Policy Sciences

, Volume 41, Issue 1, pp 21–32

Revisiting Lasswell


    • Department of Political ScienceNorthwestern University
  • Jacob S. Hacker
    • Department of Political ScienceYale University
  • Nicole Kazee
    • Department of Political ScienceYale University

DOI: 10.1007/s11077-007-9052-9

Cite this article as:
Farr, J., Hacker, J.S. & Kazee, N. Policy Sci (2008) 41: 21. doi:10.1007/s11077-007-9052-9


This article continues the line of argument and historical interpretation we offered in “The Policy Scientist of Democracy: The Discipline of Harold D. Lasswell” by way of a response to Ronald Brunner’s “The Policy Scientist of Democracy Revisited.” Problems regarding Lasswell’s capacious vision of the policy scientist and vagaries surrounding “democracy,” do not diminish the importance of the questions Lasswell asked and left as his legacy to the discipline of political science. We here supply further evidence for our historical interpretation of Lasswell and sketch what sort of “policy scientist of democracy” fits our times and the current state of the discipline of political science.


LasswellDemocracyPolicy sciences

Harold Lasswell continues to invite controversy some 50 years after his presidency of the American Political Science Association and nearly 30 years after his death. One of the greatest political scientists and public intellectuals of the twentieth century, Lasswell bequeathed to later generations not only a massive body of work but also revolutionary advances in the study of power, personality, propaganda, and the policy sciences whose insights have yet to be fully appreciated or exhausted. Precisely because of all this, readers and commentators find different things in Lasswell’s life and writings to fascinate, challenge, or aggravate them—or all three.

Proof of this may be found in the large and growing body of literature on the development of the social sciences, including the historical essays contained in the 2006 centennial edition of the American Political Science Review. Besides figuring in several essays, Lasswell was given stand-alone attention in ours, “The Policy Scientist of Democracy: The Discipline of Harold D. Lasswell” (Farr et al. 2006). In response, Ronald D. Brunner (who graciously helped us when we were writing our essay) has provided a complementary yet contrasting—and ultimately far more uncritical—assessment of Lasswell’s contribution. Brunner brings verve, intelligence, and loyalty to the task of revisiting Lasswell’s vision of “the policy scientist of democracy,” relying upon broad and deep knowledge of his teacher’s and co-author’s works. He provides an account of Lasswell as an always-consistent policy scientist fully committed to democracy whose pronouncements on morals, science, and policy should be the starting point for further reflection.

We welcome the opportunity to continue a discussion about the contested meaning of Lasswell’s works, the policy sciences, and the discipline of political science. We wrote “The Policy Scientist of Democracy,” after all, because we share with Brunner the conviction that engaging with Lasswell’s work and the questions he posed remains vitally important to the social sciences, and, indeed, our society. Brunner’s spirited response evinces little recognition that our core aim was not to celebrate the hyper-specialization and narrowly construed professionalization of the study of politics and public policy, but to lament it and to point to Lasswell’s example and arguments as partial antidotes and remedies. Ours was a sympathetic review of Lasswell’s ideas and ideals, premised on the belief that deep and direct engagement with public problems and their democratic resolution is a vital and too-often-neglected task of the social sciences.

Still, while our sympathies are much more with Lasswell than Brunner’s sharply worded response suggests, we did identify some telling limits of Lasswell’s vision. These limits were in the first instance internal—reflective of Lasswell’s excessively capacious conception of the policy scientist of democracy, his ambivalent perspective on power and the relationship between expert advisers and those in power, and his sometimes-contradictory views of the democratic ends that those advisers were supposed to serve. Yet these limits were also, we argued, profoundly external—reflective of conflicts between Lasswell’s agenda and powerful trends in the social sciences that were unfolding even as Lasswell wrote and which accelerated after his death. The animating question of our essay was how Lasswell’s aspiration of an engaged, problem-driven social science that had real influence on democratic policymaking could be realized in this transformed intellectual context.

Brunner’s essay, sadly, does not engage with this question. His response to our considered criticisms of Lasswell is to deny that any criticism is warranted. His response to our call for new thinking about the appropriate model for an engaged social science is to deny that new thinking is necessary, except insofar as that thinking involves returning to the insights and guidance of Lasswell himself. We disagree, and we offer some additional reflections in our response on how we might yet achieve a policy science of democracy that is true to the spirit, if not always the letter, of Harold Lasswell’s word.

