A History Of Prognosticating

Given the overwhelmingly negative press about Biden’s approval ratings, I was impressed (and persuaded) by a recent essay in the American Prospect titled You Are Entering The Infernal Triangle: Authoritarian Republicans, ineffectual Democrats, and a clueless media,”

The essay began by considering how often pollsters blow their most confident—and consequential—calls.

Ronald Reagan’s landslide was preceded by a near-universal consensus that the election was tied. The pollster who called it correctly, Lou Harris, was the only one who thought to factor into his models a variable that hadn’t been accounted for in previous elections, because it did not yet really exist: the Christian right.

Polling is systematically biased in just that way: toward variables that were evident in the last election, which may or may not be salient for this election.

Former punditry was worse.

I have probably read thousands of newspaper opinion column prognostications going back to the 1950s. Their track record is too embarrassing for me to take the exercise seriously, let alone practice it myself. Like bad polls, pundits’ predictions are most useful when they are wrong. They provide an invaluable record of the unspoken collective assumptions of America’s journalistic elite, one of the most hierarchical, conformist groups of people you’ll ever run across. Unfortunately, they help shape our world nearly as much, and sometimes more, than the politicians they comment about. So their collective mistakes land hard.

Examples? In 1964: When Lyndon Johnson, defeated Barry Goldwater, one of the most distinguished liberal newspaper editors in the South pronounced that all future American elections would be decided “on issues other than civil rights” and affirmed what was then conventional wisdom– in the future, whichever party took the Black vote would be “no more predictable than who would win “freckle-faced redheads and one-armed shortstops.”

In 1976, when Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford, pundits overwhelmingly proclaimed that the GOP was “in a weaker position than any major party of the U.S. since the Civil War.” That was right before 1978, when “New Right Republicans and conservative Democrats upset many of the longest-serving and beloved liberals in Washington.”

There were several other examples, culminating with the following;

And in 2012, when Michael Lind wrote of Barack Obama’s re-election victory, “No doubt some Reaganite conservatives will continue to fight the old battles, like the Japanese soldiers who hid on Pacific islands for decades, fighting a war that had long before been lost … Any competitive Republican Party in the future will be to the left of today’s Republican Party, on both social and economic issues.”

The author uses these examples to point out that the “conceptual tools, metaphors, habits, and technologies that we understand as political journalism” are thoroughly inadequate to understanding what politics now is.

According to polls (which, yes, have their uses, in moderation), something around half of likely voters would like to see as our next president a man who thinks of the law as an extension of his superior will, who talks about race like a Nazi, wants to put journalistic organizations whose coverage he doesn’t like in the dock for “treason,” and who promises that anyone violating standards of good order as he defines them—shoplifters, for instance—will be summarily shot dead by officers of the state who serve only at his pleasure. A fascist, in other words. We find ourselves on the brink of an astonishing watershed, in this 2024 presidential year: a live possibility that government of the people, by the people, and for the people could conceivably perish from these United States, and ordinary people—you, me—may have to make the kind of moral choices about resistance that mid-20th-century existentialist philosophers once wrote about. That’s the case if Trump wins. But it’s just as likely, or even more likely, if he loses, then claims he wins. That’s one prediction I feel comfortable with.

Journalistically, this crisis could not strike more deeply. The tools we have for making sense of how politicians seek to accumulate power focus on the whys and wherefores of attracting votes. But the Republican Party and its associated institutions of movement conservatism, at least since George and Jeb Bush stole the 2000 election in Florida, has been ratcheting remorselessly toward an understanding of the accumulation of political power, to which they believe themselves ineluctably entitled as the only truly legitimate Americans, as a question of will—up to and including the projection of will by the force of arms.

Ain’t no poll predicting who soccer moms will vote for in November that can make much headway in understanding that.

The article proceeded to consider the way mainstream American political journalism has built in a structural bias toward Republicans. I will share some of those insights tomorrow, but you really should click through and read the entire essay.


  1. “The author uses these examples to point out that the “conceptual tools, metaphors, habits, and technologies that we understand as political journalism” are thoroughly inadequate to understanding what politics now is.”

