Tea Party Analysis Analysis Fail

by Henry Farrell on December 30, 2011 · 21 comments

in Political Science and Journalism,Protest

at Esquire magazine

I respect any reporters who go out and do the work of actually talking to ordinary people, and I especially respect any political reporters who do so, because too much of our elite political reporting takes place within the self-contained Beltway terrarium of politicians, consultants, think-tankers, and other relatively useless fauna. And I have no doubt that the people to whom Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson spoke said the things they are reported to have said, and that they think the things they are reported to think.

When you’re complaining that someone on the Internets is wrong, wrong, wrong, it’s usually a good idea to try for accuracy yourself. And Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson are not, by any stretch of the imagination, reporters, let alone political reporters. A hint for Mr. Pierce – you can find out a lot by actually reading someone’s book. For example, valuable information about a book’s authors is very often to be found on the back cover (usually paperbacks) or the inside flap (usually hardbacks). Take a look. Of course, this would require you to actually buy the book (or at least pick it up in the bookstore) before opining on its contents. If you’re not prepared to actually buy the book, then at the very least, you might try scrolling down to the bottom of the blogpost that you’re basing your lazy rebuttal on. This, depending on your computer, may require you to drag with your mouse/touchpad, while holding down a button or using two fingers (the direction of drag has been reversed on the new Mac OS - perhaps this is what is confusing Mr. Pierce).

Another hint – when you are criticizing people’s conclusions.

But I do believe that a lot of the conclusions these two draw are pretty much the wrong ones. The Tea Party is nothing more than the hard right wing of the Republican party, rebranded by the more conservative end of its corporate wing. It’s approximately as “new” as the 1964 Republican national platform and, that being the case, will disappear again as soon as another Republican wins the White House.

It is a good idea, by and large, to know something about those actual conclusions. This might stop you, for example, from embarrassing yourself by making the ‘these fools do not know that this is like 1964 again’ argument against a book which repeatedly and persistently discusses the continuity between the Tea Party and the Republican right wing, and specifically talks to the linkages between the Tea Party today, and the people who volunteered for Goldwater (as Skocpol and Williamson note, the demographics of the Tea Party are heavily skewed towards the elderly – some Tea Party members were Goldwater volunteers). Also – the ‘outraged movement folks tend to disappear when their party is in power’ thing. They’ve got that covered. Really. Again, discovering this would actually require you to read the book. Which, I grant you, sounds like hard work.

I could go on, and on, and on, but I won’t, since I respect any reporters who go out and do the work of actually reading words on the screen, and I especially respect any political reporters who do so, because too much of our elite political reporting takes place within the self-contained Beltway terrarium of politicians, consultants, think-tankers, and other relatively useless fauna. Perhaps, I’d respect them even more if they read books before jumping to conclusions about what they say – but this is very likely just academic prissiness.

{ 21 comments }

Ben Stanley December 30, 2011 at 10:25 am

Tea Party Analysis Analysis Fail Analysis Win!

Tobin Grant December 30, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Agreed–nice job. I hope bloggers/reporters/conference paper discussants everywhere read it.

Jacob Christensen December 30, 2011 at 10:47 am

Authorised blurb: “He is the author of four books, most recently Idiot America.”

I rest my case, Your Honour.

Jacob Christensen December 30, 2011 at 10:48 am

(And in a case of Damn You Autocorrect, that should have been “author blurb”)

Andrew Gelman December 30, 2011 at 10:52 am

Henry:

Hey—I thought the rule on this blog was, we were only allowed to make fun of Chait and Easterbrook! (Although I suppose this guy is a post case, since you’re slamming a guy who went out of his way to criticize some political scientists.)

LFC December 30, 2011 at 11:20 am

“went out of his way to criticize some political scientists”?!?!

He didn’t merely criticize them. He misrepresented them. And he didn’t even know who they were, which in the case of Skocpol is pretty shocking. It’s probably unnecessary to say this on The Monkey Cage, but she is one social scientist whose name (and, to some extent, whose work) one might expect every decent political journalist to be familiar with. That this guy Pierce has no idea who she is (and didn’t even bother to find out) is arguably grounds for relieving him of his blog at Esquire forthwith.

I find this more culpable than anything your nemesis Gregg Easterbrook has done.

Andrew Gelman December 30, 2011 at 11:49 am

Hey, Gregg Easterbrook’s not my nemesis; I just find him to be an irresponsible writer. And I doubt that Charles Pierce is Henry’s nemesis. We’re just blogging on this to do our part to improve public understanding of politics. It’s part of the service aspect of our profession.

John Jay December 30, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Chait is one of the more responsible bloggers out there when it comes to respecting political science research.

Andrew Gelman December 30, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Indeed—that’s why we nag him when he screws up. We hold him to high standards.

