Politics is not a solo sport

Neil DeGrasse Tyson sure knows his astronomy, but just because he’s a smart guy does not mean he actually understands politics.  His failure to do so has led to some really smart responses.  Alas, he’s surely got many more twitter followers than political scientists Jonathan Bernstein or Hans Noel, who expertly lay out the fundamental wrongness of Tyson.  Bernstein:

From the department of not understanding politics, Neil deGrasse Tyson tweets:

Neil deGrasse Tyson@neiltyson
Candidate Endorsements matter if you’d rather have a famous person, an organization, or media entity do your thinking for you

Tyson, a prominent astrophysicist and science commentator (with five million Twitter followers!), is criticizing those of us who rely on this kind of information to vote.

It’s possible that he skips a lot of elections. Most citizens, even those who vote regularly, do. Or he may carefully study the policies and qualifications of each candidate in each election for which he’s eligible to vote and all the bond measures and initiatives too.

I somehow doubt it. To fully examine each of those elections — local, state, national — would practically be a full-time job.

I’ve now voted 188 times in the current four-year election cycle (that is, since November 2012). I’ve voted for president and for members of Congress and for the Texas Legislature on down the ballot to the school board. I’m about as informed a voter as they come, and I don’t feel remotely qualified to develop independent views on half the issues that come up and on many candidates for lower offices.

Here in San Antonio, Texas, the local government has in the last few years debated a complex water issue; the use of city money to help a higher-level minor league team move here; light rail and an intercity rail alliance with Austin; annexation of new areas; various highway expansions; full-time salaries for elected officials, and more than I can remember. Do I have informed views of those issues? Not really; and while I can read (for example) economic impact reports, I’m not going to do it.

Yet I’m quite comfortable that I made good choices most times, if we can define “good choices” as “how I would have voted had I done more research.”

Why? Because I take the shortcuts used by most voters, informed or not. The biggest one is party affiliation. If the party endorses a candidate, you have a good idea how that person will behave in office. As for the issues, your party’s support or opposition can tell you a lot about a specific proposal, or at least enough.

We can also use other sources — such as officials we learn to rely on over time. On local water issues, for example, I know nothing but I trust a particular city council member who works hard to get things right.

As political scientist Hans Noel has pointed out, voting isn’t an individual choice at all. It’s “about acting in concert with others.” It perfectly responsible to vote based on endorsements from the “others” you know.

Yes!  I so love this because I am so a fan of cue-taking.  Sure, at the most basic level this just means the cue of Democrat or Republican, but absent other information that tells you a lot (e.g., protecting the environment vs. cutting regulation; providing services for the needy vs. cutting government services, etc.).  Beyond that, as much as I know and read it’s impossible to be an expert on everything.  Over time, I’ve learned that I can pretty much trust anything Jon Cohn has to say on health care policy or Ezra Klein on economic policy of Michael Spector on issues of science and policy, etc.  On these issues, I would rather have these people do my thinking for me.  Just like I’ll leave my thinking on astrophysics to Tyson.  Now, of course, you want to have the right people do your thinking for you, but if you are smart about that, it’s clearly the most rational and efficient approach.

And Noel:

Tyson knows science but apparently not social science. Why do endorsements matter? Maybe because people don’t have time to think for themselves about everything, so they take cues. I’d dismiss most celebrities, but if you find out that the organization dedicated to your favorite cause is for a candidate, that’s incredibly helpful.

But it’s not just that Tyson appears to be unaware of the usefulness of cues and heuristics. He’s working from a fundamentally flawed model of democracy. Voting is not about “thinking for yourself” at all. It is about coordinating with your fellow voters. So especially in a primary, you need to know which candidate the people like you are backing, so you can join them. Endorsements help.

Anyway, I’ll stick with looking to Bernstein, Noel, other people I have come to recognize as super-smart, well-informed, and sharing a similar worldview, to help with my thinking about politics and make no apologies for having other people “do my thinking for me.”  For such a smart guy, pretty dumb from Tyson.

Photo of the day

From a recent In Focus photos of the week gallery:

A woman practices yoga on the summit of Mt. Eden as the sun struggles to shine through a blanket of fog over Auckland City on May 4, 2016, in Auckland, New Zealand.

