In our politics, maintaining a comfortable fiction is more important than addressing a growing problem.
Dear Reader (including those of you whose home offices are closer to Les Nessman’s than Don Draper’s),
It’s all very simple really: Things are complicated.
In journalism, there’s an old joke that’s really more like an adage, or maybe it’s an old adage that is really more of a joke: “Three examples equals one trend.”
I don’t think this is actually true. But there’s something to it. Perhaps because it feels true to the reader and the writer (and editor), it has a certain amount of truthiness to it. There’s just something about three examples that flips some plausibility switch in your brain. One example feels like an anecdote. Two seems like it could be a coincidence. But three? “Oh okay, there must be something here.” (I guess this tipping point is sort of like the difference between 6 Minute Abs and 7 Minute Abs. Six minutes makes no sense, but seven? Yeah, that’s the ticket.)
Now, I’m not going to lie to you. Because I write roughly 104 syndicated columns a year, another 104 or so “news”letters and a few dozen additional standalone articles—when I’m not working on a book—I follow this convention quite often. It’s sort of like haiku; there’s no law saying that poetry needs to come in a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, but people who like haiku expect it.
Anyway, I bring this all up because it’s kind of nonsense. Think of any big, important phenomenon you know something about. I bet you can think of three examples that “prove” X and three examples that “prove” Not X. Every month, if not every week, certain columnists write that the public schools are surrendering to political correctness, or atheism, or cultural Marxism, etc. And they provide perfectly fine examples of the trend they’re seeing. The thing is, you could also find three examples of schools rejecting all that stuff.
Think the internet is terrible? Totally defensible thesis. And providing three examples—or 300—to bolster your case is not exactly a heavy lift.
Think the internet is awesome? Not hard to get your back on this either.
Need a piece arguing that the popular culture is garbage? Just tell me whether I’m arguing pro or con, and I’ll find you the evidence you need.
Religion is dying! Religion is making a comeback! Give me some good WiFi, Google, and a cup of coffee and I’ll be your Pangloss—or your Chicken Little.
Now, I’m not arguing for nihilism or both-sides-ism, nor am I saying the Green Lantern movie was good or that people named Todd have tails. There are truths and trends out there. The simple fact is that not all examples are equal. Indeed, some examples—also known as “evidence”—can be downright stupid. And some can be devastatingly persuasive.
Trump’s zone flooding.
I didn’t actually bring this up to talk about Trump’s effort to convince people the election was stolen from him. But it’s a good illustration of the problem I’m getting at. The very best evidence the Trump flacks can offer that the election was stolen isn’t evidence that proves any such thing. They fling anecdotes of some very minor and isolated case of fraud, or some rumors of corner-cutting. Even if every single one of these alleged cases of a dead person voting were true—and the dead voted only for Biden—it wouldn’t change the fact that Trump lost. As Andy McCarthy—no NeverTrumper he—keeps writing, most of the cases the Trump campaign brings are minor, flimsy, or inconsequential.
But that misses the point. What the flacks are doing is cleverly substituting quality evidence with quantity evidence. Just keep bringing up examples that conform to your narrative and people will think they confirm your narrative.
(If you’ve never read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, I highly recommend it. People are very, very, vulnerable to suggestion in ways that don’t feel like suggestion. “Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world,” Kahneman writes. “The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen. Any recent salient event is a candidate to become the kernel of a causal narrative.")
It’s sort of like my gripe about the term “The Greatest Generation.” I could theoretically spend days combing through police records to prove that there were plenty of horrible men of draft age who avoided service and did terrible things in 1942. Doug Schulz, working as a Christmas Santa, got drunk and ate a live kitten in front of the kids at Macy’s. Serial killer Nick Anderson collected the left arms of chiropodists. Caleb Pompella had the single greatest collection of necrophiliac gymnast porn of the entire pre-internet period.