    What needs to be considered by media, pollsters and politicians alike, especially those “ineffectual Democrats” and the Republicans sitting mute and idle, is the fact that each elected (or appointed) president is going into office with their own agenda. Electing a new president from the sitting party is no different than changing parties and engaging in the transition. In 1972, with 5 children and facing divorce, I needed a job; applying wherever I found an opportunity, included Mayor Richard Lugar’s Republican administration. My application had been given to my Precinct Committeeman Mr. Otto without my knowledge of that part of city government’s hiring procedures. After questioning by Mr. Otto I was accepted and, surprised and embarrassed, had to raise my right hand and swear to “work for and support the Republican party”; I also had to sign a document to that effect. Of course I would work for and support whoever hired me but what that swearing in meant was that I had to stand in line every payday and “donate” 2% of my salary to the Republican party in cash to keep the job; I was also told where and when to work the rally to “Reelect Nixon Campaign”. I was appalled at the inefficiency of people I worked with; racism, sexism, nepotism, cronyism, political patronage reigned supreme.

    The election of Republican Mayor William Hudnut, III, the transition within the Republican party administration came as a great surprise; experience and qualifications to be hired included all races, sexism disappeared and women held higher positions, even a few Democrats were hired for their qualifications and experience. The word came down from Mayor Hudnut that IF we wanted to donate any amount to the Republican party it would gladly be accepted but our paychecks were our own to decide how to use. We were asked if we wanted to work for the party, not ordered, and Indianapolis saw SIXTEEN YEARS of progress under Mayor “Bill”.

    Along came Goldsmith with his own agenda and administration and the destruction began his first few days in office when we were ordered to destroy all files and paperwork from the Hudnut administration and huge trash bins were rolled into all offices to dump the contents of all files. Offices equipment and furniture was removed and replaced with older models; I returned from lunch one day to find my shelves removed and the contents on my desk, chair and the floor. I had been entrusted with the former Director’s secretary’s new computer system which belonged to Circle Centre Mall and Melvin Simon Associates, not the City; it disappeared and was replaced with an older model. Qualified employees disappeared and we were told not to ask questions, we also watched as security would appear to fire employees, give them time to remove personal items from their work area and then escorted out of the building. Were we next? We never knew from morning to end of day or from day to day.

    My point in all of this is that those Democrats seeking removal of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are waiting to replace them and begin their own “transition” with their own agenda and administration. Understanding “what politics now is” must look at the way politics has operated since the beginning. Do they really want to start from scratch after ousting President Biden and Vice President Harris, who do they want to replace them with, who will be appointed to their administration and what is their agenda? That old bugaboo adage “Forgetting the past, we are doomed to repeat it.” comes to mind. Also “Give credit where credit is due.”; maintaining and continuing President Biden’s progress, against all Trump and Trumpism odds, and maintaining our rightful place on the world stage will fail if both parties continue to fail to remember the past transitions and another start from scratch administration will be the result of the 2024 presidential election. Trump has already destroyed Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hope that people, in this case Americans, are known not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.

  2. That last paragraph is the most troubling. It’s as if journalists have forgotten how to do journalism. They need to question in real time, the lies and clarify the obfuscations. When they fail to do that, they do more harm than any other thing I can think of.

  3. There is another thing that I dislike: The negative bias. Example – recently there has been a lot of very positive economic news. That gets about 30 seconds on air but it is then followed by 4 minutes of Joe Six Pack interviews saying everything is awful. HOW do they think that is useful? Why on earth do they do that?

  4. Focus on the polls is another symptom of the “gaming”/popularity focus of our culture and the slow death of real journalism. We no longer have knowledgeable restaurant/travel/everything reviewers; instead, we get the ones voted by the masses.

  5. patmcc, the answer may be in who is it that owns the network one is watching, or if radio, obviously, one is listening to. The 4 minutes you refer to may be there to help you forget the actual news, in effect the often maligned fact(s).
    “Facts,” you know those things that Reagan said were just “annoyances.” I started to read HCR’s new book “Democracy Awakening,” last night, and came across her reporting on a mostly forgotten member of the Christian right, William F. Buckley , Jr., a founder of what we now call Movement Conservatism. He had decided “…that the nation’s universities must stop using fact-based arguments that he insisted led to ‘secularism and collectivism’ and instead teach the values of Christianity and individualism.” p.37 Facts! Hey, let’s have universities teach mythology. Oh, isn’t that what Reagan’s buddy Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University does?
    As I’ve said previously, humans are awful at predicting the future. There are so many examples thereof.