Phil Walter / Getty

How the media will help Trump in the general election

I don’t know if Vox’s David Roberts has read Out of Order by Thomas Patterson, but he is certainly chanelling many of the lessons from a book I’ve long assigned to my Media & Politics class and Campaigns & Elections class.  The media love a closely-fought contest and if it appears it won’t be (which is definitely possible in Hillary’s favor) all the traditional dynamics and economic incentives work to help Trump.

As much as anything, though, the media reflects what I like to call “symmetry bias” (some day I’m going to do a paper on this).  That is, journalists (and many voters) pathologically create political symmetry even when it doesn’t exist:

The political ecosystem needs two balanced parties to survive

Why is clarity passing? Because it appears Trump is actually going to be the Republican nominee. It’s really happening. And the US political ecosystem — media, consultants, power brokers, think tanks, foundations, officeholders, the whole thick network of institutions and individuals involved in national politics — cannot deal with a presidential election in which one candidate is obviously and uncontroversially the superior (if not sole acceptable) choice. The machine is simply not built to handle a race that’s over before it’s begun.

There are entire classes of professionals whose jobs are premised on the model of two roughly equal sides, clashing endlessly. The Dance of Two Parties sustains theconsultants and activists…

[Bunch of tweets from Republicans in support of Trump here]

And it sustains the media, which is what I want to discuss below.

Among all these classes of professionals, all these institutions, that whole superstructure of US politics built around two balanced sides, there will be a tidal pull to normalize this election, to make it Coca-Cola versus Pepsi instead of Coca-Cola versus sewer water.

The US political system knows how to play the former script; it doesn’t know how to play the latter. There’s a whole skein of practices, relationships, and money flows developed around the former. The latter would occasion a reappraisal of, well, everything. Scary.

So there will be a push to lift Donald Trump up and bring Hillary Clinton down, until they are at least something approximating two equivalent choices.

It’s not a conspiracy; it won’t be coordinated. It doesn’t need to be. It’s just a process of institutions, centers of power and influence, responding to the incentive structure that’s evolved around them. The US political ecosystem needs this election to be competitive.

It also violates all journalistic norms to admit Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous candidate:

The campaign press requires, for its ongoing health and advertising revenue, a real race. It needs controversies. “Donald Trump is not fit to be president” may be the accurateanswer to pretty much every relevant question about the race, but it’s not an interestinganswer. It’s too final, too settled. No one wants to click on it.

What’s more, the campaign media’s self-image is built on not being partisan, which precludes adjudicating political disputes. How does that even work if one side is offering up a flawed centrist and the other is offering up a vulgar xenophobic demagogue?

It would be profoundly out of character for reporters to spend the six months between now and the election writing, again and again, that one side’s candidate is a liar and a racist and an egomaniac. It would be uncomfortable, personally and professionally…

It’s true that the media has been uncharacteristically blunt in its criticism of Trump during the primary, mainly because almost every source it considers legitimate hates Trump, including the Republican establishment. To date, the anti-Trump position has been safely inside the Washington consensus.

That will change once the GOP apparatus inevitably swings around behind Trump and begins accusing journalists who write critical stories of bias. If there’s one thing the GOP apparatus knows how to do, it’s ensure that there’s always another side, that reporters get smacked every time they move past “one hand, other hand” coverage…

To the extent that Trump can’t be lifted, Clinton will be brought down

Just as the media will need to elevate Trump, it will need to bring Clinton down. Going after Clinton will be journalists’ default strategy for proving that they’re not biased. They will need opportunities to be “tough” toward Clinton, or at least to engage in the kind of performative toughness valued in campaign journalism, to demonstrate their continued independence.

Trump will give them opportunities. And it’s not going to be through policy critique, a domain in which Clinton towers over him. It’s going to be through tawdry, nasty shit…

Will the Washington press corps chase after ridiculous personal attacks and conspiracy theories regarding Hillary Clinton, whispered into their ears by right-wing hacks?

Ha ha. Have you met the Washington press corps?…

So there you have it: an obvious choice that numerous institutions and individuals are committed to making as difficult, as unpleasant, and as drawn-out as possible. It augurs a substance-free, policy-averse, crap-happy campaign season, degraded even by the diminished standards of contemporary US politics. Wake me when it’s over.

Sure, far more reporters are liberals than conservatives, but the biases they have are overwhelmingly not ideological, but for a story that gets eyeballs.  And a stable Clinton lead against a candidate super-evidently unfit to be president simply does not get as many eyeballs.

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