John Jay December 30, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Ah, good to know that’s the reason, Andrew. I’ve been impressed by your charitable attitude towards people you criticize, so the heckling of Chait seemed uncharacteristic of you. It lessens my cognitive dissonance to know it stems from an underlying respect for him.

Kevin S. December 30, 2011 at 2:47 pm

I don’t know, he’s kind of funny on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me :).

Andrew Gelman December 30, 2011 at 3:28 pm

They should get Scott Adams on that show.

Frank in midtown December 30, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Where do I Submit this post for 2011 – best self-aware use of prissiness in a blog?

David Tomlin December 30, 2011 at 5:07 pm

You missed the bogus Plato/Socrates quote.

D. Squared December 31, 2011 at 11:55 am

A few words in defence of Pierce:

First, he makes it quite clear that he didn’t read the book, but rather the NY Times article. In his world, the book doesn’t matter. For all practical purposes, almost nobody outside of our circle of professors and grad students will ever read the book. By contrast, multiple thousands no doubt viewed the Skocpol and Williamson piece in the Times. If the authors know that the Tea Party is largely a continuation of that strain of Republicanism that first reared its head in 1964, they do not make that clear in the Times article, perhaps because treating the Tea Party as simply more of the same would not have earned them a byline in the Times. So Pierce does have a right, it seems to me, to take issue with the tone and implied conclusions of the article. It is obviously difficult to summarise an entire book in 700 or so words, but one must understand that placing things in proper context is the author’s responsibility, and not the reader’s.

The bit about political reporters is, indeed, academic prissiness. If you write a non-opinion piece for the New York Times, you are, at that moment, acting as a political reporter.

Henry Farrell December 31, 2011 at 2:41 pm

The bit about political reporters is, indeed, academic prissiness. If you write a non-opinion piece for the New York Times, you are, at that moment, acting as a political reporter.

Wow. This is a very special argument. I am not sure if it quite achieves Internet greatness of the ‘we are aware of all Internet traditions’ meme variety, but it surely aspires to it.

D. Squared December 31, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Always pleased to provide a fellow with another chance to celebrate his own snarkiness, but the point remains that, if you write a non-opinion piece for the New York Times, you can expect to be held to the same standards as Times reporters. And if you go out and interview a lot of people, and then summarise the results of those interviews for a national newspaper, with some analysis thrown in, then you are engaging in political reporting. Maybe that’s what Pierce meant, or maybe he just got careless and didn’t read the authors’ affiliations. Either way, it seems a rather minor point on which to spend an entire paragraph.

In any event, I am not trying to pick a fight; I simply thought that Pierce deserved better.

Henry Farrell December 31, 2011 at 3:10 pm

More politely – you do realize that this argument gets you absolutely nowhere, don’t you? Pierce clearly believes that they are political reporters in the sense of people who are paid to do this for a living, usually inhabit the Beltway and all that. And as for the ‘he was under no obligation to read the book’ thing, the point is that he made up their supposed arguments out of whole cloth. If I say that you, in your blogpost, are arguing that the Republican Party is secretly controlled by bat-people from the planet Mongo, and you retort that you have said nothing of the sort, either there or elsewhere, then obviously the burden is on me, not you, to actually prove that you believe this or are arguing it.

D. Squared December 31, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Very well, then, more politely from me, too. Thank you.

If I read Pierce correctly, his primary objection to the Skocpol/Williamson piece is the suggestion that the Tea Party is some sort of new force in the GOP, rather than, in his words, “just the universe of modern conservatism with a catchy new name”. While I am certain that Skocpol’s and Williamson’s book is more nuanced, its title, “The Tea Party and the *Remaking* of Republican Conservatism”, suggests something original about the phenomenon, as does their reference to the “*new*, extreme right, tea-infused, Republican party.” Pierce, along with many others, believes that there is nothing “new” about the Tea Party and that the Republican party has not been “remade”. Reasonable people can disagree, of course, but that–rather than ignorance or making arguments out of whole cloth–is the basis of his critique.

Should he have read the book first? Perhaps, though, as I said earlier, in his world, the NY Times article will be far more influential and widely read.

Finally, feel free to quote me as saying that the the Republican Party is secretly controlled by bat-people from the planet Mongo. However, after reading “Nixonland”, it would seem that this, too, is not a new phenomenon.

delicate genus December 31, 2011 at 3:33 pm

I think all involved here need to let up on the snark. Boiling Mad is a better read, although the new book hits on the contrast between the sincere confusion at the grassroots and Beltway manipulation on the right. The grassroots/grasstops is a political science thing.

Andrew Gelman December 31, 2011 at 5:02 pm

All I can say is, none of this ugliness would’ve happened had we stuck with Chait and Easterbrook.

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