A theory of the importance of Very Serious People in the Democratic Party

by Andrew Gelman on August 22, 2013 · 40 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Media

Ashok Rao writes:

Paul Krugman’s pet insult – “Very Serious Person” – is more important to understanding America’s policy failures than most people realize, and goes well beyond economic illiteracy. More than anything, without understanding VSPness (henceforth “vispy”) – one can never comprehend how the Democratic Party screwed up so much in the past five years. . . .

The Democrats are vertically infected with vispiness in a way the Republican party is not. While many often talk about the GOP as a more “hierarchal” party (considering the nature of their primary selection process) – Republicans are freer and more iconoclastic. . . . the only way to become a Republican champion is iconoclastic flair. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and even Sarah Palin are hardly “establishment” in the sense of representing prestigious ideas.

Rao argues that leadership in the Republican party is attained via pursuing “fresh and different ideas: ranging all the way from Chris Christie’s loud personality to Paul Ryan’s nutty-nutty budget.”


For the purposes of argument, I will accept Rao’s assessment of the structures of the two parties. The question then arises: Why? After all, basic stereotypes would suggest that Republicans, not Democrats, would be the stodgy ones. One story is that the Democrats are working on “maintaining the ’90s status-quo” (in Rao’s words). But I think it goes back earlier than that. After all, Reagan was an extremist for his time, whereas Clinton was always a moderate.

My theory (which maybe I’ve blogged before, I can’t remember) revolves around the role of the news media. The media are a liberal, Democratic-leaning institution. This can be seen, for example, from surveys of journalists (the last one I saw showed Democratic reporters outnumbering Republicans 2-1) or political endorsements or various other studies. It is my impression that the news media lean left but the public-relation industry leans right.

Anyway, my point here is that the Republican party has a lot of resources, including much of big business, military officers, and organized religion. They don’t need the news media in the way that the Democrats do. And, I suspect one reason why Very Serious People are important for Democrats is that they are respected by the media. The Republicans can put together a budget that is mocked by major newspapers and nobody cares. But if the Democrats lose the support of the New York Times, they’re in trouble. Hence the asymmetry in seriousness. One might say that the Republicans are hurt by a similar asymmetry with regard to social issues, in that they can’t ignore the support of the religious right or talk radio. Although this is a bit different: the so-called Very Serious People pull the Democrats toward the center, while social issue groups pull the Republicans to the right.

To put it another way, each party has a coalition of financial interests and political activists that are important in staffing the party and shaping its goals. The Democratic party’s balance has changed: in recent decades, with the decline of labor unions, various segments of industry such as high-tech have become important, also there are doctors and lawyers and newspapers. These are all groups that will tend to favor centrist, status-quo, what Krugman might call “very serious” policies.

I think this could/should be studied more systematically (ideally in some sort of comparative analysis with data from many countries).


Dan August 22, 2013 at 10:51 am

A Democratic politician is in trouble if s/he is banking on news exposure. While the journalists themselves may lean left, the subjects of their stories and their guest lists lean right, see for example http://mediamatters.org/research/2013/04/05/report-partisanship-and-diversity-on-the-sunday/193482
I’d submit one explanation for Dem vispiness to be a spillover effect of a predilection for technocracy.

RobC August 22, 2013 at 11:44 am

I agree with your proposition that “[t]he media are a liberal, Democratic-leaning institution.” And I agree with your presumption that the political preference of members of the media colors the way in which they perform their jobs, for otherwise the party affiliation of reporters to which you advert would be irrelevant.

Now, are we prepared to draw the same conclusions about academia in general and the political science profession in particular? And if not, why not?

Andrew Gelman August 22, 2013 at 2:37 pm


Sure, I’d agree with your second paragraph. But I think academia (or, more specifically, the political science profession) has much less political influence than the news media, so I don’t see the effects on policy as being so large.

jeezmanchillout August 24, 2013 at 8:46 am

why does everything lead back to hating on political science and academia with you?

RobC August 24, 2013 at 10:35 am

Where do you get “hating”? Was Andy Gelman hating on the media by acknowledging that it’s a liberal, left-leaning institution? Of course not. Should we be any less honest in assessing academia? This was a golden opportunity for a little consciousness raising. There’s no need to be defensive or to don the mantle of victimization.

