Monthly Archives: January 2018

It’s Not The Economy. Maybe It’s The Stupid.

Republican lawmakers are currently defying one of the most widely accepted laws of political thermodynamics: for every economic motion there is a parallel and sympathetic political reaction. Or, as the Cajun Clinton whisperer James Carville put it, “it’s the economy, stupid.”

Okay, so it’s not exactly a law. But what’s good for the economy is good for whatever crew is running the government–especially the White House division–has proven a pretty good rule of thumb. As has its reciprocal. If the Dow Jones skitters down a gopher hole it’s a good bet the president’s approval rating is also going subterranean. Just ask Bush 43. Or Bush 41.

Which is why the GOP currently seems to be defying political gravity. By just about any measure the economy is rocking. The stock market sizzles, unemployment is 4 percent, GDP growth is a robust 3.2 percent, and a tight labor market has wages on the rise, which is good news for the lunch pail sectors that repeatedly got the shaft while the one percenters expanded their goldmines. When the git-yer-jollies-on money machine cranks up pols instinctively know there’s credit to be claimed in them thar dividends. So given all the economic positives, the piggy backers, windbags and horn blowers in charge should be huffing through a victory lap, throwing humblebrags to the voters, and sailing toward comfortable reelections.

Yet our GOP overlords seem to be reaping little of the political reward that normally accrues to lawmakers lucky enough to rule at the hilly end of the business cycle. Indeed, as measured by popular approval ratings, they are getting slammed. Forget rodent holes. Republican poll ratings are so low they have to look up to see gopher butt. Donald Trump’s approval ratings are stuck in the 30s, which is historically terrible, but still nearly double that of Republicans and their leaders in Congress (Mitch McConnell’s public approval is roughly the same as the tatometer rating for Showgirls which is, well, not good). Dozens of Republican members of Congress aren’t even waiting for the voters to render a verdict on their record of governance. So many have announced retirement there’s been a run on gold watches. What in the name of Milton Friedman is going on?

It’s a multi-variate world and there’s more than one reason why the economy is going up while the GOP’s popularity sinks lower than gum stuck to a submariner’s shoe. Certainly the, um, character issues of the president have something to do with it. There are many ways to ding your party’s reputation, and certainly doing stuff like referring to vast swaths of the planet as “shitholes” and paying hush money to porn stars is right up there. Especially if you already have a permanent case of the tweet trots and spent the past a year cementing a reputation as a chaos artist. True believers please feel free to insert here the obligatory all-purpose, all-caps snappy comebacks here. FAKE NEWS!!! WHAT ABOUT HER EMAILS!! Persuasive stuff, as always.

Now that’s out of the way, let me say I don’t think it’s just Trump’s coarse and immature shenanigans that has the Republicans in trouble (though it sure hasn’t helped). A big part of the problem is that Republicans continue to govern as if they swept into office on the back of a clear mandate, and they weren’t. According to the Federal Election Commission,  there were roughly 180 million votes cast for Democratic candidates in 2016 (this is the combined total for president, Senate and House), and about 168 million cast for Republican candidates.* In other words, as a whole the American electorate had a slight, but clear, preference for the Democratic Party. And it got a wholly Republican government.

There’s nothing wrong or suspicious or nefarious about this. The whole federal electoral system is based on state and sub-state constituencies, there is no nationally elected office (the president is elected by the states through the Electoral College, not the people), and parts of it are wildly malapportioned (the United States Senate). So the way the math works out, it’s not exactly a shocker that one party can be elected to control government even though, overall, it has less support among voters than the party consigned to the minority. The GOP won fair-sies square-sies and those still whining to the contrary just don’t understand the system.

Yet winning isn’t enough to make a go of governing. I’ve made this basic point before, but it bears repeating: the weird situation of a party controlling a democratic government when it was opposed by most voters at the polls means governing style really matters. Writing laws in secret (and employing industry hacks as ghostwriters), bending norms and rules to avoid bipartisan engagement (or even debate) might work if a sizeable majority is cheering you on. The problem for the GOP is they have no such constituency. And they’re unlikely to get one if they keep doing what they’re doing. Indeed, a plurality of the electorate (perhaps even a majority) already seems to view them less as agents for the American people, but as a group that sold its soul–not to mention its dignity–for power. That creates a big legitimacy problem.

Specifically, it translates into a lack of public approval, economy be damned. An ill-advised approach to process, treating indefensible proclamations from the party chief with situational amnesia, vacuous appeals to alt-facts, etc., etc., all this starts to catch up. Smart conservatives–and there’s still plenty around–have been shouting about this for a while (David Brooks, Jeff Flake, Charlie Sykes, even Ben Shapiro). It’s just that their own side isn’t listening.  And they should, because at some point it’s not the economy, stupid, that’s the issue. Sometimes it’s just the stupid.

*There were also about 18 million votes cast for non-major party candidates.

