Presidential studies, behavioralism, and public law.

Author:Sollenberger, Mitchel A.
Position:The Law - Report

Since the founding of the political science discipline in the early twentieth century there has routinely been calls for change. One of the latest examples occurred at the dawn of the twentieth-first century when an anonymous scholar sent the "Perestroika" e-mail to the editors of the American Political Science Review asking for a number of reforms to the American Political Science Association (APSA). Among them were a call for greater diversity of membership on the APSA governing committees and its journals along with a need for the discipline to become more accepting of a greater number of methodologies (PS 2000).

The Perestroika movement largely touched on old discipline identity struggles. For example, the postbehavioral era emerged in the mid to late 1960s as some of the leading behavioralists began to question their own way of studying political science. The 1969 APSA presidential address by David Easton directly confronted the behavioral orthodoxy: "Only on the assumption that behavioral political science has said the last word about what makes for adequate research and an appropriate discipline can we automatically read out of court any proposals for change" (Easton 1969a, 1053). In particular, Easton took on the inability of behavioralism to predict some of the great changes that had occurred through the 1960s and he pleaded for "more relevant research" that will "improve political life" (Easton 1969a, 1053).

Appearing in between those two "movements" Gabriel Almond, a well-known behavioral scholar, published the classic article "Separate Tables" in which he noted that there was an "uneasiness in the political science profession" (1988, 829). He suggested that political scientists might be eating in the same dining room but were now at different tables with the most significant separation between the "hard" (quantitative) and "soft" (descriptive) scholars (Almond 1988, 829). Almond explained that the "mood and reputation" of the political science discipline was "heavily influenced by these extreme views" (1988, 830).

One of the results of the behavioralist revolution that has received little attention is the decline in public law analysis within political science. As far back as the 1920s--a period when Charles Merriam delivered his APSA presidential address titled, "Progress in Political Research"--there have been calls to move away from public law analysis (Merriam 1926). Although the term "public law" is not as well known today, in its more traditional form it is a mode of inquiry that analyzes the Constitution and laws so as to better understand the institutional operations of government and/or the behavior of elected and unelected officials. It involves the study of not only constitutional and statutory text along with judicial opinions, but also the actions of the executive and legislative branches of government. In the area of presidential studies, the work of Edward Corwin (1929, 1932, 1957) best represents this form of analysis.

The main objective of this article is to highlight the importance of public law analysis in the presidential studies field. First, a brief summary of the behavioralist movement and its weaknesses is presented. Next, the article addresses the impact behavioralism has had on presidential studies by focusing on the work of presidential scholars Edward Corwin (1929, 1932, 1957) and Richard Neustadt (1960, 1990). An emphasis is placed on the decline of normative types of public law analysis. The article concludes with a call for greater encouragement and acceptance of public law analysis.

Behavioralism and Political Science

Before addressing the impact of behavioralism on presidency studies, it is useful to briefly describe the movement. First, behavioralists contend that political science scholars should focus on the behavior of individuals, groups, and systems in order to explain how politics operates in practice. They reject--or at least greatly downplay--the so-called traditional understandings of studying politics that focus on theory (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, and other political philosophers) or the formal operations of government by way of constitutional or legal analysis (Farr 1995, 202). Instead, behavioralists argue that political scientists should concern themselves with "what is, not with what ought to be" (Dahl 1961, 770).

The second key element of behavioralism is the emphasis on methods intended to improve the accuracy of studying political behavior. Within the presidency field, the focus on case studies became early on a dominant method of analysis (Neustadt 1960). As behavioralism matured, it placed greater emphasis on the quantification of studying politics (Farr 1995, 203). As quantification took hold, more political scientists took their methods from economists and began to employ formal modeling using such frameworks as rational choice--a theory that assumes individuals make choices that maximize their personal interests. William Howell's Power without Persuasion (2003) represents well the formal modeling school that is increasingly seen in presidential studies. In his book, Howell claims "a science of politics is finally taking hold of presidential studies" (Howell 2003, 11).