Dean August 25, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Why are we willing to agree that the media are an institution of any sort? Just the construction of that sentence is problematic. An institution “is,” while the media “are.”

eric August 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Well, I’m not entirely convinced the modern Republican party has much respect for the American form of democracy, so of course iconoclasts would be encouraged. I get more of a sense from Democrats that systemic reform and patience are good watchwords. And, of course, few of the core ideals of the Democratic party are especially outside of the mainstream of American thought. I don’t think you could say that about the current Republican party.

Dan August 22, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Lakoff would say that Dems are still stuck in talking about actual policy (which might tend toward some sort of quasi-rational consensus-based process) while Reps have seen the light to talking about values and tribalism, since that’s how they get elected in practice (and this leads them to pay less attention to whether the values they invoke actually correspond to rational policies per se). (To be sure Lakoff would like the Dems to get to the “right” policies, but through framing that integrates effectively-invoked values as motivational drivers.)

I do think the media play into this is some respect, but the origins may lie deeper than the communication-platform model. The choice of platform (media vs. PR) may emerge post-framing, or at least there may be a simultaneity at work. Other things: Dems’ big-tent approach vs Reps purity-based approach, Reps’ big-money concentrated funding vs Dems’ more crowd-sourced distributed funding (not a perfect dichotomy, but still a general trend) — and is there a connection between the concentrated money sources and the purist ideology of the Reps? (And is the Dems’ big-tent approach largely a result of the narrowness of the Reps’ ideological focus, simply by capturing all the remainders?)

Krugman’s complaint is that VSPs are getting detached from a bottom-up empirically-driven evaluation of policy and become captured by pet ideas that gain some momentum of their own according to the messenger(s) — without crowd-sourcing the discussion on intellectual merit (rather using “reputation” as a proxy for expertise, which is always at best only an approximation). Policy becomes a matter of personal fashion rather than actual investigation.

One can criticize both parties. Dems are too prone to personality-driven fashionable policy ideas that may diverge from empirical support (especially as empirical conditions change and the personalities’ pet ideas do not — this is a “fashion” that may actually have more inertia than the quickly-fluctuating world of entertainment and design — a form of “paradigm stasis” in Kuhnian terms), while Reps are too prone to value drivers that can win (local) elections but that diverge from coherent policy altogether.

Bottom line: media certainly seem part of the structural causal dynamics here (that’s a no-brainer), but it seems less likely that it is a sole important driver of these effects. More of a multivariate symbiosis of sorts. In the quest to get empirical policy research to be a more consistently important driver in political discussions, there are other levers that may need to be pulled in concert with any media-related levers in order to get the whole system to move.

I do think studying media to look for structural correlations with other levers would be useful. It may additionally lead to understanding the other levers better along the way.

Dan August 22, 2013 at 3:46 pm

BTW, different Dan than the first commenter…

reflectionephemeral August 22, 2013 at 3:55 pm

The media are a liberal, Democratic-leaning institution.

I don’t think that’s true, for reasons discussed earlier around here. It seems to me that everyone who recalls the run-up to the invasion of Iraq has been disabused of the notion that the media is a Democratic-leaning institution.

It seems to me that the NYT and the Democratic Party are largely friendly to, or co-opted by, the “military industrial complex” and “malefactors of great wealth” that past Republicans warned us about (and that have pretty much run the GOP for decades). This is due to social and ideological affinity, and the ability of very wealthy folks to fund/crank out a blizzard of white papers to make anything seems contested and plausible.

Andrew Gelman August 22, 2013 at 4:06 pm


I think the news media lean Democratic on average. Not in every case, though, I agree. And, as noted above, I suspect that the public relations industry leans Republican.

reflectionephemeral August 22, 2013 at 4:41 pm

As we’ve discussed before, I don’t think that surveys about what reporters are secretly thinking get us very far in understanding how they report the news.

It appears that media coverage is designed to appear unbiased and above the fray. That leads to a focus on tactics and political calculations over policy, which in the end helps the party that wants people to be cynical about governance.

For example, this Pew study found that there was almost twice as much coverage of the political calculations & maneuvering about ObamaCare than there was about substance. (And when you dig down into the numbers, it’s worse, as among coverage classified as substantive, “many others, while outlining the elements of the proposals, also focused on the political calculus for passage.”) That’s not, on its face, a liberal or conservative bias; but it tends to favor the goals of folks who want to talk up awful evil Washington badness rather than the substantive provisions of any given proposal. (Longtime Republican Senate staffer Mike Lofgren pointed out that “By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner. A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media.”)