What we argued

In “The Policy Scientist of Democracy,” we attempted to give an accurate and sympathetic account of Lasswell’s invention during the 1940s and 1950s of a disciplinary persona that would marshal and put into policy-relevant form the findings of state-of-the-art social science for the broader purposes of democracy in a world threatened by ignorance, force, and totalitarian ideologies. The policy scientist was deeply committed to this work and the values upon which it was based or for which it served, thinking of himself rather like a doctor or lawyer serving the health or justice of a democratic society. The initial audience for this work consisted of those in power, that is, those who could make policy happen, whether they were elected officials, bureaucrats, or military officers. The policy scientist of democracy was, in our rendering, something of a hero—an archetypal figure for powerful insiders, workaday social scientists, and ordinary democrats. Heroes are expected to meet the highest standards; indeed, they set those standards. Lasswell fully intended and expected that more and more social scientists would think of themselves and work in this way.

The discipline of political science, however, reacted in mixed ways to the policy scientist of democracy, and to Lasswell’s overall efforts. On the one hand, it named him (belatedly, to be sure) the president of its association in 1956, for which he delivered an address that reflected, realistically, on the dangers of a world under a mushroom cloud and envisioned, prophetically, developments in physics and genetics that would transform the world. Social and political scientists needed to learn and do more to help shape this world, Lasswell importuned, by becoming full-fledged policy scientists. Over time, however, developments in the discipline precluded the realization of this vision. Political science was becoming more specialized whereas policy science required interdisciplinary efforts. Academic centers—like Lasswell’s and colleagues’ own Policy Sciences Center—became the site for some interdisciplinary work. But many centers dedicated to the policy sciences actually became more specialized, or failed to embrace Lasswell’s particular vision of the labor and future of the study and shaping of policy.

Much of this, in our view, was regrettable if understandable, due mainly to disciplinary demands and developments. But some of it was the result of Lasswell’s unrealized and perhaps unrealizable ambitions. With such heroic standards, how could the policy scientist actually survive in the academy during the third quarter of the twentieth century? What, exactly, did democracy require or “democracy” mean in Lasswell’s view? These and other questions, perhaps inevitably, went and remain unresolved. Other questions, however, do and should better command the attention of political scientists: What is the role of a science of public affairs in a democratic society? If, as Lasswell believed, that role requires engaging with pressing problems of democracy, what does “engagement” entail, with whom does it take place, and when does it drift into arenas into which social scientists qua social scientists should fear to tread? How, in other words, can the social sciences better integrate not just the study but also the shaping and informing of democratically chosen policies into its work? To us, these questions remain the principal part of Lasswell’s legacy, at least with respect to the study of policy in the discipline of political science. It was this legacy—and the historical account of Lasswell’s life and work in connection with the policy sciences—that we desired to remember and keep alive, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the American Political Science Review.

Heroism and democracy in Lasswell’s vision

This desire and the historical sketch we provided still seem right, in our view. Brunner (2007), however, objects to the sketch, not least our characterization of the policy scientist as “heroic,” not “doctrinally clear” about the democracy he valued, and, in the end, “too comfortable in and around power” (citing Farr et al. 2006, pp. 584–586). Brunner thinks we reduced heroism to the “unrealistic and unrealizable” and ignored the dozens of places that Lasswell used the terminology of “democracy” or acted to forward democratic “prototypes” in Peru or the Yale Psychiatric Institute. But we thought of heroism largely in the way Arthur Brodbeck (1969) did in “Scientific Heroism from a Standpoint within Social Psychology,” his contribution to the festschrift for Lasswell. The hero was a prototype of a “perfected consciousness” that envisioned a new world, providing others with “a whole new set of possibilities than would otherwise not exist if he had not existed.”

Counting Lasswell a scientific hero of his, Brodbeck warned of theoretical and practical obstacles that faced the further perfection of the Lasswellian hero and his theoretical systems. One was Lasswell’s own “shortchanging the disciplines” when forwarding his own technical language, decision schemata, and quantitative requirements. The grander political vision was ahead of its time, prematurely announced as having arrived. Brodbeck too embraced the value of “human dignity, and of human freedom” but he was “not satisfied” that “the system is anywhere near such perfection that it can afford to represent itself as finished and final, even though it is now being used to operationalize World Public Order” (Brodbeck 1969, pp. 226, 228, 230, 248–249). These words, from a friend and colleague at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, indicated broader unease in political science and cognate disciplines about how realistic or realizable were Lasswell’s creations, including the heroic policy scientist of democracy.

