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Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Might" make right II -- a comment on Chait.

"Might" makes right. You can take almost any indefensible claim P and make it the defensible claim "P might be true". "Might" is the ultimate weasel word. It should be obvious that it appears in a conclusory sentence only when the writer knows perfectly well that he (or she) doesn't have a case. Yet it appears very often.

Jonathan Chait recently criticised "Tom Frank, author of What's the Matter With Kansas?" . The post was devastating (as Chait's critiques often are I mean talmost always are I mean hey I can't think of an exception).

More recently he chose to write about Kansas. Obviously he felt the need to refer to "What's the Matter with Kansas" and "The Wizard of Oz." He had a problem. He sumarized his actual views on recent events in Kansas and "What's the Matter with Kansas" perfectly with the (brilliant as usual) paragraph

Brownback’s biggest mistake was to forget a lesson Frank made well: Even in Kansas, tea-party populism requires the maintenance of a ruse. One needs cultural elites and other enemies to bash in broad daylight while doing the dark work of plutocracy behind the scenes. Openly conducting class warfare on behalf of the rich is no way for a pseudo populist to get ahead.
Now I haven't read "What's the Matter with Kansas" but all of the dozens of summaries of it which I have read present that as the central theme of the book. Recent polling data do as much as so few data points possibly could to suggest that Frank was totally right.

But Chait doesn't want to just agree with Frank. So he focuses on a separate issue and recent data from Kansas provides essentially no evidence one way or the other "Frank audaciously proposed that Democrats address their catastrophic standing in Kansas, and places like it, not by moving toward the center but away from it, by embracing populist economics. "

Chait correctly notes that the Democrats in Kansas didn't do this. Thus he should conclude that data from Kansas provides no evidence one way or the other about what would happen if they did do this. But having brought up the argument, he chose not to conclude that he had nothing new to say and so rather dressed up the nothing he had to say as something.

Chait wrote a sentence which is as vapid as most of his writing is incisive. "In fact, as much as Kansas provides liberals a happy story line in an otherwise difficult campaign season, it also offers a lesson that might give progressive Democrats pause."

This is, as usual, brilliant prose. But in this case the skill is used to obfuscate. We have the "might" which makes right watering down a "give ... pause". I risk nothing when I write that something should give someone who made an argument pause. It almost always is perfectly safe to propose that someone pause and think some more. If the person is standing in front of a speeding car, it is unsound to propose a pause for further reflection. Otherwise it is a proposal so mild that it is safe to make.

But Chait knows that he doesn't have new evidence for a case against populism, so he waters down the water with a "might".

Aside from picking on prose, I do have an actual argument. Chait relies on the magic word "center" without defining it. He is hinting at the argument that elections are won by racing to the center. The problem is that the word has two completely different definitions, even when used as a term of art by political scientists. It sometimes means a point midway between Republicans in Congress and Democrats in congress (as in DW-Nominate scores) or halfway between voting for Democrats and voting for Republicans (this is red district vs blue district scores). Here by construction the center is between the two parties, so for Democrats moving left is moving away from the center.

In contrast the center towards which it is good strategy to race is the position held by the median voter. Frank's point (as summarized in the quoted Chait paragraph) is that Republicans can win lots of elections, even if their positions on bread and butter populist v plutocrat issues are far to the right of the median positions of US adults. The logic is partly that they can obfuscate, partly that they can lie, and mostly that ideology is multi dimensional, and that people also vote based on the "social issues" (really the pelvic issues).

This means that a move from the current Democratic main stream towards more populism might be a move towards the views of the median voter, hence a move towards the center by this second definition. In fact a solid majority of US adults support higher taxes on high incomes, while the offical Democratic main stream position is that the ACA surtax and the expiry of Bush cuts for incomes over $400,000 for an individual $450,000 for a household are enough. Most US adults and the left fringe of elected Democrats supported increased social security pensions and increased Medicare and Medicaid spending. Basically the median US adult is markedly more populist than the median elected Democrat. I challenge Chait to find a poll and a roll call vote which don't fit this pattern.

So Frank makes the audacious proposal that Democrats would win more elections if their policy proposals were closer to the policies supported by the median voter.

1 comment:

Thornton Hall said...

This is actually just one instance of a massive problem: the spatial left/right spectrum is a consistently terrible way to understand American politics. We are stuck with this silly metaphor because the press needs to believe in it in order to live up to their nonsense ideas about "the professional objective media".

In other words, as long as J schools must justify their existence, writers will get politics wrong.