The Chronicle Review

How the Monkey Cage Went Ape

January 10, 2016

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle Review
As an assistant professor at Princeton in 1999, the political scientist Kathleen McNamara co-wrote an article for Foreign Affairs urging more democratic oversight of the European Central Bank. The department reprimanded her for it. Junior faculty, like children in Victorian novels, were to be seen, not heard.

Times have changed. Universities now generally encourage efforts to reach a broad public, although those efforts lend, as one scholar put it, more "warm atmospherics" than significant heft to hiring, promotion, and tenure portfolios. High-profile blogs like The Monkey Cage, started by George Washington University’s John Sides in 2007 and adopted by The Washington Post in 2013, have offered a platform for such outreach, bolstering political scientists’ sense of relevance and public engagement. The blogs, while influenced by political journalism’s hectic daily tempo, have also influenced that journalism, pressuring reporters to incorporate data-driven theory into their reporting to help contextualize the chaotic ups and downs of elections and wars, treaties and massacres.

The poli-sci platforms — the mature crop that survived culling from the millennial blog boom — have "really changed the rhythms of how I work as a scholar," says McNamara, now tenured at Georgetown University. Once, if you weren’t Henry Kissinger, good luck getting anywhere near a major paper’s op-ed section. But now, while she’s working on long-term research projects, McNamara knows there’s a place for timely comment as events unfold, "a real broadening of the public service that we as scholars can provide."

And that commentary is noticed. In a July post protesting economists’ dismissal of the euro as a subpar, ill-advised currency, she asserted that many currencies, including America’s, began as similarly awkward, hard-fought, but arguably necessary political constructs. Paul Krugman was not amused, calling her post "deeply annoying" while, of course, driving traffic to it.

A successful item pre-Post might get several thousand hits, while one now gets several hundred thousand. That amplifying effect can reverberate internationally. Just ask Brian Wampler, who co-wrote a 2014 post about the benefits of democratizing city budgets in Brazil. The Boise State professor had been studying the topic for 15 years, but it was that item, written with his colleague Michael Touchton off their article for the journal Comparative Political Studies, that caught the attention of, first, two Brazilian newspapers, and then the office of Brazil’s president, which invited Wampler to Brasilia.

Such media ripple effects, even when they don’t lead to cabinet confabs, are common. A Monkey Cage Q&A with Rachel Wellhausen, of the University of Texas at Austin, about the Investor-State Dispute System in the Trans-Pacific Partnership led to interviews with her by Bloomberg, The Huffington Post, National Geographic, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, and Time magazine. There’d been a leak about this obscure but potentially far-reaching policy facet. "Left-wingers don’t like a system in which corporations can push back against government regulations," wrote George Washington University’s Henry Farrell in his introduction to the Q&A. "Right-wingers don’t like a system where U.N.-affiliated tribunals can overturn U.S. law." And so an expert on investor treaties, Wellhausen, could feed the media beast a timely wonky snack.

Multiply such experiences by the more than 8,000 articles written for the Cage by nearly 1,500 political scientists. Then consider that that’s just one blog. The New York Times’s Upshot, Vox’s Mischiefs of Faction, Political Violence @ a Glance, Crooked Timber, and Duck of Minerva are among other respected poli-sci, or poli-sci-heavy, outlets.

"The rise of political-science public engagement has been so massive and rapid that it is paradoxically easy to miss," writes Marc Lynch, a Middle East specialist at George Washington University and a regular blogger for the Cage, in a forthcoming article for Perspectives on Politics. "A decade ago, very few political scientists had either the opportunity or the incentive to engage with the political public in a direct, unmediated way." Engagement has gone from "something exotic to something utterly routine." In fact, while the top blogs were initially popular as rare outlets for scholars to reach a broader public, they’re now popular, Lynch writes, as curators of "a deluge of analysis, information, and argument."

The impetus for reaching a broad public "has been there for quite a while, and the technology now makes it possible," says Jennifer L. Hochschild, a professor of government and African and African-American studies at Harvard and president of the American Political Science Association. The discipline’s so-called perestroika movement, which arose at about the same time as widespread blogging, was a call for more variety in topic and methodology; more recognition for that variety in a field that had taken on a positivistic, scientistic air; and more public outreach. The Monkey Cage and other high-profile blogs have gone some way toward achieving those goals, Hochschild says, and an APSA open-access e-journal in the planning stages might help advance them further.

Journalists, too, say they’ve benefited from the change. "Perhaps the single best thing that’s happened to political journalism in the time I’ve been doing it is the rise of political science," wrote Vox’s editor in chief, Ezra Klein, in 2014. That rise over the past decade resulted not just from new platforms but also from new political circumstances, he argued. In the past, "political journalism dealt with political science episodically and condescendingly," because reporters had easier access to movers and shakers while scholars were off graphing voting patterns and theorizing opinion formation. "A Ph.D. was nice, but if you couldn’t get the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee on the phone, what did you really know about what was going on in Congress?"