If the disciplinary persona embodied in Lasswell’s image of the policy scientist of democracy had its limits and contradictions, so too did the trailing end of the phrase—Lasswell’s conception of democracy. An avowed democrat (and voting Democrat), Lasswell scarcely failed to mention “democracy” in his works, at least from the 1940s on. In some cases—most notably in The Democratic Character (1951)—the discussion was sustained. The earlier works from the 1920s and 1930s on propaganda and psychoanalysis, by contrast, took up democracy more fitfully or by indirection (say, as the Other to fascism or communism). And when Lasswell made some of his few direct pronouncements on democracy during this period, the realism was bracing. He ended one of his first APSR articles famously: “Democracy has proclaimed the dictatorship of palaver, and the technique of dictating to the dictator is named propaganda” (1927, p. 631). In 1928, he chided “orthodox” and “eulogistic” democrats, opining that “propaganda will doubtless facilitate that rather large-scale reconstruction of democratic philosophy.” What the reconstruction entailed or what democratic philosophy would become remained unclear, save for a telling line about “the few who would rule the many under democratic conditions” (1928, p. 264, 259). Shortly thereafter, he announced that “the time has come to abandon the assumption that the problem of politics is the problem of promoting discussion among all the interests concerned in a given problem” (1930, p. 196). Returning to the topic yet again, Lasswell (1934, p. 526) frankly confessed that “the propagandist outlook in fact combines respect for individuality with indifference to formal democracy.” Readers then often took—and some, like us, still take—pronouncements like these not merely as warnings but as endorsements of a new “democratic” theory and a new “democratic” world in the making. But what sort of democracy was it to be?

Lasswell moved on or away from these pronouncements on democracy, though he never (to our knowledge) repudiated them in print, at least in such a way as to make him a more clearly understood or consistent democratic theorist to his colleagues in political science. Still, his move seemed evident enough for David Easton to discern an “Elitist Amoral Phase” before 1940 and a “Decisional Moral Phase” afterwards. Easton, who admired and was influenced by Lasswell, thought Lasswell exemplified the very figure he discussed in the later period, namely, “the policy scientist for a democratic society.” However, traces of the earlier period remained or were unresolved; for example, the decision framework of the policy sciences “could be hostile” to democracy, just as psychoanalysis could be “manipulative.” Clarity was also not helped by Lasswell’s “own apparent reluctance” to call attention to the change (1950, pp. 459, 460, 465, 469). Ever gracious in person and communication, Lasswell wrote to Easton in 1949 upon reading the manuscript copy, essentially confirming the reluctance and leaving open questions about the timing or precise nature of his democratic commitments. There were “differences” between them, he averred. “As you surmise, there are several. The only ‘fact’ item that I would suggest changing is the attempt to ‘time’ the ‘shift’ as precisely as you do” (Lasswell Papers, Series 1, Box 31, File 420).

Other commentators, not privy to such communications or everything Lasswell was writing in the more-democratic late 40s, still found “democracy” elusive. Michael Oakeshott (1948, p. 328), the Chair of Political Science at the LSE, found “difficulties about the meaning of ‘Democracy’ and a ‘free society’” when reviewing The Analysis of Political Behavior in which appeared reprinted Lasswell’s homage to his teacher, Charles Merriam, “The Emerging Science of Democracy.” Another reviewer of the book whom we cited in our essay—Alan Gewirth (1949, p. 142)—not only wondered what particular policies the policy scientist of democracy would pursue under the banner of “democracy” and “dignity,” but he feared that Lasswell “does not consider seriously the problem of preventing undemocratic abuses among the policy scientists themselves.” “No one questions the sincere adherence of Lasswell and his followers to democratic values,” J. F. Wolpert (1949, pp. 69, 70) wrote in the same general context. But he was not precisely sure what they were or whether “the ‘policy’ sciences” in general and content analysis in particular “will be manipulated in a democratic fashion.”

