Political scientists: what are they good for?

If the fall of the Soviet empire seemed predictable after the fact, however, almost no mainstream political scientist had seen it coming…If political scientists couldn’t predict the downfall of the Soviet Union—perhaps the most important event in the latter half of the twentieth century—then what exactly were they good for? 

-Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise

I asked a similar question when my train slowly made its way into Bratislava Hlavna Stanica, the main train station. It was hot and dusty and the station was undergoing serious construction. (26 years later, when I was there last year, it seemed the station was still undergoing that same construction project.) 

What I realized that these were the people who were supposed to our superior enemies. The city was under construction — the post communist boom was on in Bratislava — but underneath all the tarps was a pretty dreary looking skeleton. 

It was the first time I had been overseas and put too much stock in the look of things. If it didn’t look up to the snuff of the US, it was poorer than the US. (I say it doesn’t affect me anymore, but it certainly still does.) 

What I saw those first days in Western Slovakia and then soon afterwards in much poorer Eastern Slovakia was not of an empire I was brought up to fear. I saw a somehow overdeveloped poor place. Lots of power lines, lots of factories and weird metal pipes going everywhere. But the rest of the infrastructure like the stores, hospitals and some of the roads seemed to be crumbling before my eyes. The place had a weird smell. (It later turned out to be coal used for heating.) 

I thought about how I heard horror stories from these places from all our political leaders, the media and people who visited here. We have to stop them from tricking people with their propaganda, we were told. Their system is built on tyranny. But these tales never said that the former Soviet satellites seemed kind of run down. They didn’t say that because run down wouldn’t strike fear in our hearts. Had we all visited Eastern Europe like our tastemakers, we would have shrugged and left, wondering what the big fuss was about.  That’s not a way to run a foreign policy.

Later I did figure out that they did a lot of things well in Eastern Europe. They did things poorly, but not as poorly as I would have first suspected. 

But this gets back to our foreign policy class. Yes, the American diplomats, politicians and, yes, political scientists who traveled behind the Iron Curtain received a special tour. But all they had to do was look out their hotel window and say, they’re not that scary. 

I wonder how many people got caught up in that narrative. You don’t stick your neck out and say that we shouldn’t worry about our enemy. one, what if you are wrong? And two, how could all those people be completely wrong? Three, only a few journals were going to print what you had to say anyway.