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The Fall of Nate Silver

His data journalism blog, FiveThirtyEight, is a political website with no politics—or rather, no politics beyond a mute approval of the status quo. 

Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty

Did he change, or did we? For weeks now, Nate Silver has been morphing before our eyes into exactly the kind of bloviator he made his name mocking. Tired perhaps of the slow and predictable business of prognostication—the elections so far apart from each other, the long months of waiting and lousy web traffic in between—the founder of data journalism outlet FiveThirtyEight has transformed his Twitter account into a font of provocatively bad opinions. Some of Nate’s Takes have touched on his speciality in data-based political forecasting: He has told us, for instance, not to get too excited about Democratic candidates’ (read: Bernie’s) fundraising numbers because polls, rather than cash, are the best predictor of electoral success, whereas a year ago he was saying just the opposite. But he has also wandered into more exotic territory, offering up a mix of bad policy ideas (elite colleges should admit as many legacy students and children of rich donors as they want) and sanctimonious tone policing (liberals should feel ashamed of themselves for not allowing the president to revel in the murder of ISIS’s chief lieutenant) with the unyielding, over-the-spectacles glare of an imaginary Concerned of Brooklyn Heights.

Suddenly, the man best known for acing his forecasts ahead of the 2008 and 2012 elections, and being less wrong about 2016 than all the other poll philologists (he put Trump’s odds of winning the Electoral College at 29 percent whereas competing models had them at 15 or 2 percent), is becoming that quintessentially American expert: the Very Online Blowhard. This has come as a surprise to many, though it shouldn’t. Silver, in the conventional liberal recollection, used to be on the right side of history—a prophetic force guiding political punditry toward a bright new era of rigor and facts. He’s always had a knack for choosing good targets. In 2012, he picked a fight with Joe Scarborough, a man who has built a career on talking over the top of his own wife, and though the result was never really in doubt, skirmishes such as this one cemented Silver’s legend as a scourge of the cable meatheads and teller of difficult, dispassionate truths. In the process, we—the media, the politically engaged public—were blinded to what seem, in retrospect, to be obvious deficiencies in the Silverian view of politics.

Away from the polls, Silver’s takes have always been suspect. He once described Peggy Noonan, apparently without irony, as someone who is “very good at rhetoric and argument.” Noonan, the former Republican speechwriter responsible for the line that lost George H.W. Bush the 1992 election, is now a columnist on the gender-neutral pronouns beat at The Wall Street Journal who recently compared the growing use of “they/them” to the “moral and political catastrophe that was the French Revolution”: rhetoric and argument in action. In 2012, Silver told Charlie Rose that, politically, “I am somewhere between a libertarian and a liberal,” caught in a “kind of Gary Johnson versus Mitt Romney decision.” This is perhaps the only moment in Gary Johnson’s political career from which he has emerged looking better than the other people involved, so I suppose Silver deserves at least some points for originality. For Silver, “thoughtful conservatives”—and these are examples he has cited often—are manorial Never Trumpers like Michael Barone, a reader of the electoral room so illiterate he thinks the problem with politics today is that it has gone “downscale,” or George F. Will, the professional civility fetishist and anti-jeans campaigner most recently spotted overwriting a devastating critique of batter behavior during the World Series that had already killed the careers of several professional baseballers by its third paragraph. (They died of boredom, not shame.) Even when guided by the numbers Silver’s non-political opinions have maintained the same low standard as his political ones. In 2010, at the behest of New York magazine, he rinsed the entire internet of data and built a state-of-the-art stats engine to find, once and for all, the most livable neighborhood in New York City; it returned the fresh and surprising verdict of Park Slope.

Silver, let’s not forget, launched his career as a political forecaster in 2007 under the pen name “poblano,” and as devilishly subversive as it no doubt was for a nerdy white boy to hide behind the pseudonymous cover of a foodstuff that brown people eat (this guy!), perhaps the signs were always there of a basic superficiality in the worldview of this, red flag incoming, University of Chicago economics major. Silver has, in fact, never had much of an appetite for politics. As he recounts in The Signal and The Noise, his interest in it was “the result of frustration rather than any affection for the political process.” He only began paying attention when politics threatened his economic self-interest: In 2006, Congress banned online poker, from which Silver had by that stage made $400,000, and his political awakening was assured.

Though he later dressed it up as a noble transparency initiative, Silver initially saw data-driven political forecasting as a business opportunity, and nothing about that transactional view of politics has left him in the years since. This is why, for example, Silver has characterized the financial crisis as a failure of prediction rather than a failure of policy, regulation, or political imagination—a claim as bold as it is myopic. And it is why FiveThirtyEight, which Silver conceived in 2008 while drunk on Cajun martinis waiting for a flight out of New Orleans, remains, to this day, a political website with no politics—or rather, no politics beyond a mute approval of the status quo. It’s telling that Republican has-beens like Will and Barone are Silver’s idea of the good conservative, because his own concept of politics is stuck in 1988. He still believes that politics is inherently rational—as if Mitch McConnell had spent his years as Senate majority leader strolling the floor in search of consensus from his pals across the aisle and not pledging to make Barack Obama a one-term president, killing the Supreme Court career of Merrick Garland in utero, or carrying water for the racist sociopath now sitting in the White House. For Silver, politics is a thing that happens to us, not something we ourselves shape, which is why all attempts to wrench it from the cautious center ground of business as usual make him launch, immediately, into online conniptions.

The larger fault here is not with Silver, but in our collective misreading of him. Silver has never ducked from his self-identification as a relatively conservative, markets-loving stats nerd. He came up with the Obama ascendancy, when it was possible to indulge in the delusional belief that wonks in the West Wing and the algo whisperers of Silicon Valley would catapult humanity to a new plane of post-partisan progress. Facebook on the iPhone 5 and Nate Silver on prime time: What could go wrong? The media, so enamored of the political horse race, leaped at the chance to cast Silver as “the spreadsheet psychic” (New York), “the new boyfriend of the chattering class” (The Washington Post), a man who “can see the future” (New York again) and “will reform the media” (Time). “You know who won the election tonight?” asked Rachel Maddow the night of the 2012 presidential election. “Nate Silver.”

A torrent of fawning magazine profiles followed, all of them naive exercises in projecting a Big Future for humanity under Nate Silver’s Big Data. One such profile appeared in The Guardian in late November 2012. It described Silver as “a new kind of political superstar,” and lingered lovingly over many of the same banal details as Silver’s other puff pieces (he really likes burritos!). A little over five years later, the writer of that profile, Carole Cadwalladr, helped break the Cambridge Analytica story. Like the media’s infatuation with Nate-the-Once-Great, our marriage to Big Data turned out to be brief. Let’s hope the divorce from both is for good.