Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Nate Silver is Very Good at Something that is Not Terribly Important

with 6 comments

[Update: I follow up on this post here, with a bit more about what I mean by ‘policy’.]

There is an enormous brouhaha going on at the moment concerning the innumerate attacks on Nate Silver for relying on mathematics to make probabilistic claims about the state of the election rather than relying on insider knowledge– i.e. asking campaign insiders (who are doubly interested parties, both because they want their side to win and because they need to justify their fees) what they think the state of the race is.  The absurdity of this has already been well covered in many places. I don’t have much to add, other than to suggest that when someone is doing something that seems completely unmoored from their supposed purposes the problem might not be in the means chosen but in the validity of the justifications.  Telling us that they are having a different conversation about elite concerns would be unspeakable, but this perspective makes the activities of elite pundits sensible in a way that taking them at their word that they are actually trying to describe democratic politics does not. (It’s also worth noting that these same pundits get an enormous amount of undeserved attention from many of the same people who are mocking them now – giving them less attention is the only way to solve that. They will not reform themselves.)

But I want to make a different point.  It’s not obvious to me why anyone (outside of political campaigns or those who are using their campaign contributions for purely instrumental ends) should spend much time trying to figure out who is going to win.  Our role is supposed to be to make a choice.  Journalism, if it was functioning properly, should help us make informed choices, and not just for one race, but all the races top to bottom.  I’d go further and suggest it ought to help us hold politicians accountable and push our concerns onto the public agenda, which involves a somewhat more active view of citizenship and democracy than simply making an informed choice between two candidates.  Knowing the odds than one candidate will prevail contributes exactly zero to these tasks.

A possible, partial objection might be that while these things are the most important, it’s still essential to know the state of the race.  This can be used to mobilize people, who might be more inclined to vote if they think the outcome is close.  While this may be true, it also cuts the other way – knowing the likely outcome could lead people not to get involved, and if it’s not close that would presumably be the most rational course.  Besides this, that something can be used to some end doesn’t mean it should. You can keep warm by burning books but it would be better to read them and burn wood.  What people should use to mobilize voters is policy – policies already enacted, and those proposed. But doing this required actually listening to voters and taking their concerns into account. It requires going beyond the question of support or opposition to a set of elite chosen policies (and frames) and instead tapping into regular people’s top concerns.  That sort of election would look very different.  But it is possible. as people like Bernie Sanders has shown.

So praise Silver for doing what he does well, and mock those like Joe Scarborough for doing the same thing poorly.  But maybe we could turn just a but of our attention on polls and campaign events to supporting active citizenship.


Written by David Kaib

November 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm

6 Responses

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  1. David, I’m about to be very harsh with you. It is meant only, I sincerely hope, in the spirit of constructive criticism….

    “… the problem might not be in the means chosen but in the validity of the justifications.” Do you really think anybody knows what you mean by this, myself included?

    “The absurdity of this has already been well covered in many places. I don’t have much to add, other than to suggest that when someone is doing something that seems completely unmoored from their supposed purposes the problem might not be in the means chosen but in the validity of the justifications.” …this is sort of interesting , but really, what domyounmean by this.?

    “What people should use to mobilize voters is policy – policies already enacted, and those proposed.” …Policy and politics are almost antithetical… a sad state of affairs, David, yes, but you should know this is a reality. So, define the policies and ways they could be made politically palatable.

    Also, I find your excessive use of parentheticals to be not only annoying, but downright confusing.

    Well, there, that is what I think.

    Michele Kelly

    November 2, 2012 at 12:51 am

    • No worries. This post is a bit opaque.

      The first two quotes, about means and ends, just mean this. When someone’s means and goals have no connection, you can assume they are bad at doing what they say they are doing or that they are actually dong something else. Pundits are terrible at telling us the actual state of the race. They use insider knowledge or the outlier polls instead of averages, and they look at the race at the national rather than state levels. It could be that they are talking among themselves, having an elite conversation about what elites want, and that the talk of the horse race is just a cover for that conversation. In a democracy, you have to at least pay lip service to the idea that the people should get what they want and can get what they want. For example, oil companies create front groups with smiling pictures of voters demanding an oil based economy, because saying that oil executives want it is not considered legitimate, even though its obviously what’s going on. But whatever the pundits are trying to do, I don’t think it’s to inform us about the state of the race.

