Why Has Matt Yglesias Forgotten Political Science?

Matt YglesiasOne thing I’ve learned over years of blogging (Coming up on our 10 year anniversary!) is that it is wrong to be vague about things you criticize. More than wrong, it’s boring. You see this all the time with conservatives. “Libtards are saying white men should be killed!” Really? Who is saying this? So I find it a little worrying that I say this: Matt Yglesias has been arguing for the Democrats to nominate Joe Biden.

I’ve been following Yglesias’ on Twitter and on The Weeds podcast. And he has this overarching idea that Elizabeth Warren is more popular than she should be and that the people who support her shouldn’t. And below all this is, I think, the idea that she can’t beat Trump. You know: because people don’t actually support her ideas. The people (as though Yglesias has any more of a clue what “the people” want than I do) just want to get rid of Trump and don’t actually want any structural reform of the American economic system.

For all I know, Matt Yglesias will vote for Elizabeth Warren. But he’s fond of the “hot take.” He loves to play the informed iconoclast. So I’m not arguing anything about what’s in his heart. But his “take” on Warren seems to be ill-advised.

Why Does Matt Yglesias Think Warren Will Lose?

Elizabeth WarrenDoes he really think that people are going to choose to vote for Trump over Warren because of these policy issues? She’s talking about making structural changes to the economy when Trump is talking about nuclear war with Iran. I wonder how the American people will vote?!

But what really bugs me about this is that we have loads of political science data on this question. Unless 2020 is somehow completely different from every other election for almost 50 years, Trump will win or lose based on the economy.

And it’s worse than that. The economy is the most important thing. Pretty much everything else runs against Trump. If the economy slows down, Trump is toast. It doesn’t matter what Democrat runs against him.

On the other hand, if the economy heats up to a point that none of us can even imagine now, no Democrat will be able to beat him.

Remember: my simple political science model predicted that Trump would win in 2016. Trump’s election to president doesn’t change the underlying political science.

Why Has Matt Yglesias Forgotten Political Science?

This political science is exactly the kind of stuff that Vox writers live and breath. So why does Yglesias seem to have forgotten it all?

I suspect that it all comes down to him playing the part of a journalist rather than living the part — you know, where he actually looks for the truth?

There’s not much point in focusing on political science since it doesn’t change much over time. Instead, focus on your own ideas about electability!

And that’s what Yglesias is doing. He’s far too smart to fall into the trap of thinking “electable” means “white man.” But he isn’t so smart that he can’t fall into the same trap with a more sophisticated notion of electability.

But really: it isn’t that sophisticated. Despite all evidence, he’s assuming that people vote based upon policy rather than what we know: people base their policy ideas on the candidate they vote for.

This is sad to see because, despite it all, Matt Yglesias is still an interesting and insightful writer. His problem is simply that he, like far lesser journalist, is being blinded by the narrative he has landed on.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

13 thoughts on “Why Has Matt Yglesias Forgotten Political Science?

  1. “So why does Yglesias seem to have forgotten it all?”

    Because he wants to protect his money and prestige. Many of the ‘unelectability’ claims about Sanders and Warren are self-fulfilling prophecies. Not consciously, usually. But it has the effect of poisoning the well for left-wing candidates. Really, I think you vastly overestimate the complexity and sophistication of this sort of discourse. We wants to keep his money, and Sanders and Warren won’t let him have as much money. So he is against them. We wants his kind of writer to continue having the prestige they do, and this prestige is threatened by politicians like Sanders and Warren. So he is against them.

    I doubt for Y and most like him, this is conscious. I don’t believe he’s conciously decided to undermine left-wing candidates for his own advantage. Rather, regardless of his intentions, he’s actually trying to undermine left-wing candidates for his own advantage. Because he is human.

    “This is sad to see because, despite it all, Matt Yglesias is still an interesting and insightful writer.” You say this, but I never see any evidence of it. I still haven’t seen anything from him that was not done better by someone else. I actually think he’s following a pretty easy script.

    I invite you to convince me I’m unfair in my assessment.

    • @ RJ — I’ve never been a fan of Yglesias either. Or Jonathan Chait, roughly in the same territory. I think Mr. Frank respects them as writers because Mr. Frank’s job is editing, and both Yglesias/Chait are coherent writers. Strictly from a paragraphs & sentences standpoint; you can follow their argument. It’s completely astounding how many published, well-paid writers there are who type absolute gibberish.

      I’ve dabbled in a little editing myself, strictly on an amateur basis, and if somebody knows the difference between they’re, there, and their, I shout hosannas to the heavens. I may have misused the Oxford comma there but the point is clear, which is the most important thing. Some writers, I can’t even make sense of; their word choices are so imprecise. At least Chait is clear.

      • I do think Chait is a good writer. His book wasn’t very good, though. But yes: the problem with him is his thinking. Yglesias is a different beast. He’s an okay writer (not as good as Jonathan Chait and nowhere near Brian Beutler). But he does understand economics and he’s always worth reading even when he annoys me. His biggest problem is that his cleverness can be harmful as here.

    • I think you are over-estimating how much money he makes. He does fine but he doesn’t make the kind of money that he would have to in order to fear Warren and Sanders. I really do think it is all about having “hot takes.” One reason is that he’s been pretty positive about Sanders. I suspect that if Sanders took off, we would seem him pushing reasons why Sanders couldn’t win.