 

The Stars In Our Eyes

P.T. Barnum, flapdoodle merchant and bunkum plugger par excellence, got filthy rich by embracing the premise that the vast majority of Americans are chumps. Stitch a monkey’s head to a fish tail and say it’s a mermaid and they’ll believe it (and pay to see it). Ask for a nickel to see the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington and credulous hands will dip into pockets. There’s no real evidence that Barnum actually said “there’s a sucker born every minute,” but, boy, he sure put that hypothesis to the test.

Barnum is, of course, best known as a showman and entertainer, a sort of nineteenth-century mashup of Donald Trump, Robert Ripley and the Kardashian family. What’s less known about him is that he was also a politician. He served several terms in the Connecticut legislature, was elected mayor of Bridgeport, and was a serious candidate for the United States House of Representatives (he lost in a tough race to his cousin, William Henry Barnum).

In the political arena Barnum was a lot more serious than the carnival huckster caricature he left to history.  He was a vocal advocate of progressive causes (notably equality of African Americans), a big wheel in the temperance movement, and helped found Bridgeport’s hospital. It’s a fair bet, though, that Barnum’s take on voters wasn’t too far removed from his assessment of the gulls he hornswoggled with tabloid sensationalism and sideshow hoaxes. Indeed, he basically said as much, writing with more than a bit of a wink that, “need I explain to my own beloved countrymen that there is humbug in politics?”

While Barnum was far from the first to point out that that politics involves a heavy ration of babble and balderdash, he probably understood better than most that Americans are not policy wonks. Not even close. They respond less to ten point plans than a bit of glam and glitter, they like to see government magnificoes dusted with a bit of star power. Nobody likes a politician, but we love our celebrities. As a group we are quick to conflate fame with accomplishment, to assign to VIPs on the other side of the velvet rope the power to make our economy cabin lives better.

Indeed, there is a very long list of TMZ tribunes the electorate has put into office. And after all, why not? Looking good on camera or possessing a preternatural ability to fling around an inflated leather bladder surely is qualification enough for office? Barnum, of all people, would get that we’ve elected governors because they’re famous wrestlers (Jesse Ventura) or body builders (Arnold Schwarzenegger), people to Congress because they were TV stars, singers or comedians (e.g. Fred “Gopher from Love Boat” Grandy, Ben “Cooter from Dukes of Hazzard” Jones, Sonny “I got you babe” Bono, Al Franken). We elected a movie star to the presidency in the 1980s (Ronald Reagan). In the 1990s voters in Tennessee made silver screen make-believe a reality by voting Fred Thompson–an actor known for playing politicians–into the United States Senate. Big light names from sports have also traded stardom for a political career, including luminaries from the big three of football (Jack Kemp, Steve Largent, Tom Osborne), basketball (Bill Bradley), and baseball (Jim Bunning).

Given this, it’s hard to be surprised over serious speculation that the next presidential election might come down to a contest between an incumbent best known for being a combative staple of reality TV and a famous talk show host. A duo so famous pretty much all Americans know them just by the first names–Donald and Oprah. And what better place for Oprah to float a presidential campaign trial balloon than at a celebrity awards show. Winfrey’s speech at last week’s Golden Globes kicked off an enthusiasm for a White House run that hit “yes we can!” levels in some Democratic circles.

If this is where politics is headed–and let’s face it, we’ve been shuffling down this road for a while– maybe we should go the whole hog and start appointing people to run the government from the same talent pool. What about Johnny Galecki as secretary of education, he plays an academic on TV (Prof. Leonard Hofstadter from The Big Bang Theory). Kevin Costner for secretary of agriculture, he played a farmer in Field of Dreams. Maybe Tom Hanks or Tom Brady to run the Defense Department (Hanks was a great soldier in Saving Private Ryan and Brady is a pretty good field general).  Make Whoopi Goldberg attorney general–given her stands on The View, she seems pretty into justice.

This all makes about as much sense as picking our presidents from the ranks of the red carpet and Entertainment Tonight set. If we’ve lost our faith in expertise, after all, why not put our faith in people who are not experts, but play experts for our amusement? The big argument against doing this sort of thing, of course, is that it’s wackadoodle crazy. It’s like choosing a surgeon for your cardiac procedure from the cast of Grey’s Anatomy. Or maybe like choosing a president because he stands in the public arena like Maximus from Gladiator and smugly says, “are you not entertained!”

Which is to say, it’s not crazy at all from preferences historically and currently expressed by the American voter. Doesn’t matter how serious the stakes, we want to be entertained, not be responsible, and certainly not responsibly led.  To achieve that we’re perfectly willing to believe political plot lines and promises that make no sense outside a scriptwriter’s fevered dreams or Jerry Springer’s studio. We are, in short, pretty much what PT Barnum thought we were. Suckers.