This evidence would be very modestly relevant to rebutting the cliché that everybody in that age cohort was a hero. But it would be useless in illustrating the opposite narrative: that everybody in that age bracket was awful—even if I provided thousands of examples.
In the case of the Trumpist effort to steal the election by claiming the Democrats are stealing the election, you can tell people are cherry-picking examples to fit their theory because the only thing that doesn’t change over time is the theory. With one or two largely irrelevant exceptions, when Trump’s lawyers walk into the courtroom, the cases just disintegrate in the sunlight like vampires trying to play beach volleyball. Here’s the latest example.
Of course, Trump & Co. don’t actually care about the legal arguments. What they care about is maintaining the fiction that this is still a contested—and contestable—election. Bannon’s First Rule of Politics—“flood the zone with shit” —applies. The point of this fecal-diluvial gambit isn’t to reverse the election results, but to give the already convinced something to cling to long after Trump leaves office. As Ralph Hodgson said, “Some things have to be believed to be seen.”
No one knows—or owns—the future.
But let’s move on from Trump stuff so I can actually get to my point (“That would be a nice change of pace”—The Couch). In my regular column today, I wrote about how Sen. Joe Manchin is way more significant than Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and yet AOC gets so much more attention. Now there are many reasons for this: For starters, she very much wants a lot of attention, and she’s very good at getting it. Second, and I don’t mean this in a sexist way, but she’s much better looking and more fashionable than Manchin. No one wants to see Manchin do a fashion spread in a glossy magazine (at least, no one I want to meet). If this fact bothers you, take it up with her, given that she quite deliberately uses her glamor to great effect all the time.
Related to points one and two, the media has a keen interest in paying attention to her. Note: I didn’t say “the mainstream media,” but simply the media, full stop. Fox News and all its imitators invest bizarre importance in a first-term representative with no institutional power. But so does the New York Times, MSNBC, and that whole crowd.
They pay attention partly for the same reasons Fox does. But they also pay attention because they desperately want her theory of the future to be right. Ocasio-Cortez is one of the high priestesses in the Cult of the Coalition of the Ascendant, which rests on the often—but not always—lazy idea that “Demography is destiny.”
Now, I have to be careful here, because this was possibly Ben Wattenberg’s favorite phrase and there’s good reason to believe he coined it. And my first job in Washington was as a research assistant for Ben. In one sense demography is—or can be—destiny. For example, if you know how many people are having babies in a given population, you can do some pretty basic math and figure out how many people—absent immigration or some other major exogenous event—there will be 30 years from now.
But an even more accurate, but less alliterative, phrase would be “Demography is prophecy.” That’s because prophecy, like demography, isn’t always a prediction so much as a warning. In the Bible, prophets usually warn that if you don’t change your ways, X will happen. Friedrich Hayek didn’t predict that hard socialism would take over the West in The Road to Serfdom—he warned it might if we stayed on the road we were on. Sometimes prophecy changes “destiny”—and if destiny can be changed, it’s not really destiny, is it?
If demography were destiny, Trump wouldn’t have done as well as he supposedly did with Hispanics and blacks. Heck, if demography were destiny, AOC wouldn’t have (allegedly) hectored the Democrats to work harder to win the Latino vote. I mean, why bother to persuade Latino voters if they are genetically, congenitally, or in some other way, automatic Democrats? Similarly, if minorities have the fixed ideological orientation so many on the left and right take as a given, why did California voters refuse to repeal the state’s law against racial quotas?
But my point isn’t just about demography. In politics the future is never assured. In 1776, Scotland was home to Adam Smith. Today, it’s a lovely cesspool of weak-tea socialism. When my dad was born, the two most reliably Republican states were Maine and Vermont, and the most Democratic ones were all in the South. When I first started following politics in the 1980s, it was a given that California was a permanent part of the Republican coalition. In 2012, the brightest minds in politics insisted that Republicans needed to abandon their reliance on white voters and embrace immigration and appeal to Hispanics. In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency by nakedly appealing to white resentment and demonizing Hispanics. In 2020, he improved his standing with Hispanics.
