A Fictitional But Telling Take on Policy Relevance

I finally read and really enjoyed Todd Moss’s first novel, The Golden Hour. It’s a thriller starring Judd Ryker, a political scientist who gets pulled into service at the State Department to help apply a theory he developed on how to nip coups and civil wars in the bud. Before he’s offered that government job, Ryker comes to Washington to brief a small group at State on his ideas. At that point, Ryker has written about his theory but not really tested it. Here’s how the briefing ends:

“What is driving the results on coups? How can you explain what’s so special about timing? I understand the idea of a Golden Hour, but why does it exist?”

“We don’t really know. We can theorize that it probably has something to do with the dynamics of consolidating power after seizure. The coup makers must line up the rest of the security forces and maybe buy off parliament and other local political leaders before those loyal to the deposed president are able to react and countermove. It’s a race for influence. But these are just hypotheses.”

“What about external intervention? Does it matter if an external force gets involved diplomatically?” asked one staffer.

“Or militarily?” interjected another.

“We don’t have classifications for intervention, so it’s not in there,” replied Judd. “The numbers can’t tell us. So we don’t know. I guess we would—”

Parker interrupted abruptly. “But in your expert opinion, Ryker, does it matter? Would it make a difference? Does the United States need to find ways to intervene more rapidly in emerging crises in the developing world? Can we prevent more wars and coups by reacting more quickly?”

Judd looked around the room at all the eyes locked on him. My numbers don’t answer that question. Isn’t that what you guys are here for?

But instead he stood up straight, turned to look Landon Parker directly in the eyes, and said simply, “Yes.”

I think that passage says more about the true nature of the “policy relevance” dance than most of the blog posts I’ve read on that subject. It’s fiction, of course, but it’s written by someone who knows well both sides of that exchange, and it rang true to me.

As we learn later in the novel, the people Ryker was briefing already had a plan, and Ryker’s theory of a Golden Hour—a short window when emerging crises might still be averted—aligned nicely with their existing agenda. This is true, in part, because Ryker’s theory supports the view that U.S. policy makers can and should play an active role in defusing those crises. If Ryker’s theory had implied that U.S. involvement would only make things worse, he would never have been invited to give that briefing.

Scholars who spend time talking to policy makers joke about how much those audiences don’t like to hear “I don’t know” as an answer to questions about why something is happening. That’s real, but I think those audiences might get even more frustrated at hearing “There’s nothing you can do about it” or “Your efforts will only make things worse” in response to questions about what they should do. I suspect that many of those people pursued or accepted government jobs to try to effect change in the world—to “make a difference”—and they don’t want to sit idly while their short windows of opportunity pop open and slam shut.

Then there is Ryker’s decision to submit to his audience’s agenda. Ryker doesn’t know the answer to Parker’s question, and he knows he doesn’t know. Yet, in the moment, he chooses to feign confidence and say “yes” anyway.

The novel hints that this performance owes something to Ryker’s desire to please a mentor who has encouraged him to go into public service. That feels plausible to me, but I would also suspect a deeper and more generic motive: a desire to be wanted by powerful people, to “matter.” If my own experience is any guide, I’d say that we are flattered by attention, and we are eager to stand out. Having government officials ask for your advice feeds both of those cravings.

In short, selection effects abound. The subset of scholars who choose to pursue policy relevance is not a random sample of all academics, and the subset of that subset whose work resonates with policy audiences is not a not a random sample, either. Both partners in this dance have emotional agendas that draw them to each other and then shape their behavior in ways that don’t always align with their ostensible professional ideals: to advance national interests, and to be true to the evidence.

I won’t spoil the novel by telling you how things turn out in Ryker’s case. Instead, I’ll just invite those of you who ever find yourselves on one side or the other of these exchanges—or hope to land there—to consider why you’re doing what you’re doing, and to consider the alternatives before acting.

“His Colleagues Had Ambition”

More than the American rebels, more than their enemies in Europe, more than the angry commoners demonstrating on the streets, the Prime Minister feared his ministers, the men and women who sat at his table and drank his wine. It was a justified anxiety–his colleagues had ambition.

That’s from Ptolemy’s Gate, the third book in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, which I’m reading right now with my 12-year-old son. I really like the books, in no small part because–as the quote shows–Stroud gets politics. We might not see a lot of elected heroes in fantasy fiction for kids, but that doesn’t mean we don’t ever get a political education.

Of Kid’s Books and Kings (a.k.a. Where’s the Elected Official?)

Why are the governments in popular fiction for kids and young adults almost never elected?

I have two boys, now in third and sixth grades. My wife and I still read to them every night, so I’m familiar with a lot of the popular kids’ fiction of the past 10 years. In every major book or series I can think of–Harry Potter, the Percy Jackson books, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Gregor the Overlander series–political authority either resides in monarchies or is controlled by some other self-selected group of elites, often with special powers.

A few of the books we’ve read have raised tough questions about these authoritarian arrangements and the injustices they entail. Right now, for example, I’m reading the excellent Bartimaeus trilogy to my sixth grader and appreciating the story of popular resistance against a tyrannical aristocracy of greedy magicians. Most of the time, though, poor governance is implicitly blamed on flaws in the character of individual leaders. Villains bring us down, and heroes make things right. Institutions, it seems, are irrelevant.

As a scholar of democratization and a liberal by political philosophy, I really don’t like the message this pattern sends to my kids. Governance is a very hard and perpetual problem, and the parade of gods, kings, and magicians traipsing through kids’ fiction reinforces the authoritarian fantasy that benevolent dictators offer an elegant solution. I realize that fiction isn’t meant to mimic reality, and I understand how these struggles between powerful beings of good and evil make a terrific scaffolding for storytelling. Still, I can’t help but wonder how this steady diet of government by kings and wizards prepares kids to make sense of the politics they will encounter as they grow up.

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