A review of Politics and Progress: The Emergence of American Political Science, by Dennis J. Mahoney

The American Political Science Association marks its 100th annual meeting this fall. This gathering is more important than it sounds. If ideas have consequences, so alas do idea-mongers and their conventions.

The APSA's website says that by convening in 1904, "the founding members sought to do more than simply hold a meeting, but to develop an organization 'that can take the scientific lead in all matters of political interest,…and in general, advance the scientific study of politics in the U.S.'"

How has this ambition fared over the past century? Other applications of science have produced dramatic, seemingly miraculous, improvements in almost every aspect of our lives. Can the same be said for the science of politics? 

Aristotle notes in his Politics "[C]hanges in the other arts and sciences have certainly been beneficial; medicine, for example, and gymnastic, and every other art and craft have departed from traditional usage. And, if politics be an art, change must be necessary in this as in any other art…. [But] the analogy of the arts is false; a change in a law is a very different thing from a change in an art." 

That's why Aristotle never promised progress in politics. The founders of the APSA did. In fact, the whole point of their enterprise was to move beyond Aristotle (and, for that matter, all political science before the close of the 19th century). The motto of America's first professional political scientists might be "Just get over it"–which is pretty much what APSA president Woodrow Wilson said explicitly about the Declaration of Independence. But if one wishes to know more than this bumper-sticker summary, and understand the presuppositions, ambitions, and guiding lights of the APSA's founders, Dennis J. Mahoney's Politics and Progress offers a superb place to begin.

In crisp, measured prose Mahoney outlines the three dominant forces that gave the APSA its character and purpose: (1) the German "historical school" and its allgemeine Staatslehre ("general State theory"), (2) philosophical pragmatism, and (3) political Progressivism. He lays bare the new political science's disdain for political philosophy, and its rejection of the supposedly outmoded principles of natural rights, equality and consent expressed in the Declaration and the Constitution. And he describes how the likes of John Burgess, Frank Goodnow, Westel W. Willoughby, and Woodrow Wilson developed and began implementing ways to exercise their newly (self-)minted authority as "professionals," by imitating the hard sciences' precision and predictability; and by creating the groundwork for a permanent and dominant place in practical politics through an administrative bureaucracy of trained experts, namely themselves and their students. 

All in all, it is not a pretty picture. 

Mahoney adduces a quotation from historian William L. O'Neill that captures the APSA's twin themes of ineluctable progress and the new mandarins' leadership in shaping society to meet the future: "The new social thought did not believe in natural laws that explained all behavior, but in constantly changing processes. Most critics of laissez faire believed that these processes could be understood and manipulated so that progress could be willed rather than just awaited." In contrast to the classical view of the cycle of regimes, Carl Becker famously declared that history is not just "one damn thing after another." 

The approach of Politics and Progress is largely to summarize, and especially to quote, America's first professional political scientists, allowing them to speak for themselves. This has the virtue of allowing the reader to see just how radical this new political science was. But—and here is my only criticism of this important book—Mahoney goes too far in getting out of his subjects' way. Only his concluding chapter offers a powerful rebuttal: "In a sense, American political science as a discipline remains foreign to the American regime, and therefore incapable either of understanding or explaining the regime." But much more could be said on this score. 

Mahoney touches on, but does not particularly elaborate, the essential failure of progressive political science. "Nothing in the history of the period from the First World War to the present so reveals the crisis in American political science as the discipline's treatment of the phenomenon of totalitarianism…. [O]n the question of political legitimacy, the question of constitutional government versus tyranny, political science was tragically silent." 

Of course, the eventual victories over fascism and Communism have neither forced a broad reappraisal of this shortcoming, nor made its consequences less dire. Progressive political science reinvented America's self-understanding to accommodate what it believed to be an inevitably better future—which is why it faltered especially in the face of Marxism. But the Progressive legacy seems not even well-equipped to confront a foe who seeks to restore a pre-modern past (which is apparently what the Islamic jihadists seek, because for them, modern history really has been "one damn thing after another.")

It is shocking, and yet increasingly apparent, that contemporary liberalism is unable to summon any thumos or spiritedness, let alone enlightened patriotism, even in the face of an avowedly medieval, religiously fundamentalist enemy. As Mahoney puts it:

Humanity, culture, society, and politics are all, according to this doctrine, or this ideology [of progress], constantly evolving. New and older replace better and worse as analytical categories. Society becomes constantly more complex; and complexity is therefore itself a guarantee of progress. The more complex society becomes, the more government regulation is needed. Regulation is therefore also a guarantee that progress has occurred.

And let there be no mistake: progressive political science is the root of modern American liberalism. Not just the onerous regulatory state, but also facile internationalism and moral equivalency can be traced, in varying degrees, to the confluence of pragmatist philosophy, progressive reform, and German historicism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The debilitating consequences of which were on display at the Democratic National Convention in July: increasingly, the American Left, and even some moderate liberals, seem perilously close to saying of 9/11, "Just get over it."

Then again, to lay all this at the feet of the American Political Science Association would be absurd. But victory in this current war will come—as it did in the two great wars of the 20th century—despite, and not because of, the specious promises made by those who vowed to "take the scientific lead in all matters of political interest." 

Mahoney concludes his book by calling discerningly for a "political science rooted in the self-evident truth upon which the American republic was founded…. That, in turn, requires a revival of political philosophy, as a serious inquiry into natural right. Upon a revived political philosophy could be built a political science capable of confronting the crisis of the American regime, which is also the crisis of civilization."