Monday, January 25, 2010

Good News (Reporting), Bad News (Analysis)

Kudos to the New York Times and David D. Kirkpatrick for this excellent article about the effects of reform in light of last week's Supreme Court case about money in politics.  The studies on campaign financing have probably yielded some of the least intuitive findings of any studies of American politics, and while they are not the last word on the subject (and Kirkpatrick doesn't give scholars the only say), anyone who wants to make sense of money in politics should know that the people who have studied these things tend, overall, to think that the Court's decision will be a lot less important than people think (see also John Sides here, and note that he promises more on campaign finance in the Monkey Cage this week).  I'm going to talk more about this later as well, but for now I do want to highlight the quote Kirkpatrick runs from Fred Wertheimer:
For five elections beginning in 1976, the presidential candidates of both major parties took public financing and did not receive private campaign contributions. “You can’t prove a negative,” Mr. Wertheimer said, “but in the Carter and Reagan presidencies there were no news stories about campaign contributions influencing presidential decisions.”
I think that takes the cake for damning with faint praise.  If it's true that the best one can say about restrictions about campaign finance is that they prevented the Regan administration from being overly solicitous to business interests, then I might wish that the Court had just struck out the whole body of law entirely.  But good work from Krikpatrick (including the silly Wetheimer quotation; he's part of the conversation, and his views should be part of the story).

Alas, not all was good in the Sunday Times this week.  Academicphobe Matt Bai has a new theory to peddle: we're all independents now, and so long-term changes in American politics are no longer possible.  Oddly enough, Bai's intuition about realignment is something that has a lot of support within the political science literature.  But what one can learn there (from David Mayhew, for example) is that realignment was never a particularly useful or accurate theory to begin with, not that it has lost its punch only recently.  Moreover, it isn't true, as John Sides explained here, that the political system is overrun by independents.  As far as we can tell, the electorate is just as partisan these days as it has ever been.

Bai winds up concluding that we're never going to see another Ted Kennedy, Strom Thurmond, or Robert Byrd in the Senate...despite the obvious fact that all of those are recent (or current!) Senators, and that the current Senate is actually the oldest ever.  In fact, there's no evidence at all that incumbency is any less important now than it was earlier. 

The tip-off, by the way, is Bai's analogy to the Conan/Leno wars.  Bai says:
Forget the staying power of an institution like Johnny Carson; when Jay Leno starts to feels a little stale, he is shifted to prime time, then shifted back to late night. It was probably never very realistic for modern political thinkers of either party to dream of a 50-year reign. This century’s tectonic realignment is more likely to last 50 months or maybe 50 weeks, depending on how long it takes voters to seek out the latest offer or the newest best deal.
Yeah, except: one could just as easily argue that what's really going on here is that viewers weren't willing to change, and that the real lesson of Leno/Conan is stagnation, not change.  After all, Jay Leno (even without the interruption) lasted far longer than Steve Allen and Jack Paar combined, and it sure looks now is if Leno has a good shot of matching Johnny's thirty-year run.  And that's not all: Johnny devoured his opponents, but nowadays they just stay on -- David Letterman's run on CBS dwarfs those of, say, Joey Bishop or Dick Cavett, and Dave's overall latenight run as our TV Friend is now only two years shy of Johnny's.  Bai apparently missed the Simpsons Anniversary Special, too.

General warning: whenever a pundit uses the latest cultural fluff, whatever it is, to try to make a point, the best bet is to run the other way. 


  1. Bai is somewhat right, but for all the wrong reasons.

    It's not that we're all independents, so we flit back and forth between the parties. It's that the independents actually matter in modern American politics.
    From 1828-1848, they didn't matter because the Dems had the numbers (ignore the Harrison/Tyler fluke).
    From 1848-1860, they did matter, because the Dems weren't solid, and the party system was in true flux.
    From 1860-1884, they didn't matter because Repubs were solidly in control.
    From 1884-1900 (some might say 1896, I disagree), they did matter.
    From 1900-1952, they didn't matter because one party was fully dominant (albeit, that party swtiched in 1930, but it was a wholesale realignment of the old-school variety).
    And, from 1952-present, and increasingly so since the 1970s, they have mattered, as the two parties have been close enough to parity that the indies hold the balance.

    We're not all independents; most of us are partisans. But, at times in American history (and this is one of them), there haven't been enough partisans of one stripe to hold power consistently. Thus, the independents matter, but that's a far cry from saying they are all of us OR that they're in control. Because, at the end of the day, all they provide is voters, not politicians. Those are provided by the mechanics (machinations, at times) of the parties, not exclusively, but predominately.

  2. Bai often strikes me as someone who is very young, although he's 41. He's one of those people who assumes that the way the world was when he was young was the way it always was.

    The reason his Carson analogy doesn't hold is that he fails to realize that it's Carson himself who is the outlier. Thirty years in the same time slot was never common on TV; in fact, it's unheard of, except for Carson and some Sunday morning talk shows. Dave and Jay and Conan all have had 15-20 year runs in their slots, which is phenomenal by any standpoint. It's like complaining that presidents burn out after two terms - look at how long FDR lasted! Where's our FDR of today?

  3. Tom,

    Great comment on Bai.

    Putting politics aside, would you be willing to speculate about whether entertainment careers are longer or shorter today than, say, during the Carson era? It seems to me that TV shows last longer now, but that's just a guess, and there's certainly a denominator problem (there are way more TV shows now than there were in the three-network era). I don't know; I was listening to the (relatively) new Rancid album today, and they've been together about twice as long as the Beatles...any ideas about this?

  4. Yeah, we have so many more entertainment needs today that careers can't help but be longer. I don't know if you know Andrew W.K., but he had a moment of fame in the early part of last decade, released a hard-rock album that got some critical attention and a most memorable video that got a lot of play on MTV. His music career more or less ended five years ago, but now he's the host of a teen-aimed show my sons watch on the Discovery Channel. If he'd come along 20 years earlier, he'd be graduating from law school right about now.

    Or look at Steve Allen: He spent the last 30 years of his life knocking around, not doing anything in particular except writing a bunch of books no one ever read, despite the fact that he was considered a genius of early TV. Nowadays he'd have a long-running talk show on MSNBC.

  5. OK, I don't know Andrew W.K., but the story does remind me of a great Young Fresh Fellows song, Beer Money.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.