(Also, I’ve heard folks in the military say that they hate it when someone from their branch gets chosen to be Chair of the Joint Chiefs, because they’re going to bend over backwards not to be seen as a homer).

Second off, even if someone like David Gregory or Chuck Todd or Ron Fournier were to report a self-ID as “Democrat”, they’d be a Lanny Davis Democrat, as in tune with what most Democrats want to see as, say, Bruce Bartlett is for Republicans.

The survey from ten or so years ago about reporters’ partisan identification is a good enough point of entry to the discussion, but it really doesn’t get us far in evaluating how they report. Given the reporting on the Gore candidacy, described in the previous thread, and on the Iraq invasion, and on the Affordable Care Act, the “media leans Democratic” thesis needs to be dialed back.

Andrew Gelman August 22, 2013 at 4:51 pm


You write, “I don’t think that surveys about what reporters are secretly thinking get us very far in understanding how they report the news.” But who says these thoughts are secret? I assume that the political leanings that these journalists reveal to survey researchers, they will also reveal to their friends and colleagues. Beyond this, I think the news media have a general leftish bias, as indicated by slogans such as “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Conversely, public relations has an inherent rightish bias, as indicated by the idea that they will work for who pays them.

John Glover August 22, 2013 at 5:03 pm

Where do you get your news from? Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? I can’t think of any MSM figures that have expressed those views in decades….

reflectionephemeral August 22, 2013 at 9:22 pm

Like I said, private views are a data point, but they don’t on their own tell us much about how the news is reported.

As to the media’s ethos, I agree with John Glover. That slogan is really not something you’d expect to see on, say, “Meet the Press” or atop the masthead at Politico. You could just as easily argue that media has an inherent rightish bias, as indicated by the fact that they will for for the the people who pay them– at GE, Disney, etc.

Dan (#2) August 22, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Not to take your point too literally, but what’s your unit of measurement for news media “on average”? Is it individual media titles, or is it media audience (or maybe something else)? Does it include talk radio? Blogs? Only those that affect elections? Averages can be a little suspect when there’s such a strongly skewed power-law distribution of audience size.

Or do you think the lean is robust across all these various measures?

albatross August 25, 2013 at 12:19 am

Which way did the Democratic party’s leadership lean on the Iraq war?

John Glover August 22, 2013 at 4:16 pm

I have a totally different take on this. It all has to do with the money.

I can remember at some point during the Reagan years that the Democratic Party was really in the pits financially. If I recall, they even resorted to fund raising telethons a la Jerry Lewis as a way of raising money, and even Republicans appeared in the telethons with pleas that you should contribute because the future of the two party system was at stake.

The whole DLC-New Democrat movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s epitomized by Clinton was that the Democrats had to be more business friendly or the Democratic party would never be able to compete financially. The only way the party could survive for the long haul was to be able to access corporate deep-pockets the way the Republicans had before then. Hence the turn to the right on business/economic issues by Clinton, a turn which the party leadership really hasn’t reversed since that time.

Why? Because in their view, it worked.

Since then, anything that the party leadership sees as scaring away those deep pockets is anathema to party leadership. In fact, I think it’s gotten far worse since Citizens United.

That’s why hippy punching is so important to establishing your vispiness. What it really shows is that you identify with your donor base.

As far as relations with the media goes, well in its desperation to prove its not liberal, the media has devolved from reporting the news to hippy punching “truthiness” as well. They also have morphed into this terrible horserace/both sides do it meme in order to prove their nonpartisan bona fides.

It’s no wonder “savvy” reporters cozy up to the political VSPs. They’re two peas in a pod, both trying to prove to their corporate sponsors that they really are on their side.

Ashok Rao August 22, 2013 at 4:34 pm

Andrew, thanks for the comments: this actually makes a lot of sense to me. While I’d never thought of it before in this context, after reading interviews and reviews of ‘This Town’ and the role played by ‘prestigious’ or ‘respectable’ journalists as almost gatekeepers to success in DC, it becomes clear why Democrats need such centrist approval in a way Republicans do not.

This suggests the party of FDR is in some ways more independent of money – or at least centralized power – than that of Reagan. As you mention, the GOP still derives much of its relevance from Church and business, but these are not necessarily as synergetic as is the sum of media.

So I may have been mistaken to say the middling party members feel a pressure to echo the powers that be within as much as tow the line that sounds good on a serious news program.

To use TalebTalk, the Democratic Party, with its institutional might, is robust but not antigragile.

Ashok Rao August 22, 2013 at 4:36 pm

FDR and Reagan should be switched there, sorry.

