Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Catch of the Day

To Rachel Maddow. The liberal talk show host went off on a diatribe against Politifact after it rated "Mostly True" a claim by Marco Rubio that "The majority of Americans are conservatives."

There are a few ways to look at this. Politifact concentrated on self-identification polling, which shows far more American self-identify as conservative than as liberal, and decided that the plurality lead for "conservative" in those polls is at least close to Rubio's "majority" claim. At a narrowly literal level -- and that's not a crazy level for Politifact to use in many cases -- that's not an unreasonable position. And yet the political difference between a nation in which a group makes up over 50% of the electorate and one in which that group is at around 40% is quite significant.

One could look at it another way, which is to get beyond self-identification to go to whether people believe in conservative concepts or not. But then it gets very tricky, as can be seen easily in from the speech Politifact was fact-checking. Rubio actually said: The majority of Americans are conservatives -- they believe in things like the Constitution. I know that's weird to some people..." Politifact ignored that context of Rubio's comment, turning it into a narrow question of self-identification. But that's not actually what Rubio was saying. He's making a political claim that believing in the Constitution makes one a conservative. But that's, on the surface false -- virtually all Americans, liberals included, believe in the Constitution. Or it's false in a different way: if Rubio is going to say that believing in the Constitution means believing in a particular interpretation of the Constitution, then those who do so may all be conservatives, but now we're talking about a very small group of Americans who are well-versed in the controversies about Constitutional interpretation. Or it's just a claim not open to fact-checking, that most Americans would agree with Rubio's version of the Constitution if they thought about it. Or one could understand the statement as a rhetorical device. That's not a bad thing for someone to point out (it seems to be a staple of 6th grade education), but it has nothing to do with how many Americans self-identify as conservatives, and selecting out that portion of the statement to fact-check seems, really, sort of perverse).

Moreover, one could point out that the real answer here is none of the above: Americans are not liberal, conservative, or moderate in their ideology, because most Americans aren't ideological at all. That's one of the classic findings in political science studies of voters. Americans are, indeed, partisan -- but they don't think in ideological terms.

Anyway, I do agree with Maddow's basic point, which is that Politifact is just useless here. Indeed, it's a very odd "fact" to pull out of Rubio's speech no matter how one looks at it. Earlier in the speech, Rubio repeated the absolutely false claim that Barack Obama "got everything he wanted from the Congress" in 2009-2010. That's a pretty straightforward factual claim, and it's absolutely false (is it "pants on fire" false? I don't know, but it's flat-out false). Rubio then claims that after Obama took office, "The economy slowed down." If that's not a pants-on-fire claim, I'm really not sure what is...Rubio doesn't qualify it at all, he simply says that "everything got worse" and that "the economy slowed down." It's just a plain old lie.

Rubio goes on to say that Obama is the first president to pit some Americans against others, but of course that's both a mischaracterization of Obama's position and, on the face of it, absolutely false as well (plenty of presidents have pitted some Americans against others; I'd think all of them probably have). Oh, and Rubio also claimed that in the State of the Union address Obama didn't talk about his own record, but that's false too; Obama did, in fact, talk about recent job creation and deficit reduction.

I quit listening to the speech at that point (just four minutes in; the bit about conservatives is later), but I have no idea why Politifact pulled the majority conservative point out of the speech, and out of context at that, as the thing to fact-check.

(To try to get it out of the partisan side of things...looking at Rubio, it turns out that Politifact gave him a "half true" for saying that Mitt Romney was "one of the first national leaders to endorse" him in his Senate nomination bid. The item weirdly focuses on whether Romney's endorsement was after Rubio had the nomination wrapped up, which Rubio's "fact" doesn't make any claims about. It counts four national Republican leaders who endorsed before Romney, but puts way more weight on how the campaign was doing when Romney endorsed. That's ridiculous! As long as Romney was one of the first to endorse him, the statement is totally true. If it's true but trivial...well, maybe their categories don't work well, or maybe it wasn't a good claim to fact-check. But that doesn't make it only half true!).

And that's why Maddow's main point, that Politifact has become a disaster, is correct. The problem here is that there's simply no rhyme or reason to what gets checked, or what the standards are for checking it. It is, as Maddow says, just a mess.