But now the voting patterns and opinion formation, which might earlier have seemed unhelpfully abstract, have eclipsed the impact of big shots’ clout and networking. "A politician’s relationships might once have been a good guide to her votes. Today, the ‘D’ or ‘R’ after a politician’s name tells you almost everything you need to know."

Tells you, that is, with the help of interpreters like The Monkey Cage, which Tufts University’s Daniel Drezner, another independent poli-sci blogger who was pulled into the Post’s orbit, says "set a template that most of the top-tier blogs have followed." John Sides and crew, he says, have done "smashingly well."

There were early indications that Sides would pursue a career in political science. As a high-schooler in Winston-Salem, N.C., he read What It Takes, Richard Ben Kramer’s thousand-pager on the 1988 elections, just for fun.

That curiosity and enthusiasm propelled the 41-year-old associate professor at George Washington University to prominence as an expert on public opinion and voter behavior.

"Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage," wrote H.L. Mencken, inspiring the blog’s name. And group blogging was, for Sides, the art of running the circus from what was then a frenzied assistant professorship. In the three-legged stool of an academic career — research, teaching, service — it wasn’t clear how blogging would be perceived by the higher-ups. "I had conversations with several colleagues around here to make sure it wasn’t going to be a big issue," Sides says.

It helped that he recruited Lee Sigelman, a senior member of the department (Sigelman died, of cancer, in 2009). "His participation was an endorsement," Sides says. It helped, too, that Forrest Maltzman, who in 2008 became department head and has since become senior vice provost for academic affairs and planning, approved of the venture.

The third member of the original team was David Chung Park, a specialist in computational, statistical, and social systems. The Cage’s core crew now is Sides, Lynch, and Farrell, of George Washington University; Erik Voeten, of Georgetown University; Kim Yi Dionne, of Smith College; Andrew Gelman, of Columbia University; Laura Seay, of Colby College; and Joshua Tucker, of New York University. But all kinds of specialists contribute to its several posts daily. A two-year grant of $300,000 from the Democracy Fund allowed Sides in 2015 to bring on board the longtime journalist E.J. Graff as managing editor. Graff can "approach content with eyeballs that are unsullied by the academic training that we all have," Sides says. "She is really there to help refine pieces" for a lay audience.

A successful post on the political-science blog used to get several thousand hits. One now gets several hundred thousand.
The Cage started partly in response to a blog post at The American Prospect by Klein bemoaning that economics was overshadowing political science in the blogosphere. Citing popular blogs by Tyler Cowen, Brad DeLong, Greg Mankiw, Dani Rodrik, and others, Klein asked: "Why have economists taken to the blogosphere in so much greater numbers, and with so much more apparent success, than practitioners of other disciplines that also intersect with contemporary politics?"

Sides envisioned his blog as expanding on what Farrell was already doing at Crooked Timber and as modeled on Cowen’s Marginal Revolution, which Sides called "perhaps the most important inspiration for this blog." The Cage would "post abstracts and links to articles, papers, and books, along with comments that summarize our own reactions." The bloggers planned, too, to indulge their "idiosyncratic pursuits." So in early days you’d find, sandwiched between Sides on "Why Endorsements Matter in Presidential Nominations" and Sigelman on "The Long-Term Economic Cost of Wars," a tribute by the dog-crazy Sigelman to a boxer named Frida. Or beneath Sides’s discussion of race and the death penalty is his video-embedded endorsement of a Swedish singer named Jens Lekman. Such frivolity is rarer now, although Christopher Federico, of the University of Minnesota, offers a regular "the week in one song."

Before long, more international-relations and area specialists were contributing, broadening the Cage’s scope, and the comments section took off as a message board of sorts for professors and Ph.D. students to share updates, critique methodology, and point to resources. While many political blogs had a partisan bent, the Cage kept its tight research focus, attracting policy makers, journalists, and other nonacademics.

Buzz grew. In 2011, The Week picked the Cagers as "bloggers of the year," and Time, in 2012, named it one of the 25 best blogs. It was among the clear victors emerging from blogs that had crowded the starting line a decade earlier. Publications wanted to capture those ventures’ loyal followings while complementing the newspapers’ or magazines’ own offerings. Sides talked with editors at The American Prospect and Pacific Standard about possibly publishing under their banners, but The Washington Post seemed like the best match.

"It had a lot of fans in our newsroom," says Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, the Post’s managing editor in charge of digital initiatives.

The Cage offers context for above-the-fold news like the Paris and San Bernardino massacres and the recent shootings at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. On that last, for instance, a post by Gelman explained that the partisan divide we might think of as inherent to the abortion debate is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The blog also has a reputation as a wise perennial debunker — "Syria isn’t Bosnia. And no, the problem isn’t ‘ancient hatreds,’ " was one autumn post. It has also come to serve as something of a world political-news wire, with contributors interpreting elections in Tanzania, Canada, and Switzerland; contending that "Yemen’s transition to political stability was doomed to fail"; and arguing that Portugal was having a political not a constitutional crisis.