In a way D and R juxtapose power and money.

Andrew Gelman August 22, 2013 at 4:52 pm


Also relevant here are the writings of Thomas Ferguson on the historical bases of financial support for the two parties.

Vladimir August 22, 2013 at 4:55 pm

Seriousness in politics is usually defined as the willingness to make difficult choices. For Democrats that meant learning to say no to someone i.e. from their political base–executing the occasional criminal and post Vietnam, to rediscover a love for the bomb. For Democrats interested in the party’s political success any policy that seems to good to be true e.g. a stimulus bill that may in large measure pay for itself is seen as backsliding to the days of unrealistic promises. On the flamboyance issue, someone from the party of traditional morality and social structures surely has the freedom to play the phony iconoclast to inspire the populist wing. A Democrat who supports same sex marriage needs to appear “safe and traditional”. Yes it’s a cliche but only Nixon could go to China.

Wonks Anonymous August 23, 2013 at 11:20 am

Is there any actual research on the political inclinations of P.R?

Eli August 23, 2013 at 2:03 pm

I don’t know. My impression of PR is that is conservative. Much of their job is to convincingly justify the exploitation or degradation of common goods for select individual gains. Moreover, prosocial/charitable behavior is not a good in an of itself to the PR consultant…it is a means to an individual end.

Wow, I have very negative attitudes toward PR…and conservatives.

RobC August 23, 2013 at 2:20 pm

What’s important, I think, is to define terms carefully. When the activity is on behalf of for-profit corporations, it’s P.R. and essentially evil (and, it goes without saying, conservative). When it’s on behalf of the NAACP, or the Union of Concerned Scientists, or other public-spirited interest groups, or labor unions, or universities, or even to restore N.S.F. funding of political science programs, it’s not P.R., it’s getting the message out, educating the public, raising awareness–and essentially good. Own the definitions and you own the argument.

AGuess August 23, 2013 at 4:21 pm

I definitely think this story is worth fleshing out. For now, I’m struck by the apparent paradox of a”liberal, Democratic-leaning” media that pulls the Democrats toward the center (i.e. rightwards). This would seem to require some ideological divide between rank-and-file journalists and publishers which I’m not sure we know exists.

dbp August 24, 2013 at 3:04 pm

I don’t want to speak for the author, but here is a hypothesis. Sure, the media is mostly Democratic and to the left of the general public, But they are to the right of the Democratic party, if only slightly and since the Democrats need the media to be on their side, some influence is felt and it is toward the center. Meanwhile, Republicans know that they can never move far enough left to please the media and still get elected as a Republican and so they don’t even try. If fact there may be some benefit to antagonizing the media. I (being a conservative) make the initial assumption that if a Republican is getting roasted in the press, he is probably doing something right. I doubt I’m alone in this. (Later information will either confirm this or lead to the conclusion that he has actually done something stupid whichever the case might be.)

Steve Sailer August 24, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Elites of both parties generally do what’s in the interests of elites in general. The most obvious example is immigration, where all the Very Serious People say we need more of it, while the public is much more skeptical. On rare occasions, Krugman has bravely suggested he’s skeptical of the VSP consensus on immigration, as in this 2007 column:


But even Krugman mostly keeps his mouth shut about immigration. Who wants to get called a racist by elites?

Steve Roth August 24, 2013 at 5:20 pm

An alternate theory:

People signal their membership in groups (tribes), gain and maintain membership in those groups, by openly espousing ideas that are congenial to that group.

The more those ideas are obviously, patently crazy, the greater the commitment demonstrated by espousing those ideas. cf religion.

The potential for an insanity spiral is obvious, as those who most loudly and vehemently espouse crazy ideas rise to leadership, and exclude those who don’t.

This begs the question, of course: why would one group/party/tribe rely more on this membership mechanism than another? Hysterisis only answers it to an extent; you can’t just point to turtles all the way down.

Steve Sailer August 24, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Dear Mr. Roth:

That’s an excellent explanation for the media’s hysteria over the George Zimmerman Menace!

To put this in a larger perspective, Democratic elites burnish their egalitarian credentials by mounting occasional hysterias over white racism, while making sure not to do much of anything that would benefit blacks economically, such as tightening the labor market. Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton appointed Barbara Jordan chairwoman of his commission on immigration policy. This distinguished black lesbian stateswoman came back with a well-documented report on the need to crack down on illegal immigration, and cut back on legal immigration. You’ll notice how often the media brings up Barbara Jordan’s name during the current immigration debate: not much. It would just confuse the Narrative.