31 comments:

  1. Well it clearly is doing something right (in a business model sense) if it still manages to have enough institutional credibility to be regularly referred to by major media organizations as a voice of authority, or alternately to be regularly criticized by both the left and the right, which would indicate that they find it worth combatting, rather than simply ignoring. Politifact is most definitely intellectually incoherent, but it's sure gained a lot of media respect in spite of or because of that fact. There are plenty of intellectually incoherent things which everyone simply has the good sense to ignore and never let gain credibility.

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    1. Anonymous,

      I think you're confusing "right" with "threatening" (although, admittedly, you do limit it to a "business model sense"). Plenty of politicians have been successful based on statements that simply aren't true. As Lee Atwater used to say, it's not the truth that matters, it's what people think is true.

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    2. Yes, I take your point, Scott. But I remain confused about why so many media outlets and journalists are threatened by such an odd outlet. Because it seems to me that they *let* themselves be threatened by it. All they had to do was not engage with it and no one would have ever cared about it! It's an idiosyncratic little operation started by the Tampa Bay Times! Why lend it credibility?

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    3. My point is this isn't about politicians. Basically the media blundered into lending credibility to an outlet that never really deeply proved that it deserved it, and now instead of learning to ignore the website, many media outlets continue to engage it.

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  2. The problem here is that there's simply no rhyme or reason to what gets checked, or what the standards are for checking it.

    That's not the main problem, though. Frankly, I don't care what types of claims they check, or what standards they use. They can focus exclusively on, say, fact-checking the candidates' birthdays, and they can decide that as long as the candidate's claimed birthday is within 3 years of the correct date, then it's a "fact" - that would be OK by me.

    No, the central problem with Politifact is that they infer words to candidates that were never said. They attempt to evaluate what the candidate really meant, not what he/she actually said. And at that point, they are just revealing their own biases; not anything objective about the candidates' truthfulness.

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  3. Andrew: they are more interested in truthiness than truthfulness.

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  4. I've made this point many times before: if you look at polling for specific economic policies, you almost invariably find that the public prefers the Democratic position to the Republican one. This is true about the minimum wage, taxes, Social Security, Medicare, and even health care. (Yes, the ACA remains unpopular, but the public option that was discarded from the bill polls very well.) Gallup itself has done polling on these questions--see here, here, here, and here.

    Social issues are a little cloudier, but even then there's a good case for saying Americans as a whole lean more toward the Democratic side, and the public seems to move "leftward" over time on issues such as gay rights and women's rights and civil rights, though of course in these cases the liberal view ceases to be strictly liberal and becomes simply the mainstream.

    So why do far more Americans, apparently, identify by the word "conservative" than by the word "liberal"? Partly it's because over the past several decades conservatives have successfully turned "liberal" into a dirty word, so that many people who in practice agree with liberal policy positions have become phobic of the word. This is also the main reason why the left in this country stopped calling itself liberal about ten years ago and started calling itself progressive. But even the word "progressive" hasn't caught on, for the most part, beyond a relatively narrow, activist portion of the left.

    All that said, I'm not arguing that the American public is necessarily "liberal" as opposed to "conservative." Frankly I don't think most voters have a strong ideology one way or the other. A lot of the issue-based polling reflects self-interest more than anything else. Most Americans aren't rich, so it's not surprising they'd like the rich to pay more in taxes and are wary of cuts to the entitlements. And when you get into more general questions such as whether they favor "smaller government" and a "reduced deficit," they'll naturally favor these things in the abstract but tend to oppose the specific cuts. This leads to one of the most curious stats I've heard, which is that the only part of the federal budget that a majority of Americans would like to see cut is foreign aid, and most Americans are unaware it constitutes a tiny percentage of the budget.

    One final point: There's one area of liberal opinion that is unambiguously unpopular, and that's civil liberties. That makes Rubio's comment ironic, because it seems to me that Americans as a whole don't have a great deal of respect for the rights outlined in the Constitution, and that's the one area in which their views are clearly more in line with those of Rubio's party.

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    1. I would say the problem with PolitiFact is that for some reason it decided that it wasn't enough to determine whether politicians' statements were factual, and started assessing whether politicians' statements were fair. This is certainly a fool's errand, and leads to the kind of mind-reading Andrew discusses.

      The Rubio statement about this being a conservative nation obviously has no clearly correct answer, and they should have left it at that. Whether it's a fair statement or not is obviously left to the mind of the listener.

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    2. To go a little more into the liberal-as-a-dirty-word thing, it seems to me it's just as important that conservative SOUNDS like a good thing to be.

