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Commentary: The real science of politics and lessons of gun control

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 19, 2013: I majored in political science as an undergraduate. In one sense, the field of study is an oxymoron because nothing is more antithetical to science than politics.

Politics entails the clash of beliefs, while scientific inquiry is a methodology that subjugates all belief to empirical verification. The latter enterprise accepts nothing on faith and has no tolerance for golden calves. In the former, blind loyalty is considered a virtue and the credulous are urged to vote the idolized calf into office. In essence, the difference between the two modes of thought is that between dispassionate analysis and bullshit.

Of course, we rarely observe either enterprise in its purest state. Most political discourse is based at least loosely on some sort of observable — though haphazardly conceptualized — truth; and scientists have been known to allow considerations other than intellectual rigor to shape their findings.

Galileo, for instance, is often referred to as the father of modern science. He is generally credited with separating science from philosophy and religion, thus establishing empirical inquiry as an independent discipline.

Yet, when his astronomical observations confirmed the Copernican notion that the Earth revolved around the sun, he characterized his finding as a “probability” to placate a 17th century theocracy that felt scripture demanded a geocentric universe. Alas, his dodge failed and he was convicted of heresy nonetheless.

Who votes why

Political science, then, is not science that is political but rather the attempt to use scientific methodology to analyze politics. That sounds laudable but it’s also impossible because—as in other “soft” sciences—you can never isolate the variables under study with certainty. Political campaigns are not waged in laboratories. The 2008 Democratic presidential primaries provide a case in point.

Hillary Clinton was the first viable female contender for the presidential nomination of a major political party; Barack Obama was the first African American to have a legitimate chance to win the same post. By observing the behavior of black female voters in the contests, one should have been able to gauge the relative influence of race vs. sex in identity politics.

In the event, black women supported Obama overwhelmingly — leading to the reasonable conclusion that race trumped sex in voter preference, at least among black female Democrats in the year in question. But it is impossible to say that other factors did not sway an individual’s voting decision; and it is entirely reasonable to assume that not all members of the cohort voted as they did for same reason. 

Some African-American women may have simply been attracted to a fresh face on the political landscape. Obama, after all, ran on the promise of “change.” Others may have been turned off by Hillary’s Senate vote to authorize military force in Iraq. A myriad of factors could have influenced the final choice. For that reason, conclusions reached from the analysis cannot be stated with scientific certainty.

Though political studies are necessarily imprecise, they are not without value. In fact, focusing on measurable empirical results directs attention to outcomes rather than ideologies, thereby keeping dialog grounded.

Getting to guns

Through most of our history, American political thought was characterized by pragmatism. Once freed from old-world orthodoxies, the young nation allowed solutions that worked to prosper while those that didn’t perished.

We are now the world’s oldest constitutional republic and, regrettably, we seem to be showing our age. Over time, we’ve developed our own vested interests that often conflict with the exercise of common sense. Nowhere is that shortcoming better illustrated than in our risible public policy concerning guns.

Item: The Missouri Senate last week failed to override a gubernatorial veto of a bill that would have made it illegal for federal agents to enforce federal gun laws in the state.

Though that blatant violation of the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution didn’t figure to stand up in court, the bill would have also made it legal for adult citizens — without benefit of training or permit — to carry exposed firearms on their persons on the streets of St. Louis and in any other city within the state, regardless of local ordinances to the contrary. Proponents felt the extra guns might help to deter crime.

The Missouri House voted to override the veto and thus make the bill law. The Senate defeated the override by one vote.

Item: The Associated Press reports that in Iowa, “State law enforcement officials are debating the wisdom of granting gun permits to blind people.” It seems Iowa law does not allow sheriffs to deny a permit to the physically disabled.

Patrick Clancy, superintendent of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School, thinks this may be going too far. “Although people who are blind can participate fully in nearly all life’s experiences, there are some things, like the operation of a weapon, that may very well be an exception,” he said.

Cedar County Sheriff Warren Wethington disagrees. He opined, “If sheriffs spent more time trying to keep guns out of criminals’ hands and not people with disabilities, their time would be more productive.”

As of this writing, some sheriffs in Iowa are issuing blind people gun permits and others are not.

Item: Congress adjourned early Monday morning after saying a prayer for the shooting victims of a massacre at the Washington Navy Yard, located less than two miles from the Capitol. Thirteen people — including the lone gunman — were killed in the incident and more than a dozen others were wounded.

This is the same Congress that could not bring itself to require universal background checks for gun purchasers or limit rifle magazine capacities in the wake of the slaughter of grade school kids in Newton, Conn., last December.

From a political perspective, I suppose these developments make sense. After all, the gun lobby has a lot of money and the only politicians to lose their jobs last week were two members of the Colorado legislature who were recalled after voting for a gun control measure. In the last analysis, the real science of politics is getting elected and staying that way…

M.W. Guzy
M.W. (Michael William) Guzy began as a contributor to St. Louis media in 1997 with an article, “Everybody Loves a Dead Cop,” on the Post-Dispatch Commentary page. In addition to the St. Louis Beacon and now St. Louis Public Radio, his work has been featured in the St. Louis Journalism Review, the Arch City Chronicle, In the Line of Duty and on tompaine.com. He has appeared on the Today Show and Hannity & Combs, as well as numerous local radio and television newscasts and discussion programs.

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