Most outside contributors are not paid. The core Cage team and a group of occasional contributors is compensated on the basis of page views and digital-ad sales. But the bloggers strive as much for influence as for clicks, says Sides. He wants to get the content in front of "force multipliers" in the State Department, the intelligence community, Capitol Hill, the corporate world, and, of course, journalists.

The force multipliers, it would appear, are listening. Michael McFaul, who worked for the National Security Council, was then ambassador to Russia, and now teaches at Stanford, says he was often asked at the NSC what the "academic literature" had to say about this or that. The National Security Adviser at the time, Thomas Donilon, told McFaul that he’d found his own online source for academic views: The Monkey Cage.

Farrell credits Klein, Matthew Yglesias, now also of Vox, and the political and sports statmeister Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, for harnessing in 2007-8 the power of aggregate poll numbers to contextualize the Obamacare debates and political campaigns. That was, says Farrell, "a period of ferment when journalists realized they could get more from social scientists, and political scientists realized there was an interested and informed market" for their research.

If poli-sci blogs have helped inform reporters, says Jeffrey Smith, a former Missouri state senator who now teaches in the Public Engagement program of the New School, they’ve also forced them to up their game, providing "a check on some of the excesses of political journalists," including misinterpreting and relying too much on polls, and failing to provide context for the news.

David Lauter, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, calls The Monkey Cage and similar sources "a good way of separating the substance of what’s going on in campaigns from the day-to-day froth." But there’s a natural tension, he says, between the political scientists’ seeking of patterns and journalists’ seeking of exceptions. One such exception, says The Atlantic’s Molly Ball, might be party establishments’ role in picking candidates. "There’s always the possibility," she says, "that this time will break the mold ... theory may have been overtaken by events."

Cage contributors see benefits beyond reaching a wider audience. They say that blogging provides an opportunity to return to newly relevant work they’ve done, and that reactions to their posts help them refine their teaching.

"My impression is that there’s a growing community of junior scholars who use it pretty regularly," says Sarah E. Gollust, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota. Having just received a "good job" email from a dean for her latest post, she’s confident she has higher-ups’ support for such efforts.

That support’s not universal, says Christina Greer, of Fordham University. "It really depends on the department that you’re in. There are still many departments that don’t see this as value added."

Jennifer Hochschild, the political-science association’s president, says hiring, tenure, and promotion committees note such activity only "at the margin." But it signals, if nothing else, that the scholar is alert, engaged, and probably writes well.

But, says Georgetown’s Erik Voeten, "I think there’s been a sea change."

Scholars list contributions to prestigious blogs on their CVs, and foundations want research-grant applicants to have media plans beyond academic journals. And it did not go unnoticed that a 2012 guest post about the culture of guns and violence by Patrick Egan, of New York University, was even cited in a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

For all their success, however, political scientists still have at least a moderate inferiority complex toward their cockier econ cousins.

"You still don’t see political scientists as columnists in The New York Times," says NYU’s Joshua Tucker. "But we’re getting there."

George Washington University’s Henry Farrell agrees that the gap is narrowing. But, he says, the seemingly harder empiricism of economic models still sometimes gives that field more cachet. Where is a Council of Political Science Advisers akin to the Council of Economic Advisers?

Cowen, whose blog, remember, was a prime inspiration for The Monkey Cage, writes in an email that the Post’s imprimatur has "lent it establishment status, legitimacy," which has been a big plus. But over all, "political science still lags far behind economics" and has "fewer stars, less unified method," and is "less closely connected to business and money." All of that is "hard to overcome."

Then there’s the existential anxiety that comes with nominal success, writes Marc Lynch in his forthcoming journal article. Scholars might previously have said, If I could only get my ideas in front of the right people, it would make all the difference. But when they do get those ideas out, they usually wait in vain for demonstrable impact. "It is easier," writes Lynch, "to quantify the number of articles published or page views received than more amorphous and fleeting shifts in the public consensus."

The "conditions that make real policy impact more likely," he adds, are when there is "a real uncertainty, as in the Egyptian revolution or the Syrian fiasco."

But careful what you wish for, he writes. There’s some comfort in living inside a bubble of theory, and a special dread when you break out of it. What happens when your policy advice is heard?

"I advocated for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, for a military intervention in Libya, and against a military intervention in Syria," Lynch writes. "The blood of many thousands of dead Syrians, Iraqis, and Libyans haunts me, even if I had only a minor actual impact on events and even if my policy recommendations were in fact useful. With impact comes responsibility."


Correction (1/11/2016): This article originally misstated Kathleen McNamara's status at Princeton University in 1999. She was an assistant professor, not a doctoral student.

Alexander C. Kafka is a deputy managing editor of The Chronicle Review.