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.Comments