      Most Americans who don't think of themselves as political, whether the beliefs they do have fall to the right or the left of the spectrum, seem to basically prefer that the whole thing go away. They want things to stay the way they are, or if they do want changes, they see these as common sense changes, not radical ones.

      In that sense, "Oh, I'm conservative" falls in the same category of "Sure, I try to eat healthy" or "No, I don't watch that much TV." It's a safe thing to say, it doesn't have a specific meaning, and it doesn't make them sound too out-there.

      They like the idea of conservatism in the same sense that they'd rather put their money in the bank than invest it in a working anti-gravity device. They don't like risk. If the specific people who happen to run the specific conservative movement in America happen to do things that may seem risky or outright crazy at times... well, I don't believe this is a point they dwell on to any great extent.

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    3. There is an old sense to the word "conservative" that has connotations of a joyless square. That's the meaning Rush Limbaugh had in mind when he complained about a reporter who described his ties as conservative. In addition to making liberal into a dirty word, conservatives have done a good job in the last generation of making conservative into a positive word, and removing its connotations of being old-fashioned and dull.

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    4. Yes, the thing about Robert's point is that "conservative" used to sound to people like the thing you naturally didn't want to be. "Liberal" used to poll much better, IIRC, because people saw it as the default position -- back when it was widely taken to mean "open-minded" and "forward-looking" and such. "Conservative" in those days (and I mean, until sometime in the '70s, probably) didn't mean careful and safe, like putting money in a bank, but backward-looking, closed-minded, stick-in-the-mud-like. That all this was turned upside down was one of the great triumphs of the modern conservative movement, but also kind of a hollow victory inasmuch as more and more of those people who tell pollsters they're "conservative" are also discovering that they're OK with women's rights and gay marriage and racial equality and legalized marijuana and just about everything else that conservatism historically meant being against.

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  5. There is a simple way to look at this that is really illuminating. Just throw a "NOT" into Rubio's statement:

    The majority of Americans are NOT conservative.

    That statement is demonstrably true, no matter how you measure it or interpret that statement. It is impossible for Rubio's statement to be "mostly true", if its reverse is definitely true.

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    1. The bottom line is that determining the amount of liberals and conservatives in the US is beyond the purview of fact-checking, because it's a matter of opinion, not fact. The amount who identify as liberal or conservative--that can be objectively determined. But that's not what Rubio was suggesting.

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  6. I'm not an economist, but I have in mind there's an axiom in economics: if two hot dog carts set up shop on a one-mile stretch of beach, over time they will continually migrate until each reaches its pareto optimal spot, which is right next to each other, smack dab in the middle of the one-mile stretch.

    I think political parties/ideologies are somewhat similar to the hot dog carts in the example. 100 years ago, some of us were communists and others were hardcore screw-the-little-guy capitalists. A few of each remain, but for the most part we are all more or less doubting capitalists, we're all aligned to a safety net preventing starvation and the like, and we're all hesitant globalists and secret nationalists. We don't all admit to all of that, but regardless we're all pretty much camped out right next to each other in the middle of the ideological beach.

    That said, it seems to me that there are still important ideological differences within the ambiguity, or at least there should be. For example, (FWIW and YMMV) it strikes me that a key enduring difference between a liberal and a conservative is belief in internal controls: the liberal trusts systems to deliver our commonly-desired outcomes, while the conservative is a skeptic.

    I'm sure everyone got to the punch line already: the GOP is the party of internal controls? I thought they were the party of jingoistic excess? Yeah, does kind of suck these days, but part of the problem is that no one talks about these things, instead we self-identify as conservatives because we're not effete liberals, or something, which causes us to totally lose focus on - and the party to stop delivering on - remaining distinctions in an era when we're all pretty similar.

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  7. A lot of people may be "conservative" in the sense that they don't want to see things change. Losing their Social Security and Medicare would be an undesirable change. The programs have been internalized into the status quo. I suspect a lot of older people also dream about returning to "the ways things always used to be," when in fact there is no way that things always used to be. They (we?) tend to view some snippet of time from our past and romanticize it as some timeless idyll. But I guess that's a different topic.

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    1. Agreed, except I don't think it's mainly older people who dream of a better, earlier time. If anything, that sort of thinking may come easier to the young, who can idealize an era they didn't actually experience with all its problems.

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  8. Rubio goes on to say that Obama is the first president to pit some Americans against others, but of course that's both a mischaracterization of Obama's position and, on the face of it, absolutely false as well (plenty of presidents have pitted some Americans against others; I'd think all of them probably have).

