Friday, July 22, 2016

Where the stupid starts

Wondering why The Stupid seems to be succeeding so well on the national stage? Let's ask the Wall Street Journal:

The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reports that 73% of the electorate believes the United States is on the wrong track, a level normally associated with national crises, such as the 2008 financial meltdown.

Reminding us, should we need reminding, that you don't have to lie about the numbers themselves to lie about public opinion. A 73% score on the bad side of the "right direction/wrong track" question is high but hardly unusual. It's not as extreme as the 79% that AP recorded at about the same time, nor is it as sunny as the 67% that Reuters found in a survey in the field July 16-20. If 73% represents the population value and neither of the other results is an outlier,* one thing that could tell you is that public opinion bounces around a lot on this question.

It can also bounce around pretty quickly, with a fairly rosy 58% saying "right direction" at the end of February 1991 (late stages of the first US-Iraq war) but "wrong track" reaching 72% in November, 78% in January 1992 and 83% in June 1992. "Wrong track" also reached 73% in June 2007 (per the Post, again) 76% in a CNN poll in August 2007 -- some months before the 2007-09 recession began. Being a grumpy lot, we were also at 79% "wrong track" in October 1990,** 77% in January 1996, 71% in June 1993 and just about equal in October 1974 (75%) and October 1973 (74%).

Well, surprise. People who are interested in public opinion try to find the stories that explain the numbers; WSJ editorial writers look for numbers to go with the stories they want to tell. So what story is being told here?

Amid the GOP convention in Cleveland and with the Democratic mother ship landing next week in Philadelphia, one has to wonder: Are the campaigns of  Donald Trump and  Hillary Clinton also on the wrong track?

As recently as a week ago, the election’s narrative was set: ... Then, just days before the GOP convention, the world snapped.

Got an idea of what comes next?

On Tuesday, President Obama and former President  George W. Bush spoke at the memorial service for the five cops gunned down in Dallas.

Some 48 hours later, an Islamist terrorist in Nice, France, drove a tractor trailer across and over men, women and children, slaughtering 84 of them.

On Friday evening, a military coup erupted in Turkey, a nation of 78 million, NATO ally and key state in the war on Middle Eastern terror.

Sunday morning, a lone gunman shot to death three cops in Baton Rouge, La. Just the week before, two black men had been killed in separate incidents with the police.

The compression of these nearly unimaginable events is knocking the 2016 election off the familiar narrative of economic anxiety, terrorism, the border and Washington dysfunction.

If mass-casualty terrorism, coups in Turkey, attacks on police officers and police-civilian violence are "nearly unimaginable," someone needs to read the paper a little more closely. (Though the Journal doesn't seem to do very well covering terrorist murders of police.) Hang on, though -- all these grim events must be pointing toward some punditious conclusions:

Driving past a suburban city hall in Cleveland last weekend, a relative of mine said, “It seems like the flags are always at half mast now. They go up and then they come back down.” She’s right. The U.S. has become a nation at half-mast.

What the week’s events has pressed into people’s minds is the feeling, correct or not, of the absence of answers or explanation. Voters are starting to feel trapped with no apparent exit.

That is a public-opinion question -- meaning it's one best settled by measuring public opinion, rather than quoting your (suspiciously apropos) nameless friends and relatives. As you might have concluded by now, the Wall Street Journal has a better idea: Pick a number, any number, and pin your favorite social constructions to it. Who's going to check and see if they match?

If you're wondering how a deranged carny like Donald Trump can hold a notionally adult audience rapt for over an hour, that's a start. Nobody expects numbers to be held to account; nobody expects stories to be held to account. The Journal's not actively shilling for Trump (at least, not in this piece). It's just holding his coat.

And spare a thought for the Journal copydesk, apparently too afraid -- or too overworked -- to remind the opinion pages about the difference between half-mast and half-staff. "Ship of state" is a figure of speech.

* Bear in mind, this is comparing unlike populations, which is a sin itself
** Thanks, 0bama!

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