Steve Roth August 25, 2013 at 12:07 pm

@Steve Sailer:

So you’re basically saying that assertions of white racism are crazy and insane.

Do you understand how many would think that assertion is crazy and insane?

Mark August 25, 2013 at 12:29 pm

To Steve Roth

Do you understand why, in the context of the Zimmerman case as it actually exists rather than in your fantasy world, one would think that your assertion is crazy and insane.

There is a wide distribution of knuckleheads across the political spectrum. What has been interesting looking at the original post and most of the comments is the confident belief that R’s have more diversity of thought only because they are crazy while the calm, cool, rational crowd are all D’s and it is only the right-wing New York Times and associated media that are preventing the full flowering of D diversity.

Steve Roth August 25, 2013 at 12:47 pm

@Mark: “R’s have more diversity of thought only because they are crazy while the calm, cool, rational crowd are all D’s and it is only the right-wing New York Times and associated media that are preventing the full flowering of D diversity.”

Wow I could have written that myself but you did it excellently. A pretty perfect description of reality. Thanks!

Oh but need to add: the calm, cool, rational Rs unfortunately don’t exist (they used to predominate! i.e. DDE) because as soon as they display those qualities, they’re banished from the party. I’m sure you’re aware of all the examples.

Alex August 28, 2013 at 6:25 am

Do you understand how many would think that assertion is crazy and insane?</em<

Do you understand how many would think Steve Sailer is crazy and insane? (Also, no surprise to see that despite all his "I'm just going with the data! I am mr normal technocrat!" shtick, he's on the train for shooting random black people. Whenever the whistle blows and he has to take sides, he knows just who's going to pay him.)

Rich Flanagan August 25, 2013 at 1:19 pm

I think the party image question turns on two things: the divide between the traditional/social conservatives and the small but more dynamic libertarian wing, and two, that the GOP is the out-party right in presidential politics. The Dems are just more unified ideologically right now — Clinton v. Biden in ’16? No differences. In that context, VSPs flower.

Chester White August 26, 2013 at 5:21 am

Big business is NOT particularly pro-Republican, despite what “everybody knows.” All you have to do is look at who donates to whom. Give it a shot. Obama gets a CRAPLOAD of money from “Big Business.”

And there is no way media types are only 2-1 Democrat over Republican. More like 10-1.

Andrew Gelman August 26, 2013 at 4:19 pm


1. The data I’ve seen finds that big business (e.g., Fortune 500 executives) give much more to Republicans than to Democrats.

2. The survey I’ve seen found journalists something like 34% Democratic, 17% Republican, and 51% no affiliation.

Mark August 26, 2013 at 9:02 pm

There’s quite a bit of data at Opensecrets.org on spending. It’s somewhat opaque because some is direct spending vs indirect (outside group spending) but there are a couple of data points on direct spending. Since 2000 in Presidential election cycles R’s have gotten 59% of business spending v 41% for D’s. An advantage, but lots of money for both, and would certainly be something the D’s would pay attention to (it’s why in 2009 Schumer and Dodd combined to kill an effort to change taxation on carried interest for the hedge funds in their states). Certain industries are heavily D (electronics, media/entertainment) and some swing from election to election (D’s carried the financial services/hedge funds in 2008, while R’s did in 2012). The most comprehensive business sector contribution summary for 2012 I found showed 245M for Romney v 232M for Obama. None of this includes George Soros who, I believe, qualifies as big business. There is clearly more diversity in business community contributions than from the labor community and we all know diversity is a good thing.

Joel August 27, 2013 at 8:34 pm

so they lean clueless?

sounds right.

Scoff! September 12, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Just wanted to say how off base it sounds that the idea of the democratic party being beholden to the opinion NYT or other liberal publications in practice. All major NY newspapers’ editorial boards came out strongly in favor of Quinn and against De Blasio in this week’s mayoral primary election.

Bill won by a huge margin and Quinn couldn’t even manage second. place This despite her starting out as a heavy favorite vs his unknown status, despite her championing conventional Very Serious opinions, and despite not suffering any major scandal.

If, in practice, the NYT can’t so much as get a candidate through a primary in its own back yard, how much does its opinion really carry nationally? I’d concede party officials might convince themselves NYT’s opinion is important and decisive, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, the idea that they really couldn’t survive without them is laughable to me.

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