It would be a mistake, in our view, to conclude that these commentators were all obtuse or unremittingly hostile to Lasswell or the policy sciences. After all, they included admirers and friends like Brodbeck and Easton, as well as serious scholars committed to the analysis of democracy. In any case, they do in fact represent an important subset of the actual, historical reactions to Lasswell and his heroic policy scientist. They also do not seem to have prompted Lasswell to settle affairs with a definite, sustained, elaborated theory or doctrine. (He could hardly have done everything, of course; his agenda was already of unrivalled proportion among his colleagues.)

Lasswell did, to be sure, continue to invoke “democracy” or democratic themes in most of his later writings. Brunner has listed an important number of them. However, the sheer multiplicity of definitions or synonyms or allusions did not—or does not, even now—conspire to a single clear doctrine, especially in comparison to democratic theorists like his colleague at Yale, Robert Dahl, or in comparison to what he himself offered about power, propaganda, psychopathology, or the garrison state. Lasswell openly valued “the individualistic society” and “the free society”—as quoted by Brunner—and this might suggest a variant of liberalism or libertarianism. But saying that freedom and individualism are democratic values, without some sustained theorizing, does not make them so, certainly in the very context of debate over a range of competing theories of democracy at the time Lasswell was writing.

The same may be said of political values like “human dignity,” “mutual deference,” and the “decent regard for the opinions and sensibilities of others.” Was the “Free Man’s Commonwealth”—to Brodbeck (1969, p. 253) “a kind of comic valentine to psychoanalysis, and at best a minor science-fiction, comic-book story”—a democratic utopia? In Democracy through Public Opinion—one of the rare books with “democracy” in the title—Lasswell (1941, p. 1) understood democracy to be “the practice of justice by majority rule,” a novel and pithy formulation worthy of further development in light of competing theories of justice or representation. Then, too, democracy entailed “a new way of talking” to him (1941, p. 80), one presumably much improved over the dictatorship of palaver. Democracy seemed to be a causal pre-requisite for the “skill revolution” (1941, p. 176), as for the “Respect Revolution” (at least for Brodbeck [1969, p. 253]). Power-sharing was certainly democratic, especially if the conditions and prospects for equal sharing were genuine and guaranteed. The list of values that functioned as synonyms or allusions or short-hand for “democracy” was long because of Lasswell’s sheer rapid-fire brilliance and his much-commented-upon tendency to use striking formulations. But it was breath-taking and frequently in need of systematicity, or so thought many political scientists who cannot be accused of having failed to have read Lasswell, even if many of them spurned the call of the policy scientist of democracy while burrowing into their academic specialties.

Lasswell’s real-world prototypes

Brunner considers the “prototypes” in Vicos and the Yale Psychiatric Institute (YPI) as further documentation of Lasswell’s democratic values and his “face-to-face interactions” with “disadvantaged citizens.” Readers of this journal will need no elaboration of these striking field experiments which were two of the more imaginative, practical fruits of the policy sciences. Despite our own fascination with them—especially the democratic overtones of power-sharing and the interventionist methodology of action research—we omitted mention of Vicos and YPI in our essay because their stories deserved greater length than was available (or is available here, for that matter). In any case, their stories harbor moral and political ambiguities that Brunner chooses to overlook and that weigh upon how we judge complex interactions between science and politics of the sort embodied in the image of the policy scientist.

In the case of Vicos—which Lasswell (1965) first heralded as an instance of “the emerging policy sciences of development” (emphasis added)—the prototype is best categorized as one in modernization. Lasswell’s extensive field notes (Lasswell Papers, Series 1, Box 43, Folders 603–5) show his concern with power-sharing, but also the impact of movies and radio, changed styles of dress and behavior, and the encouragement of “moderate use of coca, if it is used at all.” Without downplaying the commitment to “democratic empowerment” (in Brunner’s phrase), Lasswell seemed especially concerned to emphasize that, as he put it in a research protocol, “the scientist has political control over the organization studied, hence scientific manipulative control over the variables to a rare degree.”

