By Matthew Continetti
Saturday, June 24, 2017
Events are turning me into a radical skeptic. I no longer believe what I read, unless what I am reading is an empirically verifiable account of the past. I no longer have confidence in polls, because it has become impossible to separate the signal from the noise. What I have heard from the media and political class over the last several years has been so spectacularly proven wrong by events, again and again, that I sometimes wonder why I continue to read two newspapers a day before spending time following journalists on Twitter. Habit, I guess. A sense of professional obligation, I suppose. Maybe boredom.
The fact is that almost the entirety of what one reads in the paper or on the web is speculation. The writer isn’t telling you what happened, he is offering an interpretation of what happened, or offering a projection of the future. The best scenario is that these theories are novel, compelling, informed, and based on reporting and research. But that is rarely the case. More often the interpretations of current events, and prophesies of future ones, are merely the products of groupthink or dogma or emotions or wish-casting, memos to friends written by 27-year-olds who, in the words of Ben Rhodes, “literally know nothing.” There was a time when newspapers printed astrology columns. They no longer need to. The pseudoscience is on the front page.
Nor are the empty conjectures and worthless hypotheses limited to Donald Trump. Yes, pretty much the entire world, myself included, assumed he would lose to Hillary Clinton. Indeed, a not-insignificant segment of the political class, both Democrat and Republican, thought the Republicans would not only lose the presidency but also the House and Senate. Oops! I remember when, as the clock reached midnight on November 8 and it became clear Trump would be the forty-fifth president, a friend called. “Are we just wrong about everything?” he asked. Perhaps we were. But at least we had the capacity to admit our fallibility.
There are few who can. Conjectures and guesswork continue to dog Trump in the form of “the Russia thing,” the belief that the president, his “satellites,” or his campaign worked with the Russians to influence the election in his favor. Months after the FBI opened its investigation into whether such collusion occurred, no evidence has been found. The charge itself is based on an unverified and gossipy and over-the-top memo prepared by a former British spy for Democrats.
Compounded by Trump’s own mistakes, the Russia story has now traveled so far afield from the original suspicions that we in Washington are no longer all that interested in the underlying charges. What concerns us instead is the possible obstruction of justice in the investigation of a crime that seems not to have taken place. And yet Russia continues to dominate the headlines, command the attention of pundits, generate rumor and insinuations from people who ought to know better.
The certainty of our best and brightest is immune to disproof. Back in May, for example, I attended a dinner with two experts in British politics. These men were not only observers in the upcoming elections, they were participants, and they reflected the conventional wisdom at the time. Theresa May, they projected, would win a major victory on June 8. Her majority might be as high as 100 seats. May’s caution was an asset, Labor was a wreck, Corbyn was frightening. At least the part about Corbyn was true. The rest was false, as I was rather surprised to discover when the voters actually had their say.
The list of misplaced confidences goes on. After the initial vote on the American Health Care Act was called off, the consensus was that the bill was doomed. “Don’t look now but the Republican health care bill is in trouble again. Again,” reported CNN on May 2. It passed two days later.
For weeks prior to Tuesday’s special election in Georgia, we were told that Republicans were in trouble, that the polls looked bad for Karen Handel, that a “referendum on Trump” would motivate Democrats in this swing district to support Democrat Jon Ossoff. That evening, cable anchors warned that the night would be long. The race would be close, and winner might not be announced until the following morning. The Real Clear Politics average showed Handel barely ahead, with a margin of two-tenths of one percent. The race was called by the 11 o’clock news. Handel won by 4 points.
What had been billed as a no-confidence vote in Trump’s presidency quickly became, after Handel’s victory, no biggie. Yes, Ossoff may have doused in gasoline and set alight more than $20 million of Hollywood and Silicon Valley money. And yes, had Ossoff won, this special election would have been covered as a harbinger of the Resistance’s coming triumph over the autocrat in the White House. But really, now that the authors of the email bulletins I receive each morning think about it, Republicans shouldn’t be too happy with the result. After all, both Democrats and Republicans have won special elections in the past only to lose their majorities.
True, but Republicans also won special elections in 2001, and expanded their majority the following year. So which is it? We won’t know until — and I know this is a radical concept — the actual midterm election takes place. Which won’t be for more than a year. And by which time, a seemingly infinite number of things might happen. But come on, who wants to wait? So much more fun to pretend to be in the know, to assert with absolute confidence one’s theory about the world, proclaim one’s virtue, despite all evidence to the contrary.
“Like a bearded nut in robes on the sidewalk proclaiming the end of the world is near, the media is just doing what makes it feel good, not reporting hard facts,” Michael Crichton once said. “We need to start seeing the media as a bearded nut on the sidewalk, shouting out false fears. It’s not sensible to listen to it.”
As the editor of an online newspaper, I am reluctant to agree with Crichton entirely. There are still news sources, liberal and conservative, even in Washington, that seek to report rather than explain or analyze or decipher the context and implications of facts. Sometimes these publications carry opinions, such as the one you are reading. Sometimes they have a little fun. And that is fine, so long as they are upfront about it, and are “half a step up from Daily Caller.”
But please, please, please be wary of the supposedly nonpartisan and objective experts who have looked at the DATA and determined which course history will take. In fact, be more than wary. Run in the opposite direction.