    I'll go out on a limb here and suggest Abraham Lincoln.

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  9. CSH: Given the setup, I'm guessing that you're also familiar with the extensions of that logic (Hotelling) to party competition by others (most notably Black and Downs). If not, can't recommend them highly enough.

    Anyhoo, the key to remember is that the hot dog carts move to the center....not the consumers! The consumers remain camped wherever they are, and take the shortest walk to get to the hot dog. So, I don't think the Hotelling model applies to your argument.

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    1. Matt, thanks for the comment, er - actually not familiar! Will have to check those out. As is often the case, I was just throwing stuff out there, hoping for an intelligent reply, and this time it worked.

      Disclaimers aside, it seems to me one could argue that in political ideology (unlike the hot dog cart example), consumers tend to gravitate wherever the tent/hot dog cart is placed; thus they do indeed move toward the ambiguous middle. Two examples come to mind.

      AFAICT, the conventional left is pretty satisfied with WJC's Presidency; if they could re-channel him the left gladly would. But that's NAFTA WJC, "assail-the-teacher's-union-in-Arkansas-to-appeal-to-moderates-and-conservatives" WJC. Etcetera.

      Therefore, to the extent that the left embraces Clinton, they implicitly have moved some ways on the beach from their historic spot in the big organized labor/socialism lite area of the beach.

      Similarly, there's probably not a conservative in America who prefers returning to mass elderly starvation as an alternative to SS. Polling routinely shows this, which suggests that conservatives too have moved from their historic location.

      So if we all tend to gather where our parties pitch their tent, does it not follow that we would all tend to become somewhat ambiguously moderate over time, along with our parties?

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    2. .....there's probably not a conservative in America who prefers returning to mass elderly starvation as an alternative to SS.

      Undoubtedly true, BUT there seems to be a good number of conservatives who have convinced themselves that mass elderly starvation is not what would ensue -- that somehow, bafflingly, federal entitlements just materialized, in response to no known problem. That's how Ron Paul talks about Medicare, for instance (thus refuting the point I made above about youth, age and nostalgia, but then, that's the kind of wacky-fun guy that Ron Paul is).

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    3. CSH: An interesting thought, and it's where I thought you might have been going at first, but the professor in me was forced to come out, make some citations, and play Socrates. It's a pathology.

      The Downs cite is An Economic Theory of Democracy, btw.

      Anyway, I like the idea. I think it's really interesting.....I'm going to chew on this one for a while.

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  10. I do not see how you can reasonably say that Rubio's statement that Obama pits some Americans against others is "of course...a mischaracterization of Obama's position." I am a 60 year old research director at a hedge fund, and I have been following politics closely since I was a teenager during LBJ's Presidency, and clearly Obama engages rhetorically in a level of class warfare that did not characterize other recent Democratic Presidents; LBJ, Carter, and Clinton did not bash "millionaires and billionaires" on a regular basis, nor constantly harp on the need for a more redistributive tax system. Nor did they bash the financial services industry on a regular basis, nor seek punitive taxes directed specifically at that industry. From reading you regularly, I am sure that you agree with Obama that our income tax system (which is already more progressive than that of the average OECD country) should be more redistributive, but even those who agree with this cannot reasonable deny that his harping on this divisive issue is pitting less affluent Americans against those who have succeeded in the private enterprise system. There is no question that Obama is less popular among financial professionals for his verbal bashing of our industry, and if Romney is the nominee I expect to see substantial Republican gains over 2008 in affluent suburbs, however the general election turns out. Much of the left of course cheers bashing finance and the wealthy, but it is hard to deny the fact that Obama is pitting classes against each other to a degree that has not really been done in US politics since at least Harry Truman's time.

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    1. First of all, in Johnson's, Carter's, and Clinton's times, hedge fund managers hadn't recently destroyed the world economy for their own personal benefit. Secondly, in their times, the previous administrations hadn't cut taxes to the point of bankrupting the government. Third, what's punitive about taxing the people who've made the money? Finally, why don't you folks show a little appreciation for the fact that you're not in jail?

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    2. In my opinion it would be much more accurate to say that the financial crisis, as well as the extended recession whose commencement actually preceded the crisis, have brought class and other societal conflicts more to the surface, or, in your words, "pitted classes against each other." Actually, they are in many ways objectively already pitted against each other, but when things seem to be going well enough, the conflicts are much more easily suppressed.