Moreover, the project got off the ground only because the team under the leadership of Allan Holmberg, anthropologist at Cornell, was able to lease the hacienda, making Holmberg “the absolute boss of 300 Indian families, consisting of about 1,700 persons” (Crow 1992, p. 819) and playing, in his own words, “the double role of God and anthropologist” (Holmberg 1966, p. 36; quoted in Zapata 2006, p. 4). While he forewent the patron’s traditional personal services and acted with genuine humanitarian regard for the Vicosinos, the power differential was not and could not have been missed on the participants, even when there was some degree of sharing. Traditional landlords thought the experiment undermined their power in the region while Peruvian leftists thought it an outpost of Yankee imperialism, especially when USAID officers elsewhere in Peru were outed as CIA agents and Holmberg’s World War II intelligence work became known. Holmberg’s student and assistant in the project, Paul Doughty, has laid to rest (in print and private communication) suspicions regarding anything clandestine or ominous at Vicos, even though the Cold War context is unavoidably relevant to understanding the prototype (Doughty 2004; cp. Stein 2003; Ross 2006). It is certainly important to note, as Brunner and Doughty do, that the Vicosinos were in the end able to take greater control over their land and lives than would otherwise have been possible. But the point here is, the tale is complex and ambiguous, with Vicos no simple shining city on the hill.

The power-sharing at YPI tensely embodied similar ambiguities. As a therapeutic instrument, psychiatric patients were encouraged to participate in meetings where decisions were made over important, everyday issues that affected them. There was, in this regard, a moment of democratization and something of a revolution. Yet, Richard Rubenstein and Lasswell were candid that it was an instance of “guided democratization” and “revolution from above” whose impulse came not from the patients, but “out of scientific inquiry.” In the end, its success was limited by nurses and doctors who failed to see the therapeutic value of the power-sharing experiment (not to mention “sociopathic patients” whose “provocative behavior” disrupted the work of the medical professionals and influenced other patients). But there was a deeper question around the democratic value of power-sharing that paralleled that of Vicos and which Lasswell himself recognized; indeed, he thought YPI was “significant for the strategy of political development, especially in nation-states” under “elites” who wanted change (Rubinstein and Lasswell 1966, pp. 267, 280, 281). Richard Merelman (1981, p. 495), who studied with Lasswell, has posed the question directly: “Most vexing … is the question that haunts the book [and prototype]: how can a therapeutic goal which presupposes that doctors know more than patients be reconciled with patient democracy, which makes no such assumption?” There were real tensions between science and democracy—if their meanings and methods could be pinned down adequately—in Lasswell’s vision of the policy scientist.

Science, democracy, and power

The tensions between science and democracy reflect a political variant of “unresolved positivism” (Farr et al. 2006, p. 584). This goes back to St. Simon and Comte—and later Pareto and Mosca, two acknowledged influences on Lasswell. They sought progress via expert authorities in science, advising figures in power, with some cautious measure of popular mobilization. They also valued a hard-headed (but by no means value-free) realism that started its inquiries and arguments by taking society as it was, with its deep, inevitable asymmetries of power, not as the expert might want it to be. When we concluded our essay—to which Brunner takes exception—this intellectual tradition was on our minds. So, too, was our worry that the policy scientist of democracy was willing “to sit too closely and comfortably with those in power” (Farr et al. 2006, p. 585). This seemed a plausible way to capture and summarize some of the difficulties that we saw and that many of Lasswell’s contemporaries recognized in the ambitions of the heroic policy scientist.

In Lasswell’s (1956) presidential address, for example, political scientists were beckoned to put their scientific expertise—once it was dramatically improved—in the service of “our decision makers,” “the navigators of the Ship of State,” and “those in command” (Lasswell, 1956, pp. 965–967). There is no reason to think that Lasswell did not also intend that the policy scientist of democracy would be of direct or indirect help to ordinary democratic citizens, but he did not say so to the assembled political scientists.

Alongside our original essay appeared a photo we selected from Lasswell’s archives (reprinted below), which showed a beaming Lasswell standing beside top generals and national security experts at the Army War College not long after his presidential address. Apparently, Lasswell was then on the circuit of the other war colleges talking about security policy and transformed weaponry (perhaps of the sort described in the address). More than any description by us can, the photo conveys at a glance Lasswell’s ease and confidence about keeping close company with those in power. So does the partial list we provided of the luminaries and power-brokers who came to Lasswell’s aid when he sought restoration of his security clearance for RAND in 1951. Many of the most prominent members of the initial generation of those who thought of themselves as policy scientists and who collaborated with Lasswell—Daniel Lerner, Nathan Leites, William T. R. Fox, Ithiel de Sola Pool, Alfred de Grazia, for example—advised the military and helped form strategic policy from the Cold War to Vietnam. This was the realization of an aspiration—one among many, certainly—to put expert knowledge into the service of those in power, in this case military power (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

