There are those for whom the term "social science" is a contradiction in terms. There are few cases where my colleagues in political science, sociology, economics, psychology and our cousins have results at the level of the best work by physicists or chemists. "Medical science" also provokes doubt, especially when patients die unexpectedly, or when they experience "miraculous" improvements.
Most of the time, the purpose of social science is not to produce theories that will explain every case being investigated, but to shed light in a significant corner of human experience. In my field of public policy, three individuals stand out for contributions that qualify for helping us understand the headlines in the two countries most important to me. Their work appeared in the 1930s to the 1970s, none remain alive, and they all might be surprised to encounter the details that interest us now. However, Harold Lasswell''s book on Psychopathology and Politics, Murray Edelman''s work on symbols and politics, and Aaron Wildavsky''s writings on implementation provide general ideas that help a great deal in guiding us through what is happening at the pinnacles of the American and Israeli governments.
Some may read Lasswell''s book to say that all politicians are nuts. More accurate is his finding that they are likely to be abnormal, marked especially by an enlarged ego. The trait leads them to stand before a large crowd and proclaim, "I will be your leader." It is associated with bombast, hyperbole, inflated promises and the recognition that politicians may not lie, but are not likely to tell the whole truth.
Edelman''s work points to the difference between symbols and substance, and shows that symbols may carry more weight in public discourse. Symbols include highly charged words, the importance given to ceremonial occasions, cherished holidays and songs, the creation and exploitation of heroic reputations. Symbols may not lie, but they embellish. They facilitate communication that puts things in their best light while avoiding details that confuse or disturb.
Wildavsky published a book along with a former student, Jeffrey Pressman, with the title Implementation. As in the case of Lasswell''s and Edelman''s works, Wildavsky and Pressman described a phenomenon that many recognized, but had not been given the attention that they produced. The message was that policy or intentions declared may not bear close resemblance to what actually happens, or is implemented by public officials. Legislators may not appropriate enough money; bureaucrats may delay, or ignore provisions in the law; interest groups mobilize to work against provisions that they failed to keep out of a law or a decision of the chief executive; citizens may feel their rights trampled, and fail to provide the cooperation that makes implementation possible. Foreign policy may be most challenging. Opponents have strong bases of support, and will do what they can to foil the will of an outsider, even one who heads a country with sufficient power to be considered a world leader or dominant in their region.
What does all of this mean for Americans and Israelis? Current heads of our governments are excellent performers. Their egos appear larger than the average. They are skilled in speaking, touching on the symbols that ring true, and making the impression that they are in control. Implementation? Getting things done to match their speeches, promises, and claims of accomplishment? Wildavsky may be chortling in his grave.
Barack Obama''s health reform is facing trouble in courts, with state governments, and consumers who find threats as well as promise in its more than 2,000 pages. There are still prisoners in Guantanamo. The president has claimed success or progress in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and elsewhere, but there are serious doubters. His rhetoric has not made a dent in the bloodshed of Libya. His comments have not been clear or consistent, and raise the possibility that he will intervene in a civil war where none of the several sides can claim the moral high ground, rather than do something decisive about Iran''s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Binyamin Netanyahu is as smooth and exciting a talker as Barack Obama. He qualifies in both Hebrew and English. He is immodest in claiming to have identified his country''s problems, and to have dealt with them personally and successfully. Currently he is talking about breaching the impasse in the peace process with another dramatic pronouncement. Previews suggest that it may be a grand performance before the Congress of the United States, but it may induce skeptics to applaud quietly if at all. The threads of his ideas include a recognition of a Palestinian state in temporary boundaries (already rejected by the president of the Palestinian Authority), with Israel''s security concerns requiring a continued IDF presence along the Jordan River (already rejected by the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority). Notice the prominence of an independent Palestine and Israel security. Those two symbols would have Edleman applauding with two hands, or at least cracking an enigmatic smile that could mean approval or cynicism.
Lasswell, Edleman, and Wildavsky were fine social scientists. They all emphasized understanding, and were not keen on prediction.