You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Political Analysis And Bullshit

Greg Marx has an article in Columbia Journalism Review on the gulf between the methods of news reporters, who create narratives, and political scientists, who examine structural forces:

That perspective differs from the standard journalistic point of view in emphasizing structural, rather than personality-based, explanations for political outcomes. The rise of partisan polarization in Congress is often explained, in the press, as a consequence of a decline in civility. But there are reasons for it—such as the increasing ideological coherence of the two parties, and procedural changes that create new incentives to band together—that have nothing to do with manners. Or consider the president. In press accounts, he comes across as alternately a tragic or a heroic figure, his stock fluctuating almost daily depending on his ability to “connect” with voters. But political-science research, while not questioning that a president’s effectiveness matters, suggests that the occupant of the Oval Office is, in many ways, a prisoner of circumstance. His approval ratings—and re-election prospects—rise and fall with the economy. His agenda lives or dies on Capitol Hill. And his ability to move Congress, or the public, with a good speech or a savvy messaging strategy is, while not nonexistent, sharply constrained.

This is a nice way of saying that political scientists understand that a huge portion of the analysis of news events that appears in the media is total bullshit. If you want a perfect example of this kind of bullshit, look at Dan Balz's lead story in the Washington Post today:

From a major crisis such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to smaller and seemingly avoidable controversies over internal Democratic Party politics, President Obama and his team are on the defensive.
The question many Republicans and even some Democratic allies of the administration are asking is whether the collective weight of all these problems will diminish the president's ability to get his agenda through Congress, or further weaken his party before the November midterm elections.
That all this has happened to a White House staffed by the team that so successfully navigated the 2008 presidential campaign is a source of surprise and consternation for Democrats. The missteps have also become easy ammunition for Republicans seeking to capitalize on what may be self-inflicted wounds.

Self-inflicted wounds? First of all, in the macro sense, Obama's political difficulties overwhelmingly result from the combination of an economic crisis and facing a mid-term election. Other events can play a role. The gulf oil spill is creating problems for Obama, but the notion that his response is an important factor in this crisis is fanciful. And the idea that the administration's failed effort to persuade two Senate candidates to stay out of a primary has any meaningful bearing on the President's standing is beyond fanciful.

Again, bullshit is the perfect description for this kind of analysis. (Harry Frankfurt's classic exploration of bullshit can be read here.) It's not a lie. It's not undertaken out of any sort of malice or agenda at all. It's just an attempt to concoct a theory or explanation out of the most readily available events, without any soundness to the method. If unemployment sharply declines and Obama's approval ratings increase, there will be some new bullshit to explain his political mastery.