September 25, 1956–Lasswell (far left) is pictured following an address to the U.S. Army War College, three weeks after his historic APSA presidential address. He appears with experts in both the academic and military wings of security studies, including (from left to right): Major General Max Johnson (the Commandant of the AWC); Professor F.S. Dunn (Director of the Center of International Studies at Princeton University); Brigadier General E.C. Doleman (Asst. Commandant of the AWC); and Professor William T.R. Fox (founder of Columbia University’ s Institute of War and Peace Studies, and best known for coining the term “superpower” in 1943). Standing alongside such formidable scholarly and military company, a map of the Soviet Union looming in the background, Lasswell enthusiastically embodies the elusive policy scientist of democracy. Courtesy Harold D. Lasswell papers. Manuscript & Archives, Yale University Library

Of course, policy scientists (or, more generally, those interested in the study and formulation of policy) can and do serve democracy in other ways and with other institutions. We never stated or implied otherwise. But the general story of the policy sciences in their origin and heyday, as in the cases of Vicos or YPI, as in the cautionary story of Lasswell’s own involvement in national affairs, contains these complexities and ambiguities and proximities to those in power. We cannot wish to embrace or improve upon Lasswell’s heroic figure or even answer the important questions he bequeathed us if we do not discuss honestly and try to explain historically these dimensions of “the policy scientist of democracy” as Lasswell imagined, and embodied, him.

Can we build a policy science for democracy?

Let us turn finally to the mixed reception to Lasswell’s vision within the discipline he most wished to shape, the discipline to which he spoke in his 1956 address—political science. Today, this discipline, our discipline, is dominated by a narrow conception of the role of the scholarly professional. It is increasingly segmented and specialized. It is increasingly driven by methods and modes of theorizing that require abstracting away from vital features of politics and encourage seemingly endless debate about theoretically tractable but often empirically trivial questions. Most of all, political science today provides far too few stable opportunities for scholars who wish to engage directly or deeply with the substance or making of public policy—subjects that we noted in our essay have gravitated to schools of public policy mostly dominated by economists, where fundamental questions of power, politics, political institution-building, popular control, and practical leadership are neglected.

None of these charges should be laid at Lasswell’s feet, of course. As Brunner thoroughly documents, no other scholar of his day argued more consistently, strenuously, and persuasively for the primacy of contextual thinking and scholarly engagement than did Lasswell. Still, it cannot be denied that Lasswell failed to fully anticipate these changes. (In The Future of Political Science, for example, he foresaw a time when political scientists who did not engage in policy advising would be “as rare as unicorns” [1963, p. 13].) Nor can it be denied that Lasswell’s lack of strategic accommodation to these trends was part of the undoing of his vision: His prescriptions simply could not survive the requirements of political science as it evolved.

The question is whether political science can move toward fulfilling the ideal of a “responsible” profession that Lasswell upheld—that is, one that has a scientific as well as a social responsibility to further human dignity. We believe it can and should. But what our essay emphasized, what Lasswell’s life and work and the professional response to his calls all strongly show, and what Brunner’s response does not squarely address is that the ideal itself requires straddling worlds that are inherently in conflict. The responsible political scientist must be an academic and an advocate, a scientist and an activist, a thinker and a doer. The academic role requires deep theoretical and philosophical thinking and often solitary work, the ability to identify layers and nuance, and, in the name of objective research, the willingness to accept whatever the inquiry may yield. It calls for complex language that conveys precise meaning to a narrowly focused audience of elite colleagues and, in our modern profession, the ability to employ ever more sophisticated techniques in an effort to satisfy the demands of a “proper” science that can be replicated and applied elsewhere. Such scholarship also embodies an inherent skepticism of power, for the gravitational pull of power can distort as well as inform, especially in our contemporary environment of polarized political leadership.