      As to the split in policy and politics, I agree that our discourse treats them as antithetical, but not that this is necessarily true. Americans like policies that expand opportunity and security. They love Medicare and Social Security. They are willing to pay more in taxes themselves if it goes to these sorts of things. This includes ‘independents’ and even Republicans. I don’t think the problem is making these politically palatable, as they are already wildly popular. I think this could easily be used to mobilize them beyond just showing up to vote or writing a check. It’s just a different type of politics.

      Bernie Sanders is living proof of this, and he’s able to build a strong coalition in just the way I described. I think there are other examples at the state and local level.

      I’ll work on the parentheticals. Academic habits die hard.

      David Kaib

      November 2, 2012 at 7:27 am

      • Your explanation of the means and ends of political pundits – ‘…it could be that the elites are just having a conversation among themselves..’ – is an interesting idea, and I think has a lot of truth in it. But, it just takes you back to the bigger problems of big money, corporate media, and the oligarchy. I don’t know the answer to these problems – only sustained social movements by the people have any hope of tearing a crack in the seams of the system. This is pretty much the conclusion of author Thomas Frank, who is well versed in problems of the oligarchy

        On your complaint about the media not covering the pres election in the states…I don’t think that’s true. The concept of swing states is practically a household word. Just the other day I read an interesting article on Yahoo news about how a marijuana issue on the ballot in Colorado could cost Obama that state…

        On politics and policy – yes Medicare and SS as policies are politically palatable, but the devil is in the details and that is the problem with making reforms of these policies politically palatable: how do we get the details across to the masses, instead of the sound bytes such as death panels and insolvency.

        Bernie Sanders is great, and we wish he could be cloned, but town halls in NH do not a social movement make, though it’s a start.

        Michele Kelly

        November 4, 2012 at 10:03 am

      • It does take you back to oligarchy, but it also means we should stop worrying so much about what the pundits say. There’s no need to amplify their influence.

        I don’t mean to suggest they never talk about the states. Certainly, they do focus on swing states and independent voters, but there is an inordinate amount of attention to national polls. There is coverage of important issues like the CO initiative, or the CA one on the death penalty or the MI one on collective bargaining rights. But these issues are absolutely dwarfed by the presidential election (bad) horse race coverage. Herman and Chomsky made this point a long time ago – the issue of the US press is not generally that things are completely unmentioned, but the relative amount of attention and the tenor of the coverage (i.e. what is treated as the most important thing in the world and what is treated as an interesting side bar or only important to the extent it impacts the presidential race).

        My reading of the public opinion data is that expanding Medicare and SS is very popular, and has been for decades, and large majorities will pay more taxes to fund it. I think the problem is that almost no one is pushing that. It is simple, it’s the con jobs to kill them that are complicated.

        As for Bernie, he’s just one example. The County Labor Federation is LA has been doing this sort of thing for decades. They don’t use town hall, but rather operate in the communities where people already are, but the principle is the same. They played a big role in transforming CA politics. I know of efforts already underway in a couple of other places in the deep South. Nancy Pelosi won her seat the first time in SF using a similar approach, with the support of UFW alums. But these have to be knit together in some way if they are to build a movement. What all the examples show is that its possible, and can work in many different types of locales.

        David Kaib

        November 4, 2012 at 10:26 am

  2. […] I want to clarify what I meant by policy in my critique of the value of election forecasting.  I don’t mean the way policy is typically used, especially by Democrats, to appeal to small […]

    • Agree…and this has been the problem with leftist politics since the heady days of the 1960s — disintegration of constituencies and how to pull it all together.

      I don’t see any problem with the logic of trying to use the devastation of Hurricane Sandy to strengthen the movement to combat global warming, for example. I hope Bill McKibben and go all out on the Do the Math tour. Climate Change could be the issue that pulls it all together. This is an issue that has consequences for the oligarchy, as Sandy has shown.

      I don’t agree with your recent post discouraging optimism that Sandy could lead to meaningful change. You say conditions such as mass shootings and extreme weather generate talk about the need for change, but nothing comes of it. Well, ok, lots of times nothing comes of it. But I think you’re just being cynical. We’ve got to keep trying.

      Michele Kelly

      November 4, 2012 at 11:45 am

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