by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

Well, #MPSA2022 is in the books. From my perspective, the first in-person MPSA conference since 2019 was a success. As I noted in my previous blog post, the political science conference is likely to see permanent changes as we (hopefully) emerge from the pandemic. These changes include continued use of hybrid delivery, the growing popularity of the “lightning talk” format instead of posters, and an increased focus on treating panels as working groups rather than hierarchies built around particularly well-known political scientists. What about the future of political science itself? This year’s conference provides some hints about that, too. Here are some first thoughts about how our discipline may find itself adjusting to changing realities.

1. Race and gender are no longer separate subfields.
Certainly, panels, talks and posters specifically about the politics of race and gender can still be found. But, the broader theme here is that addressing these issues, as well as those of gender identity and sexual orientation are now becoming more integrated into most research, not just those papers that are specifically intended to address the topic.

American politics are a case in point. Voting in the U.S. has become so sharply polarized by race that is impossible to analyze these patterns accurately without explicitly taking race into account. Likewise, opinion differences linked to gender are increasingly being studied in public opinion, political psychology, and other fields that go well beyond gender studies research alone.

We also see issues such as gender identity moving into the mainstream. Registrants checking in at the conference were offered buttons featuring their choice of personal pronouns — he/him/his, she/her/hers, and they/them/theirs. This is not the same as a research agenda, but it is another indication of how things are changing.

2. We need to talk about conspiracy theories.
A search in the online conference program for the term “conspiracy theories” generates results that include four different panels. Two of these have conspiracy theories in the name – Conspiracy Theories, COVID-19, and Other Contemporary Issues (in the American Public Opinion track), and On Conspiracy Theories (in the Political Psychology track). It is clear that the study of these has moved from the fringes to the mainstream. With a conspiracy theory such as QAnon alone commanding the support of an estimated one million people, most in the United States and Canada, their impact on American politics is a phenomenon with which political scientists will have to reckon.

A case in point is the extensive network build by QAnon supporters on social media. During the aftermath of the 2020 elections, while ballots were still being counted, a baseless allegation that machines sold by Dominion Voting systems were “rigged” to change votes from Donald Trump to Joe Biden spread very rapidly along this network. Followers of QAnon — who believe that leading Democrats worship Satan and drink the blood of children in order to get high from a substance called adrenochrome — proved to be a formidable force in spreading a collection of false narratives about the election which came to be known collectively as “The Big Lie”. They also spread the word very quickly to turn out attendees to the rally that became a coup attempt on January 6, 2021.

We see this in other panels as well. The issue of confronting “misinformation”— often used as a euphemism for conspiracy theories — was discussed at each panel on teaching and learning that I attended. It is apparent that the study of why people believe conspiracy theories, how they spread, how they affect supposedly “mainstream” politics, and how to counter them is a fertile, if disturbing topic for research in our discipline.

3. It’s a hybrid world (for some, not for all)
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, this year’s MPSA conference was conducted in a hybrid format, held in person but with a number of participants “Zooming in.” This has implications beyond the conference itself.

During the pandemic, white-collar workers discovered just how productive they could be when working from home. From preparing reports on one’s laptop, to conference platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, many workers in certain professions discovered that it is not necessary to head to the office each morning in order to be highly productive. This leads to a host of possible research topics for us.

One such example is the digital divide. Blue collar workers in factories and trucks cannot Zoom into work, nor can most nurses, for example. The digital divide threatens to worsen inequality in a host of areas, including childcare, family separation, and commuting times. In addition, communities already struggling with surpluses of commercial office space are going to see the problem get worse, as employers downsize and have employees alternate which days they are in the office, to save space and expense — a significant issue in the urban politics and public policy subfields.

In other cases, workers and their employers may find themselves at loggerheads about whether or not the workers can do some of their work from home. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial denounced some federal employees for making just this proposal, proposing instead to eliminate public employee unions, make all federal employees “at will” (meaning they can be fired without cause) and banning working from home. The editorialist provided no evidence to indicate that employees are less productive when working from home than when working from an office. Controversies like these are bound to continue during the post-pandemic reopening, creating still more fertile ground for political science research.

It’s never a dull moment in our discipline. The mainstreaming of two sharply different subjects—race and gender, on the one hand, and conspiracy theories, on the other, plus ongoing controversies about the changing nature of work (for some, not for all) are bound to keep us busy for some time to come.


About the Author

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter