Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Friday, January 4, 2019 1:03 pm

Election 2020: I do not like the whole idea of likability

Ignore anything and everything you read about a presidential candidate’s “likability,” particularly if that candidate is a Democratic woman. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin left office Thursday with an honest-to-God favorability rating of 12%. During gardening season, actual cowshit is more popular.

On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts became the first Democrat to announce that she was forming a 2020 presidential-campaign exploratory committee. And just like that, the political press served notice that it was going to be just as sexist and idiotic as it had been in 2016.

Politico, whose reporting frequently is essential but whose analysis and opinion seems to be at least 50% pro-Republican horseshit, popped up noon Monday with “Warren Battles the Ghost of Hillary,” which suggested that Warren might be just as “unlikable” as Hillary Clinton had been in 2016 and therefore doomed as a candidate.

The anti-Elizabeth Warren narrative was written before the Massachusetts senator even announced she was exploring a presidential run.

She’s too divisive and too liberal, Washington Democrats have complained privately. Her DNA rollout was a disaster — and quite possibly a White House deal-breaker. She’s already falling in the polls, and — perhaps most stinging — shares too many of the attributes that sank Hillary Clinton.

In the year of the woman, it adds up to one unwelcome mat for the most prominent woman likely to be part of the 2020 field. But it also presents an unmistakable challenge: How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?

Man, there is so much horseshit here that you probably would need dynamite to unpack it.

  • First of all, how is it that there is any “anti-Elizabeth Warren narrative” at all just hours after her announcement? Answer: People have been lying in wait for her for a while. And who would do that? People who are anti-Elizabeth Warren. Duh. There is no organic “anti-Elizabeth Warren narrative” at this point, only propaganda.
  • And how is it that there is an “anti-Elizabeth Warren narrative” that is similar to Hillary Clinton’s? After all, Hillary Clinton has been in the public eye for 35 brutal years, whereas five years ago most Americans had no idea who Elizabeth Warren was. Answer? Sexism: The implicit message of this comparison is that no female candidate, or at least no Democratic female candidate, can be trusted.
  • Too divisive? How? How does one quantify “divisive”? Sophisticated polling can sort of, kind of get at that — more on that in a bit — but as of Monday, not very much had been done on Warren, and certainly nowhere near as much as has been done on Clinton.
  • Too liberal? First, there’s always the tiresome and mostly unanswerable question of how one defines “liberal.” And if you can’t define that, how does one quantify how much liberalism is enough vs. too much? And “too much” on what scale? An ideological scale? As opposed to other candidates? Of course, Warren being the first, there were no other candidates when this piece was written.
  • And who are these “Washington Democrats” who call her too divisive and liberal? I may have spent my career with daily newspapers and their admittedly stodgy websites rather than online creations of the Kewl Kids, but we didn’t let political opponents snipe at each other anonymously, for good reason: It isn’t ethical, and even more importantly, it adds nothing to the reader’s understanding. Half-competent journalists should make political opponents call one another out by name, with all agendas out where the public can see them. That enhances reader understanding, which is, or ought to be, the point of it all.
  • Warren’s “DNA rollout” was a forthright response to a libelous criticism from a sitting president of the United States. To call it a “disaster” is pure editorializing: I am in no way an expert on this, but to the extent that Native Americans themselves have criticized her for having had her DNA tested, they appear to be privileging custom over science, arguing that without her name on a tribal roll, a DNA test means nothing. (If I’m missing something on this point, I’m happy to be corrected.) In any event, given Donald Trump’s apparently being an agent of a hostile foreign power, his tax fraud, his serial violations of the Emoluments Clause, his history of serial sexual assault, to be suggesting that a DNA test fatally damages a candidate for president is to display both practical ignorance and moral stillbirth. I am somewhat sympathetic to the argument that her timing, during the Blue Wave, suggests she put self ahead of party, but 1) absent additional information that is hardly the only explanation, and 2) If you’re going to make putting self ahead of party a criterion (and you should), there are far greater offenders. Bernie Sanders and Corey Booker come immediately to mind.
  • “Shares too many of the attributes that sank Hillary Clinton”? And what are they, pray tell? An electoral college founded in not just slavery but also in cosseting the whiny, bitchy, gimme attitudes of the slave states? A grossly bigoted electorate? Enemies in the Kremlin? Republican vote-suppression efforts in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina? Third-party candidates secretly supported by the Russians? Because those are the “attributes” that sank Clinton. By 65 million to 62 million, American voters favored her.

And that’s just three paragraphs. Holy shit. The piece goes on for many paragraphs more, laden with sexism and editorializing and almost unburdened by fact, all predicated on the notions that likability is real, that it matters, that it can be quantified, and that Elizabeth Warren has less of it than other Democrats and perhaps even less than Trump.

