It isn’t often that you hear the word “famous” used to describe a statistician. It is a testament to Nate Silver’s skills that the label most certainly applies to him. As a statistical analyst for the New York Times and his own successful venture, FiveThirtyEight, Silver is owed credit for orienting the national political conversation over the last decade away from the kind of punditry he derides as unsubstantiated conjecture, romanticism, and sentiment. Indeed, when Silver engages in the kind of political commentary that is accessible to even the most innumerate, it becomes clear how truly awful some contemporary punditry can be.
On Tuesday, Silver succumbed to the liberal temptation to attack the right for noticing that Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez enjoys an outsized media presence and popularity among grassroots liberals disproportionate to her political accomplishments. More tellingly, he attributed Republicans’ irritation with the left’s newest preoccupation to their bigotry. “There are lots of reasons Ocasio-Cortez drives certain Republicans crazy, foremost among them her race and gender,” Silver wrote. “But it’s also that she’s quintessentially a New Yorker and DC political culture is formal and prudish when NYC mostly isn’t those things.”
Silver quickly cleaned these imprudent remarks up, but they were revealing of how consistently deficient and self-congratulatory liberal appraisals of the conservative mind tend to be. The Republican Party is presently led by a veritable caricature of the crude, libertine New Yorker. Moreover, from William F. Buckley Jr. to the Fox News Channel, the modern conservative movement has shown little hostility toward movement leaders with roots in the Metropolis. Reducing the right’s frustrations with “AOC’s” celebrity to a matter of gender and race is a convenient way to avoid confronting conservatives’ real criticisms. Among them, her adherence to shibboleths at the expense of accuracy, her objective radicalism, her penchant for responding to complicated questions on policy with inanities, and her habit of shifting wildly from empowered avatar of the new progressive left to persecuted victim when faced with even mildest criticism.
Of course, Ocasio-Cortez has been attacked by conservatives on shallower grounds, which could be indicative of a more latent hostility toward her demographic traits. But to attribute the actions of these individuals to their political affiliation is to engage in what Silver once attacked as “nutpicking”—the self-serving practice of mischaracterizing an ideology or movement by cherry-picking outlier points of view and insisting they are broadly representative. That’s bad punditry, and Nate Silver would never engage in that.
Silver was recently compelled to clean up another bit of ill-conceived punditry when he repeated a claim that has become dogma on the left—the notion that Hillary Clinton’s email controversy was a media fabrication. Observing that there was something “Clinton-esque” to the outsize coverage Senator Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test received, Silver suggested that Clinton’s email issue was “a minor story treated like a major crisis.” When reminded that this “minor story” was a federal criminal investigation into the mishandling of classified information, Silver insisted he wasn’t making any direct comparison to Clinton’s email server, though such comparisons—had he made them—would, by and large, be apt.
Silver has repeatedly insisted that the Clintons were done a raw deal by media coverage of the email scandal. “[T]hey feel like they’ve been treated unfairly,” he said of the former president and secretary of state in an effort to explain their self-entitled conduct. “[T]he media needs to grapple with how it approached the story,” he wrote in 2016. “More sober coverage of the story might have yielded a milder voter reaction.”
Indeed, Silver’s media criticisms are often the rankest of rank punditry. His insightful reading of polling data regularly yields constructive prescriptions for improving media’s horserace coverage. But his contention that the press overplayed the revelation that the FBI had re-opened the investigation into a leading presidential candidate’s potentially criminal misconduct—conduct that might have jeopardized national security—is exposed as intensely partisan when he pairs it with his preexisting gripes about the press.
Among his frustrations with how political media handled 2016 was their alleged refusal to dwell on Russian meddling (a subjective assertion) and the “tendency of (largely white and male) media elites to downplay racism and misogyny as major factors in Trump’s support.” In defense of his thesis, Silver points to the social science cited by The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, who contended that the “economic anxiety” attributed to Trump supporters manifests in racial anxiety. The left insists that the press underplayed Trump’s overt or coded appeals to racial solidarity, but that idée fixe does not seem rooted in anything empirical.
From Trump’s racially-charged attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel and Ghazala Khan, to his hiring of Steve Bannon, to his conspicuous refusal to disavow the endorsement of David Duke, both objective reporters and opinion makers covered those events critically. What’s more, they covered the Republican lawmakers who condemned them, some of whom explicitly called them “racist,” with equal enthusiasm. The idea that more intensity would have changed election results is betrayed by Hillary Clinton herself, who apologized almost immediately after characterizing half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” and later said the gaffe represented a “political gift” to Trump.
It’s no surprise that the former Daily Kos blogger maintains a variety of center-left views on political subjects, and Silver isn’t exactly trading on the cachet he’s earned as a statistician when he engages in the kind of punditry he so often dismisses as valueless. But it also seems the proprietor of FiveThirtyEight does not apply the same academic rigor to the subjective analysis he reserves for his statistical analysis. Perhaps Silver takes such a dim view of punditry because, in part, he does not understand how it is done.