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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Changing Times

I thought I was done posting for the weekend (see yesterday for a more important one), but as often happens, a few stories in this morning's New York Times set me thinking about the evolution of America and the American media. Herewith a few comments.

The Times leads with a big story on the fight for the U.S. Senate, one that illustrates the continuing conflict between older and newer forms of journalism and, indeed, of thought. The story, by Jeff Zeleny and Carl Hulse, includes a map handicapping the Senate races. The map shows the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, New Hampshire and Alaska as "Leaning Red," that is, Republican. It shows Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, and Pennsylvania as "toss-ups." It does not explain what those designations are supposed to mean.

Some months ago the Times scored a brilliant coup, in my opinion, when it hired Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com to post his almost daily columns on the times web site. Silver began his career as a baseball analyst for the excellent site Baseball Prospectus, which took the essential insights Bill James developed during the 1980s and pushed them to new levels of sophistication. Their premise--and Silver's--is that numbers do not lie, although they also spend a lot of time developing confidence estimates for the numbers data gives them. Silver uses a number of models, frequently updated, to use all available data to estimate the results of coming races. His measure of the reliability of data is closely tied to how reliable it has been in past elections. If a certain pollster has a tendency to favor one side or the other (as many do), he controls for that within the data. I don't have the data in front of me but as I recall he predicted the electoral votes in the last Presidential election almost exactly.

Now what is interesting is that although Silver now works for the times, the reporters who write for the print newspaper evidently feel no obligation to pay any attention to him, because his numbers tell quite a different story than the ones on page 1 this morning. Rather than rate Louisiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Indiana, New Hampshire, and Kentucky as "leaning" to the Republicans, he gives them a 100% or 99% chance in each of those states and in several cases has regarded a Republican victory as a certainty for months. He gives Russ Feingold a 95% chance of losing in Wisconsin which is also described in the story as "leaning." Turning to the "toss-up" states of Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, he gives Republicans Pat Toomey and Sharon Angle chances of 92% and 81% respectively in Pennsylvania and Nevada and Patty Murray an 81% chance in Washington state. He agrees that West Virginia is now pretty firmly leaning Democratic but the only genuinely close races left, in his view, are Colorado and Illinois. Individually the Republicans are more likely to win either one of them, but it is probably more likely that the two races will be split. Exactly why the national reporters and their editors feel entitled to ignore the best data available--published by their own organization--is not clear. I suspect that in two years Silver may actually appear in the print edition, but I'm not sure.

A second, unrelated bell went off in my head when I began Richard Brookhiser's review of Ratification, on the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, by the excellent historian Pauline Maier. Maier is a traditional political historian of the American revolutionary period. Having gotten her Ph.D in the mid-1960s, she has managed to have actually had a career at a major university nonetheless, in her case, M. I. T. And like me (I barely know her, by the way), she isn't afraid to write about previously well-covered topics; this book follows another very fine one that changed my understanding of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Brookhiser is something of a political historian himself, but he feels compelled to insert, near the beginning of a very favorable review, the following sentences: "One caveat: To like this book, you have to like politics. 'Ratification' is an ur-text of the Almanac of American Politics. It has process, issues, arguments, local context, major players, minor players--and hoopla." I do not think that sentence would have found its way into a review of a similar book 30-40 years ago, for the simple reason that a Times reviewer would have assumed, in those distant days, that his or her readers were engaged in American politics and its history as a matter of course. But of course in a sense Brookhiser is right: today's history majors can pass through four years at an elite university without learning the details of American politics in any era. Maier was trained by Bernard Bailyn, one of our most eminent historians, who taught colonial America and the revolutionary/constitutional period at Harvard for several decades. Today the Harvard History Department does not include a single scholar who has written detailed work on high-level American politics and government in any era of American history--not one.

It has been many years since I have taken much interest in the National Football League. I was as obsessive a fan you could find through the 1960s and 1970s, but my move to Pittsburgh in 1980 coincided with the Steelers' fall from grace, and the birth of my children forced me to cut some things out of my life, and the NFL turned out to be one of them. Still, Judy Battista's story on the front page of the sports section, on linebacker James Harrison, who was given a heavy fine for a dangerous hit last weekend, caught my eye. Harrison represents a type that has certainly gotten much more common in the last half century, even if it could occasionally be found even then--a fundamentally asocial young man who has never been able to accept authority and who has been in trouble with authorities for much of his life (although he has been arrested only once), challenging coaches to fights and, for a long time, being unable to learn defensive schemes. Yet he has survived a lot of career ups and downs and emerged as a star nonetheless, largely because he tackles so hard. The story actually seems quite sympathetic to his plight--suddenly, the league, in an attempt to prevent the onset of early dementia in so many of its players, has decided not to allow him to tackle in ways dangerous to players' long-term health. And Battista, after quoting a friend that Harrison loves will do anything for children but doesn't seem to care much for adults, actually writes, "That woudl seem like the ideal personality for a football." The players George Plimpton chronicled in two books 40-50 years ago cared about other adults, including both teammates and opponents, and seemed to understand that a certain cooperative ethic was necessary for success. That, of course, is the lesson we now seem to have forgotten at almost every level of our society.


Patricia Mathews said...

There is one circumstance under which people will always become massively disengaged from politics: if politics seems irrelevant to their daily lives; or, if politics affects their daily lives but there's nothing they can do about it.

I think the history of the Roman Senate from Augustus on is instructive - that the Roman masses turned their passions to backing their favorite sports teams is not a sign that they went off track; it's a sign that they had nowhere else to put those passions.

Anonymous said...

Divided Washington Is What U.S. Economy Needs


Any comments/opinions/historical perspective?