against criticism, one that ideas alone cannot provide.
For example, our friend Patrick J. Wolf presented a fascinating thesis, based on a forthcoming paper. Using game theory, he explained the strange-bedfellows coalitions that sometimes form around the issue of school choice: Free-market conservatives and social-justice liberals unite, for different reasons, against establishment liberals and establishment conservatives. It was a smart analysis, well thought out and presented, but his talk included no numerical content, so all the audience comments on it were quibbles: Why do you call Senator X “establishment” and Congressman Y “free-market,” and how can you say Governor Z supports school choice when he did such-and-such? Whereas if a scholar presents a statistics-heavy paper, no one challenges it because no one understands it.
What amazed me most was the sheer volume of papers: Nearly a thousand sessions, each with several presenters, not to mention commentators, panelists, etc. Yet when my wife was handed her copy of the program booklet, she hefted it for a moment and said, “It’s thinner than usual.”
Based on my extensive survey (i.e. a couple of taxi rides), every building in downtown Washington that isn’t explicitly trying to be dull makes some sort of gesture toward the Federal style. An apartment building under construction near our hotel was in most ways the standard collection of drab brick towers, but at the top of each one, way up on the tenth floor, was a little pediment resting on a little pair of white columns that framed an ordinary window. Instant gravitas! One can only wish that the Founders’ ideas about government were as durable in Washington as their ideas about architecture.
The hotel bill contained a daily charge for “WFB Tax.” I don’t know what that stands for, but I’m sure William F. Buckley would be offended. (From a quick online search, it seems to be some sort of tax on Internet use, which I think is pretty chintzy since the hotel already charged us a separate fee for the Internet.)
Near the convention site is a heroic equestrian statue of General George C. McClellan. It was erected a century ago by the Grand Army of the Republic (the association of Union Army veterans of the Civil War), but surely they could have found a better subject. McClellan is best remembered for squandering the opportunity to take Richmond in 1862 (which prompted President Lincoln’s quip “If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it for a time”) and then running against Lincoln in 1864 on a Democratic ticket that, as late as August, the president was gloomily convinced would win and make peace with the Confederacy. Sure looks great on a horse, though.
My wife saw me peering at the corner of a shop window and asked what I was looking at. I told her it was a decal that said, “Protected by Splaine Security Systems, Inc.” In modern political parlance, does this mean I was “Splaine-splaining”?
We nicknamed the place where we were staying the Hotel of Magnificent Distances after getting lost in its endless corridors, but it’s a lot less amusing when you need to get out in a hurry. There was a late-night fire alarm, probably arson-related, at our hotel, which you may have read about. For some people, with babies to care for or flights to catch, the long night was an ordeal, but for us it was pretty dull: We left the building and sat on a concrete plaza for a couple of hours, dozing on and off; then we went back upstairs and slept for a few hours; then they woke us up again and trooped us down to the basement ballroom; and after hearing various officials say contradictory things for most of an hour, all the guests were free to go back to their rooms.
But the experience reminded me of my college days, when we had post-midnight fire alarms in the dormitories about once a month (and that’s no exaggeration; some students had recently had a narrow escape from a fire, so the university was being extra vigilant). Students learned to take the alarms in stride; some kept “fire bags” with spare keys, snacks, cash, reading material, and the like that they could grab on their way out. There were usually a few people playing chess, and when our regular poker game was interrupted with an alarm, we simply grabbed our cards and chips and took it outside. Often a group would gather and sing softly — sometimes folk standards, sometimes TV theme songs. One year, a custom developed for a volunteer to pick up a couple dozen doughnuts from the nearby all-night coffee shop and hand them out. I took this duty upon myself once, and walked down Broadway to Twin Donuts in my bathrobe and slippers — in a light snowfall, as I recall. Believe it or not, in 1970s New York this was far from unusual.