Friday, May 18, 2007

About Those Poll-Driven Centrists

In his contribution to the TAPPED/Third Way colloquoy on the 2006 elections (see my last post), Ezra Klein goes off into a digression about the alleged "obsession" of centrist groups with polling, adding this unhelpful "hunch" about its origins:

My hunch is that both liberals and conservative intuitively understand that their philosophies have a certain instinctual resonance with the broader public, while the DLC-types are similarly aware that nobody-but-nobody wakes up in the morning yearning for a ruling class of reflexively cautious technocrats, and so they spend endless time trying to prove their support among voter's heads because they know they're not in sync with their guts.

This being a broadly-held and (to me) maddening stereotype of "centrist" Democrats, I'm going to try to go through this real calm-like.

First of all, there's a big difference in importance and reliability between "polls" and "exit polls," since the former are subject to all sorts of hidden agendas, differential methodologies, questioning techniques, and timing issues, while the latter, while hardly flawless, provide a common factual base for discussion about how and why people have actually voted. The Third Way report is based on exit polls, and whatever you think of it, ought to be debated and critiqued, not dismissed as representing some sort of invidious attempt to cook the books and justify the unjustifiable.

Second of all, Ezra's impressions notwithstanding, it's just not true that "DLC-types," as he calls them, spend "endless time" conducting and analyzing polls while those good, principled liberals wouldn't descend to such pedantry. Looking around the blogosphere, I see endless discussion of polls and endless assertions about electoral trends; there's a reason so many progressive bloggers can claim to be far more interested in winning elections than in any liberal ideology. Meanwhile, the DLC has conducted exactly one poll in the last four years. It was on attitudes towards globalization and it produced results that didn't nicely reinforce any "centrist" point of view.

And third of all, the whole invidious head/gut distinction Ezra cites is, well, rather obviously anti-intellectual. It reminds me a lot of the debates back in the 1980s over the relevance of the statistical analysis of baseball, with baseball "traditionalists," especially in MLB itself, endlessly dismissing the geeks who hadn't played the game themselves and thus needed their silly statistics to claim a place at the table with the professionals who knew the game in their "gut."

As pioneering baseball analyst Bill James often observed at the time, everyone connected to baseball carried around certain assumptions about what mattered in measuring success and failure; the difference was that "traditionalists" valued less-reliable stats like batting averages and RBI, because they knew them to be right in their "gut," while others actually wanted to find other measurements that told a larger and more accurate story, based on empirical evidence.

And so it also goes in political analysis. I don't know about Ezra, but in the run-up to the 2006 elections, I must have read fifteen newspaper columns, thirty magazine articles, and maybe 100 blog posts asserting that there were no longer any such thing as "swing voters," and that this would be a "base mobilization" election in which differential turnout patterns, not persuasion, would be critical. With the frequent and honorable exception of MyDD's Chris Bowers, few of these "analysts" bothered to offer much in the way of empirical data for this claim, before or after the election. They apparently knew it in their "gut."

I see no reason to assume there's some sort of conflict between having ideological principles and being interested in public opinion research. As for the suggestion that "centrists" are so out of touch with the hearts and values of Democrats that they have to rely on sophistry in an effort to get them to betray their principles--well, it must be nice to just know, in your gut, that you are the values-bearer of the progressive tradition and that others aren't, without having to look at any contrary evidence (e.g., that a sizable majority of Democratic voters, for some perverse reason, persistently identify themselves as "moderate" or "conservative," not "liberal," or that "DLC-type" Bill Clinton is adored by the Democratic base).

As it happens, I'm never been happy with the "centrist" label, and don't consider myself squarely in any intra-Democratic "camp." But when anyone in the party comes forward with a fact-based case for a point of view about policy or politics, I'm willing to look at it without immediately deriding their credibility or doubting their motives.
-- Posted at 12:01 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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