      Compared to what Obama could have done, and what a very large segment of the population, potentially the majority, might have accepted - during the 2008-2009 time frame especially - representatives of the financial industry have gotten off incredibly lightly.

      (Rubio's own claim is, incidentally, of of potentially very numerous examples of the conduct he presumes to indict, since he explicitly pits his own supposedly non-class-warring Americans against the supposedly class-warring kind.)

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    3. Anon 5:02,

      It takes very little history to see that you are wrong. Take Bill Clinton's convention speech, in which he talked about "the hardworking Americans who make up our forgotten middle class" compared to "the forces of greed" and that the government had been "hijacked by privileged private interests" so that "those who play by the rules and keep the faith have gotten the shaft, and those who cut corners and cut deals have been rewarded." He said that George H.W. Bush had "raised taxes on the people driving pickup trucks and lowered taxes on the people riding in limousines." And so he wanted "An America in which middle-class incomes, not middle-class taxes, are going up. An America, yes, in which the wealthiest few, those making over $200,000 a year, are asked to pay their fair share. An America in which the rich are not soaked, but the middle class is not drowned, either."

      Convinced?

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    4. .....our income tax system (which is already more progressive than that of the average OECD country).....

      This is a current right-wing talking point that happens not to be true. It's based on the simple fallacy of taking the gross amount of tax revenue coming in from top earners as the measure of progressivity, when actually it's a measure of inequality (top earners in the U.S. pay more in taxes compared to their counterparts abroad because their incomes are so much higher -- a result of system that distributes wealth upward -- not because they're taxed at higher rates).

      And as to rhetoric aimed at dividing people, I'll start worrying about Obama doing this as soon as Republicans agree to shut their yaps about how some people count as "real Americans" and others don't.

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    5. That line about "pitting Americans against each other" is pretty rich (no pun intended) coming from a Republican like Rubio.

      Recall, this is the same Republican party that wants to amend the Constitution to invalidate certain people's marriages, and that regularly uses the words "Massachusetts" and "San Francisco" as slurs.

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    6. A good point today from Kevin Drum: Gallup found only 40% identifying as conservative, but Rubio never specifically mentioned Gallup. Meanwhile, there exists at least one poll showing a majority (that is, >50%) identifying as either "very conservative" or "somewhat conservative".

      That doesn't make up for Rubio's other lies, but it does give him some basis for making the challenged statement.

      (Doesn't change the fact that Politifact is a bunch of incompetent clowns.)

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    7. Dr. Bernstein, I am not convinced. Most center-left politicians engage in a bit of class warfare rhetoric from time to time, to rouse their less affluent supporters at election time. My contention is that in the last year Obama has engaged in hostile speeches toward prosperous Americans unmatched in overall volume by the three previous Democratic Presidents: LBJ, Carter, & Clinton. I never contended that these three Presidents engaged in no class warfare rhetoric at all. Quoting Clinton's acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic convention does not refute the claim that in his Presidency, Clinton bashed the wealthy significantly less than Obama does. If you look at Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign, he engaged in little bashing of the wealthy, and much crowing about how well the economy had done on his watch. That is obviously a less divisive path than Obama is taking in 2012, and in fact Clinton made major gains in affluent suburbs in 1996 compared to his 1992 performance.
      I do not really understand why folks on the left deny that Obama is a divisive President. I admired and supported President Reagan greatly, but I do not have any difficulty admitting that he was a more divisive President than Ford or Eisenhower. Obama is clearly running a class-based campaign, and against Romney expects by such a campaign to do better with less affluent white voters and worse with prosperous white voters than he did in 2008. He will very likely succeed in this, but such a strategy is clearly divisive.

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  11. I've now written a blog post describing my thoughts on Rubio's statement and the general question of whether the public is more liberal or more conservative:

    http://kylopod.blogspot.com/2012/02/americas-liberalism-and-gop-propaganda.html

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  12. By Rubio standards, the vast majority of Americans are liberal since the Constitution was a liberal document when drawn up--espcially when you compared it to the British parliamentary system, French ancien regime, and all the hereditary monarchies popular in Europe at the time. In fact, Americans would count as very liberal given their weird tendency to conceptualize all these rights. In fact, since the federalist conception of the Constitution with Bill of Rights won out (and since very few people profess fealty to the Confederacy), you can also say that the vast majority of Americans are big government liberals.

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