I get all the griping about how wrong the polls were. But you know who else is wrong, a lot? Everyone else.
The cowardice of the straight line.
The easiest, and therefore most common, type of prediction in politics takes the form of a straight line. A trend that exists today will continue on its trajectory off into the future. If something is going badly, it will keep getting worse. If something is going well, it will continue to get better. The line doesn’t have to be flat, just straight. And if you believe this, finding three or 3,000 examples to “prove” it is child’s play.
The thing is: The line is never straight, at least not for very long. People who make straight-line predictions look at existing power structures and extend them off into the future indefinitely. I know this isn’t a new argument of mine. I’ve been quoting Orwell on this point for 20 years: “Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.”
The reason why straight-line predictions always fall short is that power—political power, electric power, physical power—is never in a steady state. Power poorly maintained invites entropy. Power accumulated attracts competition. Every invincible empire in the history of humanity was, uh, vinced.
In my second-favorite Orwell essay, “Second Thoughts on James Burnham,” Orwell argued that power worship is partly a form of cowardice. We’re seeing a lot of such cowardice these days. Caught on video violating the Hatch Act, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said this week that Trump “has 72 million people who love him, who want to show up and support him. His base is strong and there is no denying that this president is the titular head of our party for many decades to come.”
Never mind the preposterous notion that all 72 million of Trump’s voters “love him,” the idea that he will be the titular leader of the GOP for “many decades to come” isn’t merely stupid—it’s cowardly. Cowardice isn’t just fear of battle, it’s fear of the truth. And a lot of Trump supporters have clung for four years to a straight-line prediction of what a Trumpist future would like. They failed to anticipate that Trump was terrible at maintaining his power, and they were blind to the reaction his power invited.
If all of Trump’s voters loved him, he wouldn’t have spent the entire campaign trying to scare the Bannon out of them by claiming that a vote for the Democrats is a vote for socialism, an economic depression, and defunded police departments. And if that were all true—as so many otherwise smart people convinced themselves—Jim Clyburn wouldn’t be hectoring Democrats to drop the “defund the police” nonsense, and Joe Manchin wouldn’t have single-handedly derailed any possibility in the near future of Democrats imposing socialism.
The reason straight-line predictions are cowardly is that they remove the role of human agency from the equation. This was Marxism’s cowardly appeal. Cold and impersonal forces determined our fate, so there’s no point in staying on the “wrong side of history.” This is the cowardly appeal of “Demography is destiny.” There’s no need to fight for the future or to bother persuading your opponents because we’re on autopilot to the future.
The future is the last, best undiscovered country and it’s there, waiting for us to fight for it. Hopefully, we won’t have to fight for it with guns, but with arguments. There’s no iron law that says minorities can’t be persuaded to join the ranks of the right. And there’s certainly no iron law requiring that white people be on the right. As T.S. Eliot said, there are no truly lost causes because there are no permanently won causes.
There are plenty of real trends out there. But there are precious few, if any, irreversible ones. The only thing that makes a trend irreversible is a large enough failure of will to reverse it.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: Something is going on with Pippa. She’s getting more and more afraid of other dogs, even ones she only imagines to be out there. A lot of mornings I have to convince her there are no mean dogs lurking around the corner. Of course, once convinced, the spaniel is unleashed (figuratively and literally). Indeed, this week she was so unleashed she hurt herself. Her limp is back and we’re trying to keep her a bit restrained. But it’s hard with the fall weather she loves so. Meanwhile, Zoë’s leaf love appears to be in hiatus. Its departure is as mysterious as its arrival. Her breath is still frighteningly bad these days, so I think we’ll have to take her to the vet. But there’s no other sign of illness, so it may just be a middle age thing. Ralph remains entirely Ralphy and Gracie is still the queen.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.