A responsible political scientist must be a good social scientist in this broad sense, but a responsible political scientist must be much more. A responsible political scientist must be politically savvy and persistent; able to overlook or at least paper over nuance for a broader, simpler, and more accessible policy prescription; and able to communicate in clear, straightforward, jargon-free language. A responsible political scientist must be able to move in and toward circles of power, but also able to advocate in ways that reach broad audiences, even to organize or join with other citizens to inform or advance causes or alter public debate or policy. These skills are often, if not diametrically opposed to, then certainly uncomfortably paired with the requirements of a responsible political science as Lasswell envisioned it. Indeed, the norms of contemporary political science—the devaluing of popular publications in favor of elite professional journals, the methodological turf wars that lead to polarized and stubborn cells even within departments, the general disdain for political and policy involvement—push not just against Lasswell’s vision, but, we fear, against any form of sustained and broadly influential disciplinary engagement with the pressing problems of the day.

To say all this is not to give up hope. We believe that political scientists would do well to heed many of the calls of policy scientists, and indeed that the policy sciences will only survive if they form stronger intellectual bridges and social networks with political science. Whereas political science has remained powerful in university halls (if largely irrelevant outside them), the policy sciences have struggled to be heard, unable to find an institutional home that will help sustain the discipline (Pielke 2004). Having a platform from which to speak—and having a critical mass of voices in the first place—would seem to be a bare minimum for wielding any influence at all, much less the kind of influence Lasswell wished to foster.

Perhaps the most valuable and easily transferable contribution of the policy sciences is the demand that the social sciences be “problem-oriented.” Researchers who hope for their work to be relevant for democracy must begin with asking important questions that go above and beyond the often obscure squabbles over the literature—“academic” discussions in the worst possible sense. The responsible political scientist will structure a body of work that is intended to speak to both the narrow academic audience and the broader world, and which aims specifically at a political and social problem that practitioners struggle to solve. Likewise, the responsible political scientist will not fetishize predictive capacity (Brunner 2000, p. 1) or generalizability (Pielke 2004, p. 212), to the detriment of engagement with real-world problems, even if these real-world problems are not as easily tractable using conventional techniques.

In short, we must be willing, as was Lasswell, to challenge the rigid professional norms that stand in the way of our discipline becoming an essential part of learning, deciding, and flourishing in a democratic society. Professionals in the responsible political science that we envision would ask important relevant questions whose answers could contribute to their society’s ability to solve contemporary problems; conduct rigorous, multi-method research; make predictions and generalizations that include careful specification of how these predictions might change under varying contexts; write in clear and accessible language that apply the findings to domains and in ways that matter for real-world practitioners; and disseminate their work beyond the academy. These political scientists would think about the practical implications of their work and, when possible, seek to bring those implications into public discourse. And when power was needed to transform ideas into action, they would not shy away from seeking out power—but not only power at the top but also power at the bottom, through democratic dialogues designed to enrich and inform both parties to the conversation.

This last point is perhaps the most important—and the most challenging. An engaged and responsible political science requires that all of us become democratic theorists of a sort, thinking about the implications of our work for democratic citizenship. And here we must ask not only how we might improve democracy, but also how we can be democratic in our analyses and prescriptions over public policy. One of the most fruitful lines of thinking in recent years has conceptualized democracy in terms of discussion, debate, and deliberation. Read selectively and programmatically, Lasswell too might be thought of in a line of precursors to this way of thinking—at least the later Lasswell who wanted “a new way of talking.” Deliberative democracy requires attention to the conditions and consequences of reaching consensus over matters of policy in terms of deliberation. Deliberative democrats must be especially critical of propaganda from those in power, even if the propaganda is nominally “for” democratic ends, since propaganda undermines deliberation. This does not eliminate the older strain of thinking that makes democracy—like all forms of rule—a matter of power, especially the ideal of the genuine equality of power. But shared power, in this conception, is realized and mediated by deliberation and discussion among citizens.

Policy scientists of democracy, in this expansive view, are themselves deliberating citizens who might yet help think about ways of elevating the level and intelligibility of deliberation among the citizenry as a whole. Perhaps this task is a kind of meta-policy, under which other matters of policy analysis and prescription properly fall. Perhaps it is a foundational commitment that informs analysis and prescription, and shapes how each is to be developed, disseminated, and achieved. But what seems clear is that a responsible political science must be a democratic and public science, in the deepest sense of those words, engaged with the world around it, eager to address problems that matter to fellow citizens, and willing to enter into dialogue with those citizens and their leaders. With these elaborated commitments, political science might not be the heroic policy science of democracy that Lasswell envisioned. But it would be so much more than it is today—more engaged, more responsible, and, yes, more democratic.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. 2007