Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How About Some Better Guesses?

Caption: Kirk and Spock discuss time travel in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. If Spock's guesses had been as wildly inaccurate as those of our politicians and the chattering classes, they and the humpbacks would have been devoured by a passing Megaladon.

Image credit: Screenshot of Matt's Trailers STIVTVH trailer by Cujo359. (See NOTE below.)

Spock: Mr. Scott cannot give me exact figures, Admiral, so... I will make a guess.
Kirk: A guess? You, Spock? That's extraordinary.
Spock: [to McCoy] I don't think he understands.
McCoy: No, Spock. He means that he feels safer about your guesses than most other people's facts.
Spock: Then you're saying... it is a compliment?
McCoy: It is.
Spock: Ah. Then I will try to make the best guess I can.

This quote from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is one of my favorite exchanges between the three main characters. One of the reasons that Kirk trusted Spock's guesses is that Spock was smart enough to know when he was guessing and when he wasn't. Another is that Spock would admit when he was guessing. In the utopian Star Trek future where even a cowboy like Kirk values knowledge and rational thought, Spock's ability to learn and to understand is valued as it should be. Spock, in turn, can be motivated by that appreciation to do the best he can.

If only that were true in our world.

A case in point is provided by a quick look at what the pundits are saying this morning about the results of yesterday's primaries. As one might imagine, there is a consistent strain that this is the triumph of the extremes over the moderates. Conventional wisdom, as usual is more conventional than wise, as Donna Brazile illustrates in The New York Times' Room For Debate column today:

The far right and far left are ascendant in both parties. The extremes of the spectrum made gains in each party’s primaries against the “all things to all people” incumbents. That includes Arkansas where liberal Lt. Gov. Bill Halter won a run-off with middle-of-the-road Senator Blanche Lincoln.

Not Anti-incumbents, Anti-phonies

As the title says, she thinks that we're not anti-incumbent. We decided to be anti-phony this year, for some reason. I say "this year", because it's pretty clear that if we were anti-phony all along few of the people who run this country would be there. We vote for phonies all the time. Ms. Brazile never explains why we got this sudden urge, but that's as true of the people who offer the argument she's trying to rebut, as we'll see.

Meanwhile, here is more conventional "the extremes are winning" reasoning from other pundits in that forum:

The relative centrists — Lincoln, Specter and Grayson, for starters — took a beating. The candidates who played more brazenly to their base, left or right, outperformed expectations. Moderation, thinking about the good of the party in November — forget about it.

Fertile Ground for Libertarians

This guy, Bob Moser, needs to learn to read a poll. Joe Sestak was doing better than Arlen Specter was in most polls on a potential matchup between either of them and Pat Toomey, the Republican candidate for Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate seat. Bill Halter, Blanche Lincoln's primary opponent, is doing about as well as she is against the Republican candidate.

Susan Sullivan Lagon opines:

As usual, primary voters gravitated toward the extremes of their parties — those who pay attention before the general election are by definition the more ideological activists. So while a clearly angry electorate calls for an end to partisan bickering in Washington, primary voters tend to reject precisely those moderates who could broker compromises on Capitol Hill. The problem for insurgents, it seems, is that they eventually become incumbents.

Mixed Results for Moderates

Ms. Lagon is apparently the ultimate voice of conventional wisdom. Certainly, what she says makes less sense than just about any other columnist. Here's another example:

In Arkansas, $6 million spent against Blanche Lincoln by the service employees union, (S.E.I.U.) and strong opposition from was not enough to topple her. But backing from both Obama and Clinton wasn’t enough to give Senator Lincoln an outright victory, either.

Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, running on Senator Lincoln’s left, will face her in a runoff on June 8. (For the record, “outsider” Halter worked at the Social Security Administration under President Clinton.) Polls indicate both of them currently running behind Republican victor Rep. John Boozman, who won in very a crowded field.

Mixed Results for Moderates

Lincoln had the backing not only of the Democratic establishment and President Obama, she also had some well-heeled backers of her own, like the pharmaceutical and financial companies she supported during the health care "reform" effort. To portray this as outside money against the Democratic insiders is absurd. It's more like progressives and some unions against Democratic insiders who have all the money they could possibly need. Yet the challenger fought the incumbent to a virtual draw.

The only point she is right about is that the general election will be an uphill battle for either Democratic candidate.