  6. Been waiting nearly 30 years to tell this story: In 1993 I was a division director for CAGI – in charge of the HOPE 3 houses. A chap came in and informed me that I was to include a $300 payment to company X in our projects budgets. I asked what company X would be doing for us. He replied ‘nothing’; the money would flow to S. Goldsmith’s gubernatorial campaign. I threw him out of my office. Shortly thereafter I left CAGI.

  7. Bill Henry; thank you for your contribution. Goldsmith had two campaign groups shilling for him at the same time in the City-County Building. One for his Mayoral reelection and one for his Gubernatorial campaign; his promise to the public was that if he won the Gubernatorial nomination he wouldn’t run for Mayoral reelection.

  8. reading polls from alot of diffrent sources,left,right on the way to the moon, seems obnoxious. reading and figuring their mode of math, stat sources,and where the pollsters take such surveys. seems ive been wrong on general attitude in the blue collar ranks. at 68 im still actively working everyday and mingle with like type hard core working class. trumpers all here,and im never short on making the case. seems overlooked WTFs never get entioned,like where the fuck did so many billionairs come from. your wages they stole and who ypu voted for.thanks…simple question,should have the impact to dissude anyone from voting for their demise. seems the maggot bunch like to mention democrates as a N word. Im look at them and tell them i am a democtrat. thanks asshole. with a smile of course.. the DNC has put us again in a tight spot. again,its who they decide will carry the torch,in to possibly his grave if reelected. no ill will here,
    I like Biden. my kin folk came from his roots and place of birth. i respectfully follow in a blue collar working class life. but we need change and not the one the maggots hand us. with respect to the women,thanks we need ya more than ever. your own state of affairs need to become of age.
    the minorities ditto. the best poll would be a complete take over by the liberal side in a windfall.
    and a humilliating slap to our commercial news medias.. show them, take your tax savin ass to some third world nation if you wont serve as a leader.its now greed at any cost.
    Thom Hartmann has a great new opinion(commondreams.org),based on the RAND corp,economic WTFs. seems the billionaire class and millions of multi millionairs,(100 million+) have gathered the fruits of the working class to the tune of 50 trillion dollars since 1978. read it, ive been decades waiting for actual figures. theres side pieces,and together makes the case. this is the kind of ammo i use..

  9. Most entertainment media is devoted to creating history rather than predicting the future.

    It’s better for business.

    In a liberal democracy, we, the people, create the future of, by and for us, and I think that we are hooked on the freedom that comes from our Constitution and its definition, the first in the world, of humans with natural rights living within the law created by who we choose to govern.

  10. Years ago, I volunteered to work a primary election as a Dem. I was naive enough at the time to be shocked to learn that both of the Rep workers were city employees who were required to work the election. They weren’t very happy people.
    As for journalism, while listening to NPR yesterday afternoon, I got angry as I listened to “reporters”, world weary and slightly cynical, give reports on the machinations of tfg and his minions and harp on Biden’s age and how it has turned young voters off. Like those two things are of equal interest and import.
    I am in the midst of reading “Oath and Honor”. Having heard so often from reporters about how “unknown” Mike Johnson was to even his party conference, Ms. Cheney’s memoir is full of his participation in and leadership of the move to stop the peaceful transition of office on Jan. 6. He was not some unknown backbencher. His self-proclaimed expert knowledge of Constitutional law, delivered in conference to his colleagues from November to January on a regular basis made it clear that he was not as reporters portrayed him at all. Incompetence by the journalists or active slanting by their editors/publishers/owners? BTW, McCarthy does not come off well, portrayed and documented as a coward and a liar.
    It is frightening to understand how really close we came to a coup and how that might still happen, in fact is likely to happen again if tfg is the Rep nominee. He will continue to demean the electoral system as corrupt in full anticipation of losing again. Listen to what he says daily. Believe it. He has given us fair warning.

  11. As Yogi Berra said,

    “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

  12. It’s funny how Biden’s age is now not an issue when age was made the major factor against establishment endorsement of Bernie Sanders. Sanders had marched and was arrested for supporting civil rights. Instead, the shameless DNC chose to support the segregationist Joe Genocide Biden.

Comments are closed.