Thomas Frank: The Public Intellectual Vs. the Professor

Roundup: Talking About History

This is a brief excerpt from Thomas Frank's response to an extended analysis of his book, What's the Matter with Kansas, by Professor Larry Bartels. The full text makes for interesting reading. (Thanks to Rick Perlstein for bringing this to HNN's attention.)

I suppose I should be grateful to Larry Bartels. After all, it’s not every author who gets to have his work assailed by the director of a prestigious Ivy League political science research center. It’s even more unusual to be class-baited by a Princeton professor.1 These are high distinctions indeed, and I thank him for honoring me by his attentions. The fundamental assumption animating Bartels’ attack on What’s the Matter With Kansas? (WMK) is that studies like mine—based on movement literature, local history, interviews, state-level election results, and personal observation—are inherently inferior to mathematical extrapolations drawn from the National Election Surveys (NES). Indeed, Bartels seems to understand his assault on WMK as a blow struck for responsible academic professionalism against a contemptible “pundit literature.”2 My own feeling, after watching him steer his science around the proving ground, is that this vaunted research device is in reality a rickety and most unreliable contraption.

To begin with, consider the barren landscape of American politics as Bartels describes it—a featureless tundra swept of history, ideology, and any hint of the raw emotional resonance that everyone knows politics possesses. His NES America is not a place that I recognize. It might as well be the moon....

Although it’s easy to forget when reading authors like Larry Bartels, these are not times of nice moderate moderation in Washington DC. Nor is the pendulum just going to swing back one fine day and restore the status-quo-ante of, say, 1968. Conservatism has changed the face of America and of the world. The changes it has wrought are largely irreversible. To respond to all this by just blowing it off—by asserting that it’s a waste of time to examine the populist conservative mindset—is folly on a magnitude that not even a political scientist can measure.

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