In addition to our need to go to the extremes of the political spectrum, nearly all of these pundits, except for Donna Brazile, felt that this was a year when people were fed up with incumbents. Howard Dean said the same thing in an interview with Talking Points Memo:

"This is a big night for people who really want Washington to be a change agent," Dean said, adding the results show a "backlash" against both parties in official Washington. Dean, also former governor of Vermont and a 2004 presidential candidate, said he views Jack Conway as the progressive choice in Kentucky and said Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's forcing of a runoff in Arkansas proves that candidates on the left can prevail.

Howard Dean Tells TPMDC: 'Big Night' For Progressives

None of these folks, however, ventured a guess about what we're all upset about. It's as if, as I wrote yesterday they think we're just having a hissy fit or something. Glenn Greenwald beat me to this point today, so I'll save myself a little typing:

Virtually every media account dutifully recites the same storyline -- that these results reflect an "anti-incumbent" mood -- but virtually none of these stories examines the reasons for that "mood." Why do Americans, seemingly regardless of party affiliation or geographic location, despise the political establishment?

One reason why media mavens seem reluctant, even unable, to grapple with this question is because it so plainly falls outside their familiar, comfortable narratives. Contrary to efforts earlier this year to depict the problem as one aimed at Democratic incumbents due to the unpopular health care plan and the growing "tea party" movement, Republican voters -- as demonstrated in Florida, Utah, and last night in Kentucky -- clearly hate their own party's leadership at least as much as the animosity directed toward Democratic incumbents. The trend is plainly trans-partisan and trans-ideological, and the establishment political media has a very difficult time understanding or explaining dynamics about which that is true.

Why do voters hate incumbents?

Another reason, I suspect, is that they really don't understand how the economy feels to people who aren't working in the DC area. They aren't worried about that 20 percent unemployment rate (the real one, not the one that only counts the people who haven't given up looking for a job). If they lose the job they have now thanks to an election, they'll find another one. Many are already so well off that they don't even have to work. I don't know if that group includes all of these pundits, but it assuredly includes some of them.

One of the first things any American citizen learns about election trends is that a bad economy is nearly always a motivation for throwing the bums out. I've been saying that the Democrats needed to come up with some reason for people to either be optimistic about the economy, or at least have hope that the basic needs of most of us won't be in jeopardy. Right now, no one who takes a serious look at what's going on with the financial sector and the continued loss of manufacturing could be optimistic about the near future.

Face it - most of the people who are in Congress now were there ten years ago when our current situation could have been alleviated. They sat through the Enron, Tycho, and banking scandals and didn't do a damn thing to help ordinary Americans. The stimulus package was pathetically small. Now their solution to the crisis is for the middle class and the poor to do with less, while they continue to look after the rich.

Of course, that's what the Democrats have done. At least, it's what they've done since they regained power in 2006. What have the Republicans done? They've obstructed the government whenever they could, simply so that they could gain back power by showing the Democrats to be ineffectual. Personally, I don't think the Democrats needed any help there, but the point remains that the only party that is less qualified to run the government than the one that's running it now is the only other one that has a chance of doing it.

This, I think, is why there's such an anti-incumbent mood these days.

Of course, all this could be projection. That's what people seem to do the most when they're talking about why things happen in politics. But if my evaluation of the two major political parties' performance is at all widespread, then both of them are in trouble right now. That's particularly true if they're relying on people like these pundits for advice on how to govern.

Which means that the rest of us are in trouble, too.

NOTE: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a copyrighted work of Paramount Studios, or whoever owns them these days. Neither Paramount, nor anyone else connected with the movie, approved of, commented on, or endorsed the content of this article.

UPDATE: Wait, there's one guy who gets it. Robert Reich writes:

It’s the economy, stupid. American politics is turning anti-establishment because so many Americans feel screwed by the economy and they blame the establishment. If there’s a trend here, it’s not left-wing Democrats versus right-wing Republicans. It’s the “Mad-As-Hell” Party against both.

Unemployment continues to haunt the middle class – the anxious class of America. There are still more than five jobless workers for every job opening.
The real lesson from today’s political races is the economy still stinks for most people. And the real lesson from the economy’s first quarter is the recovery is so weak that the anxious class is likely to remain anxious through November. Incumbents beware.

The “Mad-As-Hell” Party Scores as the Anxious Class Stews

I don't think anyone important is listening to him, though.


Unknown said...

Blanche can kiss my brown ass..both cheeks.

Fuck em all. I am voting for one of my friggin felines next month. Not sure about November yet.

Cujo359 said...

Why not vote for Halter? Granted he's not the most progressive guy in politics, but he strikes me as less sleazy than Lincoln, and a touch more progressive. Voting for him helps get rid of Lincoln, too.