Opinion-Policy Nexus

If, like me, you have some geek in you, then you will be heartened by a trend in recent coverage of the U.S. presidential campaign, which pits the statistical prowess of folks like Nate Silver, Sam Wang, Drew Linzer, and Richard Gott and Wesley Colley, on the one hand, against an increasingly defensive tribe of established pundits, on the other (joined recently by the Globe and Mail's very own Margaret Wente, who doesn't let ignorance temper confidence, to judge by this bit of fluff).

Enough has been said about this spat to lead sensible folks to side with the geeks, but a late entry from the pundit camp takes a somewhat novel approach. Michael Gerson of the Washington Post offers some of the usual complaints about the statisticians, and about political science in general ("physics envy!" "subjective values!"), but he also opines thus ...

The main problem with this approach to politics is not that it is pseudo-scientific but that it is trivial. An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community. In a democracy, the convictions of the public ultimately depend on persuasion, which resists quantification.

The irony of a former speech-writer for George W. Bush, once labouring in the shadow of Karl Rove, now channelling Rousseau on the general will, should not be lost on the astute reader. As Bush's campaign strategist, and then White House insider, Rove did far more damage to America's democracy than any number-crunching academic ever could. Gerson is a part of that sad legacy.

Still, for political theorists, Gerson is singing in a familiar key. Many of us would readily agree that democracy should be more than a simple aggregation of preferences. As citizens we should, ideally, be persuaded by evidence and argument as we reflect on what is in the public interest, and we should vote in light of those judgements.

So, is Gerson offering his remark as an ideal of democracy? Is he suggesting, perhaps, that the number crunchers are pandering to partisan politics as it is, rather than imagining democracy as it might be?

No, he isn't.

He surely must know that democracy, as we practice it in North America, is ridiculously far from the ideal picture he paints?

If he does, he offers no hint here, least of all when he offers up the following remarkable conceit:

If political punditry has any value in a democracy, it is in clarifying large policy issues and ethical debates ...

... wow.

Tell you what, Mike: when you and your fellow partisan pundits -- Republican and Democrat -- demonstrate a modicum of scientific and philosophical sophistication, then I'll happily endorse your vision of pundits as public intellectuals, tackling big issues and ethical quandaries, shaping public opinion with reason and evidence, rather than impressions and sound bites.

Until then? I want you and your fellow pundits to stay well away from innocent citizens!

We'll know tomorrow (hopefully) whether or not (and which of) the number nerds are correct, but if folks like Gerson don't like the fact that statisticians can now give a (better than) decent guess at election outcomes based on aggregated polling data, then maybe they should take a long hard look at how the United States -- and, of course, the rest of us -- implement our democratic ideals.

For his part, Gerson could start by apologizing for his involvement with a U.S. administration that never seemed especially friendly to the ideal of democracy as rooted in civil exchanges among informed citizens, seeking the public good together, across the political aisle.

If he did that, then maybe I'd take his high-minded rhetoric seriously.



Excellent post! Bravo!