And that’s just one candidate. Multiply this bullshit across the dozen-plus likely 2020 Democratic presidents, candidates, many of them women, and you would be forgiven the urge to burn down every single U.S. news outlet.

Well, here are some facts.

“Likability” is incredibly subjective. It cannot be quantified or measured except in the most relative of terms. It is subject to pollution from bias, from lack of information, from lack of context. The closest we can quantifiably get to it is the favorability/unfavorability ratings of polls. The same recent Quinnipiac University poll that scored Warren’s favorability/unfavorability ratings at 33%/37% scored Donald Trump’s at 39%/52%, and yet somehow Warren’s “unlikability” gets all the attention.

And if you Google likability with respect to politicians, you’ll find that the subject comes up WAY more often in articles about women than in articles about men. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not a good one.

And here’s another fact, even more to the point:

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin left office Thursday with an honest-to-God favorability rating of 12%. During gardening season, actual cowshit is more popular. And yet our news media are convinced that Elizabeth Warren 1) is unlikable and 2) cannot be elected president because of it. That ought to adjust your attitude regarding any “analysis” you read about Democratic candidates for the rest of the 2019-2020 election cycle for offices at any level.

So what to do about it? I covered politics for 25 years, some years better than others, so here are my modest suggestions for consumers of news in general and people wondering which Democratic presidential candidate to support in particular:

  • For now, DO NOTHING. The actual voting doesn’t begin for another 13 months. As of this writing, Warren has formed an exploratory committee and Washington Gov. Jay Insbee has said he intends to. No one else is even close to being a formal candidate. If you were utterly undecided on a candidate a week or a month ago, there is no reason for you to even think about picking a candidate until 1) everyone who is going to run has formally announced and filed their paperwork, and 2) at least some of the Democratic presidential debates, which start in June, have come and gone. You can wait at least six months without sacrificing a thing, and unless you have some kind of personal attachment/connection to a candidate, you probably want to see how the candidates perform in several debates before picking one to support.
  • At least until the number of remaining Democratic presidential candidates is reduced to two, avoid the temptation to criticize a candidate or candidates you do not support. Instead, talk up the candidate you favor. Send him/her money. Find a way to volunteer for his/her campaign, even if it’s only making phone calls.
  • Whether you are talking up your candidate or talking down an opponent, do so with both factual and contextual accuracy. That’s harder than it sounds. You might mean quite well, but there are many, many sources of misinformation on the Web with respect to every declared candidate and plenty of potential ones. The Russians messed with what you saw on social media in 2016 and are likely to do so again in 2020. And conservative “news” outlets frequently take bullshit rumors that originate on conservative message boards and give them a patina of legitimacy, so be particularly careful not to amplify that bullshit. Check and double-check the information you choose to use. Factcheck.org and Politifact.com are excellent sources for vetting information, as is Snopes.com.

(And what do I mean by “contextual accuracy”? Remember that nothing happens in a vacuum. Where numbers are concerned, remember that one number is meaningless without at least one other number as a scale. Where facts about a political candidate are concerned, ask questions like, “What other candidate(s) is this fact true about, and to what extent?” Be wary of claims like “first,” “greatest,” “best” or “worse”: As one of my old editors used to say, there’s always a faster gun. Even mainstream outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post that are generally reliable with regard to factual accuracy frequently commit mistakes and omissions with regard to contextual accuracy. One big example: The Times’s 2016 focus on Hillary Clinton’s emails — yes, she made mistakes, but she did not commit a crime — while ignoring, for another two years, a long string of evidence that Donald Trump was a crook. And when a news outlet purports to examine any candidate’s “likability,” examine their methods for quantifying it and see to what extent they attempt to assess all candidates or likely candidates in the same manner.)

So, to sum up, I don’t like “likability,” and you shouldn’t either. At this point in the race, and pretty much from now until November 2020, news outlets should be focusing primarily on candidates’ policy proposals — what they are, how they will work, what they will cost, how we will pay for it, and what their outcomes are likely to be. And if the news outlets on which you rely try to dabble in it, hammer them hard. It’s just a pity Facebook doesn’t offer a “don’t like” button.

P.S.: One more thing about likability. George W. Bush won in 2000 because a lot of reporters thought he was “the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with.” Screw that. On both literal and metaphoric levels, I am realistic enough to know that I will never have a beer with even a former president of the United States, let alone a sitting one. So I will vote for a competent, empathetic jackass over a charming sociopath for any office, any day. You can ask the people of Iraq and Puerto Rico and Flint what we get when we elect sociopaths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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