Here are ten questions that might be interesting to Americans these days.
1. Is the Trump administration’s immigration executive order constitutional?
2. Is the United States a democracy? How do we know?
3. How does presidential leadership style affect U.S. foreign policy?
4. Do bureaucrats have a moral obligation to refuse to implement laws that they oppose?
5. How do authoritarian regimes work? Where do they come from?
6. Is protest effective? When, why, how?
7. Does racial resentment or economic despair better explain the GOP surge in 2016? Are these competing explanations?
8. When do partisan legislatures sanction presidents from the same party? Does that differ between presidential and parliamentary systems?
9. How do you organize a team to win an election? How do you change that team when it is time to govern?
10. Has there ever been anything like 2017 in U.S. political history?
In a time in which the key buzzword in higher education is “interdisciplinarity,” we may lose sight of the value and purpose of disciplinary education. In fraught political times, citizens need a way to organize the information they obtain from the news, to process data from surveys and elections, to put contemporary events in historical and global perspective, and to ask critical questions about their moral and ethical obligations as citizens. Citizens need a way to discipline their thinking about politics. That discipline is political science.
Imagine that you are a new college student who wants to learn about politics in these times. What should you do? Well, I would hope that you would first put together a broad course of study that involved arts, humanities, sciences, statistics, and so forth. But I would not look to that broad course of study for insights into today’s politics.
Instead, I would visit your local Political Science department (perhaps called a Government or Politics department). You will find a community of teachers who have organized their department into a couple of teams: teachers who work on American politics and policy from today and from history, on questions of ethics and philosophy, and on politics around the world. Some will work with texts and influential thinkers, some with case studies from other countries and in other languages, some with quantitative data. Each teacher will have a specialty: race and ethnicity, power and justice, strategy, economies and politics, voter psychology, bureaucracies and institutions, and so on. They certainly won’t all agree with one another about politics, or about how best to teach it. And yet of them will have been trained to ask a series of interrelated questions about how politics works.
Returning to the ten questions above, not only does the discipline of political science provide tools for answering each question, but political science uniquely does this. Sure, a lawyer could help with question (1), and a moral philosopher could help with question (4), a movement sociologist could help with question (6), and a management consultant could help with question (9). But political science allows one to think about these questions together, to see how each is related to the others.
I am not proposing that interdisciplinary research and teaching is somehow inappropriate. Quite the opposite: I hold the opinion that somewhere between 1/2 and 2/3 of what a political scientist reads ought to be outside of the discipline of political science (a view I attribute originally to James Scott). So too for undergraduates studying political science, although I’d put it closer to 50% outside the discipline and 50% inside. I am also not proposing that interdisciplinary research and teaching cannot contribute to better teaching and research. Events like this are fantastic opportunities. Disciplinary thinking does not imply disciplinary silos.
Nor am I arguing that political science is either perfect or monolithic. Political scientists disagree, and they disagree most forcefully with themselves about their own discipline.
Instead, I am arguing that it is both natural and appropriate to look to a community of scholars who have thought long, hard, and critically about politics in order to…think about politics. I will go further: it is intellectual and pedagogically distracting to invent interdisciplinary “solutions” to pressing world “problems” without first appreciating disciplinary approaches to those questions that presuppose those problems.
Put otherwise, the proper relationship between disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives is a dialectical one. Disciplines emerge and coalesce around problems. As they mature, they eventually reach limits of their explanatory or conceptual productivity, and enterprising researchers look beyond their disciplinary boundaries for different perspectives. Perhaps an interdiscipline emerges, which after 100 years is a discipline on its own.
And this, to a first approximation, is the story of political science itself—an interdiscipline that emerged from the interstices of law, political economy, and the emerging field of sociology. Contemporary politics requires us to remember this interdiscipline-turned-discipline emerged from the realization that the study of politics cannot be reduced to class, economy, identity, ethics, law, organization, or anything else. Politics is political. That is why today is the best time ever to study political science.