The Corner

Nate Silver: Paragon of Objectivity

As those familiar with his story will know, Nate Silver used to write at the Daily Kos. While this suggests a certain hysterical proclivity, it does not, of course, follow that his famous model is faulty or his that its prognostications are inaccurate. It does, however, demonstrate that he carries with him a certain worldview — as all of us do.

Silver has rather different views of the candidates running in this election. “Romney,” he wrote back in 2008, during the Republican primaries, is “the most dangerous Republican candidate by far.” Why? Because of his focus on PowerPoint and data and smart people who work at consulting firms, and because he will supposedly be a slave to business interests:

It reveals something very fundamental about Mitt Romney: he believes that the “best and brightest” minds in the nation work for consulting firms.  Having worked for a major consulting firm for a couple of years, I can tell you that there are in fact some very smart people that work for them.  However, there are also a lot of drones who lack any big-picture perspective or any intellectual backbone…These sentences do a tremendous job framing my critique of Romney.  The issue is not that Romney trusts businesses to define solutions to goals, so much as that he also trusts them to define the goals themselves.

 His view of National Review isn’t great, either:

The National Review seems to particularly enjoy blogging about Jeremiah Wright.  I can sort of imagine the gang watching Wright’s performance together, as they sip on a morning Chablis and kick their feet up on their desks, showing off their argyle socks.

If only. Alas, we’re only allowed Sauvignon Blanc before noon.

Contrast this with Silver’s fangirl adulation of Barack Obama, whom he once saw in a Mexican restaurant on his birthday:

Well, you can probably guess who it was!  Barack Obama, who was taking Michelle out to dinner!  Just the Senator and his wife — and, okay, a couple of Secret Service agents, which is the price you pay when you’re running for national office! At first I was pissed off with my friend for not doing more to alert me, but  if I’d had more advance warning, I’d probably have done something stupid like scream “fired up!”, which would have been embarrassing in retrospect.

“Would have” been embarassing?

In that spirit, I’ll keep the name of the restaurant private, but he apparently comes here fairly regularly and I can tell you that Barack and Michelle have excellent taste! Sorry for the random, Page Six style gossip, but I took this as good omen, and I’m happy that the Obamas could take the time to relax and have a Saturday night out as they gear up for the rest of the campaign.  The best birthday present I can think of would be for Barack to win Nevada.  Thanks to all the folks around here that are working or donating to his campaign to help make that happen!

More interestingly, Silver wrote an essay on the Daily Kos, “Why are conservatives conservative?” Having established that he feels “betrayed” when he meets a putatively “nice enough human being” who admits to not being a progressive, he attempts to explain how this can happen. Silver posits three possibilities: That conservatives are “evil” (“the idea that a person is conservative because they are simply less…evolved than you. They are less ethical or more selfish than you “), that they are greedy (“rich people are conservative because conservatives support lower taxes on the rich”), and that they inherited their views from their upbringing (“the person is a conservative because their parents were conservative”) or the culture at large (“their peer group is conservative”).

Some of Silver’s discussion is quite thoughtful, but his conclusion is not. Having decided that conservatives draw their philosophy from all three possibilities — he doesn’t wholly discount liberals from the equation either — he then makes the case that Obama will make a good president because he “seems to believe that political orientation is largely a matter of identity” and “this presents a considerably more optimistic picture from the standpoint of producing change.” Why? Because Obama will be able to convince conservatives that his progressive policies are actually conservative. “The idea,” Silver writes, “is not so much to get conservatives to stop identifying themselves as conservative, but rather to adopt progressive positions as part of their conservative worldview.” The implication of the essay is obvious: There isn’t a great deal of thought behind conservatism, nor is its opposition to progressivism founded on much beyond “identity.” As such, the “reality-based community” can make inroads against it if they only have someone with a softer edge.

That this is the view of a Daily Kos type won’t come as a surprise — they are Exhibit A in Jonathan Haidt’s finding that liberals really don’t understand where conservatives are coming from — but it’s interesting to see it coming from a man whose approach to the election is supposedly so cooly objective that even to question it is to welcome the charge of heresy.

Whatever I write in this space, I am going to be accused of forwarding ad hominem attacks as a proxy for being dissatisfied with Nate Silver’s model. That is not my purpose. Silver may get this election spot on, his model may be perfect in every way, and he may well be able to cut through the nonsense and see things the way they are. We’ll see come November 6th. But just as it is routinely noted that PPP is a Democratic polling firm, and that Rasmussen is a “conservative,” it should be noted that Silver is hardly a disinterested philosopher king. Aristotle wrote that “to give a satisfactory decision as to the truth it is necessary to be rather an arbitrator than a party to the dispute.” Nate Silver is known to be a liberal, but he it is perhaps not so well known that he is quite this liberal. How well he is able to arbitrate this dispute will be revealed in good time.


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