  2. “Despite all evidence, he’s assuming that people vote based upon policy rather than what we know: people base their policy ideas on the candidate they vote for.”

    What this particular “we” knows is that people don’t vote for; they vote against. That is why (even during these so-called debates) negativity toward one’s opponent is so overwhelming.

    And so every time I see the phrase, “Trump supporters,” I cringe. I suspect many of those voters were voting against what Hillary (justifiably or not) represented to them. I left that line of the ballot empty, myself, but many see voting as a duty, so against one becomes for the other by default–the lesser of two evils. De fault is theirs.

    I hope the Dems come up with a better candidate this time, preferably someone who’s younger than I am. ;)

    • @ donosaur— Mrs. James (I’ve never liked the phrasing “my wife, it sounds proprietary) did not like Hillary. Not At All. She voted for her, because Minnesota has the potential to be a swing state, and in swing states you vote Democratic, like the nominee or not. So Dr. Noam has written, and I trust Dr. Noam on most matters. (Well, all matters, really.)

      Mrs. James has a very specific reason for disliking Hillary; her repeated instances of “stand by your man.” In a wrong sense.

      Bill had Dirty Dick Syndrome in a very extreme way, and if it was with equals? That’s between the consenting adults involved, it’s nobody’s dang business to tell somebody else how their marriage should work.

      But Bill wasn’t carrying on affairs with the prime minister of Canada. He was shagging underlings and interns. That’s an abuse of power and unacceptable in any situation. The military refers to it as “fraternization,” and it’s a humongous no-no.

      “If you had an affair,” Mrs. James has said, “I’d want you to be upfront with me. Why did you do it? What’s missing that you don’t feel we can handle together?

      “If you ever took advantage of somebody in a weaker position just to get your strange on, you better hope I don’t find out about it, because I’ll be throwing your clothes from the upstairs window to the lawn. The doors will be locked and I will borrow a neighbor’s large dog.”

      What complicates matters, here, is that much of the right-wing hate directed towards Hillary is insane; a ball-cutting feminazi, etc., it’s ludicrous. But there were sensible reasons to not be overjoyed by her candidacy. None of them good enough to vote for Trump, but I do understand why some people didn’t vote at all, or did as you did by leaving the ballot blank.

      Personally, when I make a protest vote, I like to write-in the most ridiculous name possible. “Cheezitz Thundersnot Toelint,” something along those lines. You can have quite a bit of harmless fun with this, and, by law, they have to count it!

      • I don’t give the Trump voters any sympathy though. They remind me of this little bit from Stewart Lee:

    • I definitely think it was the anti-Clinton vote that put Trump over the top. Most of his support is positive, though; he’s a bigot and they love it. He could kill someone and not lose support; but if he repudiated his xenophobia, they would abandon him.

      Age concerns me too. But after the last debate, I’m not really concerned about Sanders. Biden showed what mental fragility looks like.

  3. As to the age of the Dem nominee, I recently ran across the notion that what we are faced with is a political Lost Generation, an entire age cohort of potential liberal political leaders (currently around age 40-60) who were conditioned by the domination of Reaganism/Clintonism to avoid going Left at all costs. Those who do not share this mindset are either too young to compete in a presidential race, or handicapped by being older, like Sanders or Warren.

    This is one of those ideas that sounds good at first blush… I’m reserving my opinion for now. We don’t necessarily need a new explanation for the perennial bias towards promoting the interests of Money. But you might be careful what you wish for when it comes to age-appropriate Dem candidates.

    • That is an interesting though. But you are right: we don’t need it. That’s just the form of US politics — for reasons I have never understood.

  4. ” If the economy slows down, Trump is toast. It doesn’t matter what Democrat runs against him.”
    I read today that the stock market is diving because of tariffs that go into effect September 1. Still, I think there is more to the contest than the health of the economy. It’s going to be a referendum on overt racism. 2016 was about racism as well. The question, to me, was how many of these horrible people do we have? More than I thought. Now the question is: do we outnumber them, and can we mobilize?

    • @ Lawrence — They’ve always been there. Since Reagan if not earlier, the only reasons to vote Republican were if A) you want the Rapture to happen soon, B) you’re sick of Sesame Street teaching Spanish words / women having jobs / pick-your-bigotry, or C) you’re rich & want a tax cut. People who don’t hold any of those opinions (and of course there’s areas of overlap between them) either vote Democratic or don’t vote.

      If you add up loyal Democratic voters to non-voters, the loonies are outnumbered 3-1, probably something around there. Can we organize enough to vote? I think it depends on what we stand for. “Less Bad Than Trump” won’t cut it. Although showing passion when attacking what he stands for (not just crude bigotry but the dishonesty and fraud common with privileged wealth), that wouldn’t hurt either.

    • I feel confident that if we go into recession, Trump loses. The other aspects of economic fundamentals, I’m less convinced of at the moment. It may not matter. Dean Baker thinks we will not go into recession. In general, I think the fact that the economy will not be doing substantially better next year (the Fed wouldn’t allow it), means that the Democrats have a good chance of taking over the White House.

      I think we do out-number them. My feeling is that the same people who were energized to show up in 2018 are just as energized to show up in 2020.

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