 

Fact and Friction

The alt-truth, fake news, facts schmacts world we seem to be living in rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Living in verity’s version of the upside down might salve the addled ideological souls of some, but it gives the rest of us the fantods. Especially us empirical scholars. If society decides to call off the search for verifiable truth, after all, we’re out of business. Lacking the fib and fabrication skills readily monetized in the corporate, political and entertainment worlds, we’ll be reduced to shilling empirical verification for coppers on street corners and editing Wikipedia entries on spec.

Well, good news. Despite all the hand wringing, there’s reason to believe that the reach and impact of fake news is, um, fake news. Even more cheering for those of us in the learnin’ biz, there is some persuasive evidence that facts are not quite the ideological Play-Doh some people clearly want them to be.

This isn’t to say the past couple of years hasn’t seen a particularly nasty beat down of bona fide veracity, especially by certain presidents of the United States I could name. Everyone expects a degree of truthiness from politicians, but respectable fact checking sites suggest Donald Trump is less guilty of the occasional white lie than the madcap production of technicolor extravaganzas. Politifact lists ten pages of verified false claims made by the president. The New York Times has a running tally showing Trump telling more provable falsehoods in 10 months than Barack Obama told in his entire eight-year administration.

Aiding the White House as the new home of the whopper is the full-on weaponization of social media. Russian trolls seem to work Facebook’s algorithms with impunity while Twitter enables the wholesale spraying of perfidy and perjury. For the past couple of years a careful observer could be forgiven for concluding that our political system, with premeditation and purpose, was abandoning the truth wholesale. Just how many people were consuming fake news? Did it herald the decline of mainstream media and the professional norms of journalism? Were facts being kicked to the side by voters? Have we gone completely nuts? The people tasked with sorting signal from noise and answering these sorts of question systematically are my tribe–empirical social scientists–and they operate on slower timelines than the 24/7 news cycle. The rise of alternative realities happened so fast that the only honest answer we had to these sorts of questions was, “damned if we know, but it’s pretty worrying.”

That’s starting to change. A couple of studies have recently surfaced that suggest fake news is scary but not enough to frighten the Republic into fact-addled delirium, and, even more comforting, they find that facts themselves still trump fibs, or at least give fibs a good argumentative wedgie.

The first of these studies does contain some kind of scary numbers (you can find the full study here) . Roughly a quarter of American adults, or 65 million people, visited a fake news website* in the month leading up to the 2016 election, most of them making that connection through a Facebook link. Moreover, most of these fake news consumers almost never visited reliable fact-checking websites.

The good news is that heavy consumers of fake news make up a very small proportion of Americans. Roughly 60 percent of the visits to fake news sites came from a small group (about 10 percent of adults) who were older, conservative and (very) pro-Trump. So perhaps the fact-free fabulist babble bubble everyone is so worried about is not a dome covering the Republic, some sort of hermetically sealed covering threatening to asphyxiate the electorate with the gas of toxic make-believe. Maybe it’s just a pocket-sized greenhouse in the backyard where your crazy uncle is getting light headed from inhaling alt-media political poots and discussing conspiracy theories with the geraniums.

The second study  is deep empirical dive into what’s known as the “backfire effect” (you can the full study here) . The basic idea of the backfire effect is that if you present someone with a fact that counters or corrects a politically pleasing falsehood it makes people more not less likely to support that untruth. Evidence of the backfire effect has popped up in previous research and raised some interesting questions. Are people really so committed to their political alternative realities that pointing out contradictory facts will only make them more committed to insisting on the truth of falsehoods?

Given what’s happened over the past couple of years in the political arena that’s a pretty important question. This study sought an answer by giving people factually incorrect claims made by prominent figures on the left (e.g. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama) and the right (e.g. Donald Trump, Sarah Palin). They then randomly exposed some subjects to a factual correction of those statement, and asked everyone to evaluate the original claim. The difference in evaluations between those exposed and those not exposed provides a measure of the impact of factual information on political claims. Through five studies and more than 10,000 subjects, they did not find a single instance of backfire across more than 50 policy issues. Indeed, what they found is that people, regardless of ideological orientation, are pretty responsive to facts contradicting their political preferences, and will shift their evaluations towards the factual evidence when it is presented with them.

Neither of these studies should be considered definitive, and both come with the usual cautions and caveats of empirical social science research (my tribe’s motto is plus research opus, i.e. more research is needed). Still, given the hand wringing over fake news and the embrace of alternative realities and their potentially corrosive impact on politics, I think it is okay to view these findings with a small measure of relief. There’s a reasonable case here that most citizens are not voraciously consuming fake news inside their own political echo chambers, though Facebook and Twitter can make it look that way. And, even if they are, facts still seem capable of putting the brakes on fake. Let’s hope we get more of that sort of friction in 2018.

*What exactly constitutes a fake news website is a matter of some controversy. The authors of this study relied on previous research identifying “news” websites that repeatedly published demonstrably false stores.