Finally, behavioralists---at least the early adherents of the movement (e.g., David Easton, Robert Dahl, and David Truman) believed political science could reveal general theories of politics akin to what are known in the natural sciences (e.g., Newton's theory of gravitation or Einstein's theory of relativity) (Ricci 1984, 149). As David Easton once quipped, "The lack of more reliable knowledge flows directly from an immoderate neglect of general theory" (Easton 1969b, 31). All three of these elements point to a movement that thought political science could be remade into the image of the natural sciences (Bond 2007; Kirn 1977, 85; Leonard 1995, 84; Miller 1972, 802; Ricci 1984, 253;)- Charles Merriam perhaps most effectively articulated the behavioralist desire to incorporate the methods of the natural sciences into the study of politics: "more and more it appears that the last word in human behavior is to be scientific; more and more clearly it becomes evident that the social and political implications of natural science are of fundamental importance" (1926, 9).

The dominance of behavioralism in political science is nearly unquestioned. By 1963, behavioralist scholars could point to their field of study being ranked at the top within political science (Somit and Tanenhaus 1963, 941). Just two years prior, Robert Dahl penned the victory celebration piece for behavioralism by noting that "the study of politics has been altered, permanently, by a fresh infusion of the spirit of empirical inquiry--by, that is to say, the scientific outlook" (1961, 772). Even today it can be written that "behavioralism is still a powerful presence" in many areas of political science (Hauptmann 2012, 154).

Of course, there are limits to the blending of science and politics. Political scientists study institutions and people, not plants and animals. The former can, and do, read our work; the latter do not. Presidents and other political actors can react to the knowledge that they gain, which, in turn, affects the future study of the very people and institutions political scientists research and analyze (Oren 2006, 79). In the field of presidential studies, the best example of such behavior is when presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976 spoke about how much James David Barber's book Presidential Character had "heavily influenced" him and proclaimed himself to be an "an active positive" leader (Barber 1992, 399)- Carter was so influenced by the book that he had Barber and his wife visit the governor's mansion (Glad 1980, 487). Considering how central personality was to his 1976 campaign, one cannot help but wonder what impact Barber's study had on Carter's behavior (Glad 1980, 488). As Barber notes, his book may have merely "shaped Carter's presentation of himself," and Barber "might have been charmed out of objectivity by the elan and ease of the Carter hospitality" (1992, 399). Barber quickly dismisses such concerns, but the points raised are important ones to consider in the study of human behavior.

Turning to behavioralism's theoretical and methodological impulses, there has always been an allure of discovering grand theories that will explain political behavior. This is not a new endeavor. In 1929, Edward Corwin stated that behavioralists believed political science could "predict the future just as astronomy, physics, and chemistry are able to do--not to mention astrology, alchemy, and palmistry" (569579). By the mid-1970s some observers noted that political scientists were no closer to finding "a coherent and persuasive alternative vision of the meaning and practice of political science" that behavioralists promised (Reid and Yanarella 1975, 288). By 2004, Robert Dahl had all but abandoned any hope of creating "a general theory of politics" and suggested it "may be a waste of scholarly time" (379). Others have found similar failings of the behavioralist promise of discovering general theories (Farr 1995, 220-21; Miller 1990, 235-37; Wahlke 1978, 24). But the pursuit of general theories is not dead. In 2012, Kim Quaile Hill remarked, there is "a universally recognized assumption that theory building is a primary goal of our discipline" (917).

Behavioralism's drive to treat political science more like the natural sciences led some in the discipline to employ formal modeling. William Howell explains that within presidential studies "empirical tests now are commonplace; theoretical assumptions are clearly specified; and hypotheses are subject to independent corroboration" (2003, 11). Scholars who adopt modeling believe that the precision of one's conclusions can be honed through mathematical methods. The downside to such pursuits is that often formal modelers are too focused on methods and not...

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