As a veritable US politics junkie, over the past few days one would have been most likely to find me glued to Twitter, absorbing and largely agreeing with various snarky observations being hurled at the clusterfuck that was the Republican National Convention. On occasion, I may even have looked up from this torrent of instant commentary to listen to some obscure speaker (and let’s be clear: they were mostly obscure given the number of Republican heavyweights who declined to show) wax lyrical on just how great The Donald will make America. At the conclusion of each day’s pageantry, I was fed a steady diet of analysis by the much maligned mainstream media, informing me of the ‘winners and losers,’ the wider implications of that day’s events, and, most crucially, how that will affect the outcome of the election.
In fact, as this piece goes to press, I will almost certainly be doing exactly the same for the Democratic convention.
Despite the fact that spending one’s holidays obsessively tracking political events in a country where one cannot vote signals a questionable state of mental health, it is easy – while sifting through the deluge of political commentary – to make the mistake of thinking that one knows what is going on. Of course, on one level, this is trivially true. Most people didn’t listen to the esteemed Governor of Oklahoma’s speech in full, and thus clearly I can speak to its contents with more authority than someone who didn’t. But from this knowledge it does not automatically follow that my opinions are any more valid.
Perhaps a more nuanced phrasing of this point: it can be risky to assume that a more informed opinion is necessarily a more valid opinion; indeed, such an assumption is hubristic in the extreme.
This is a point that on its face sounds rather banal, but is one that I feel compelled to make at the outset of this column because the political consensus has taken quite a beating recently. In the last few months, political punditry has confidently made a number of spectacularly wrong predictions. In the UK, pundits pointed to the Scottish referendum as proof that undecided voters break toward the status quo and thus Brexit was a remote possibility. In Australia, commentators mused that while two party preferred national polls showed a close election, Labor was not making up enough ground in the marginal seats and so Mr Turnbull would win the election in cruise control. And returning to where we began, in the US pundits laughingly dismissed Donald Trump’s chance of winning the GOP nomination, and yet that very same punditry travelled to Cleveland last Thursday to watch Trump make the longest acceptance speech in US history.
In light of these missteps, it is worth considering the environment in which punditry issues forth its confident predictions. First, political commentators often operate in somewhat of an echo chamber, reading and talking to many of the same people. It can be difficult to swim too hard against a tide of smart and well informed opinion; it is much easier to simply fall into line with the crowd. Second, today’s media cycle demands instant analysis, with punditry occurring almost in real time. By contrast, it is often difficult if not impossible to immediately ascertain the political import of a certain event. Slowing down is important; it can lend perspective to the daily ebbs and flows of a news cycle. Finally, and intimately related to this, there can be a tendency to draw conclusions with too much certainty, to disregard the nuance and shades of grey that are inevitably a part of politics. We should keep in mind that the situation is often far more fluid than is made out. This is particularly true in hindsight, with certain outcomes deemed inevitable after the fact when in reality they were anything but.
These observations are made not to position myself above the fray, as somehow wiser, more patient and therefore more prescient with my opinions. It is for precisely the opposite reason: as a pre-emptive defence for all that I am likely to get wrong, because this column will almost certainly fall into every trap laid out above and then some. You should be sceptical of this column, quick to challenge its assumptions and its conclusions. In short, you should consume your punditry with a grain of salt.
Since this is the inaugural column, allow me to outline the format going forward. This column will be part political commentary, part round-up of good political journalism. For the former, I’ll be writing a semi-regular piece (read: whenever I can break my crippling habit of procrastination and actually write something) largely covering US and Australian politics, but expanding to whatever takes my interest or is topical from week to week. For the latter, as much as I’m sure you, dear reader, appreciate the learned opinion of a perpetual undergraduate student, there is a plethora of informative, thought-provoking and entertaining writers amongst the aforementioned political punditry (the same political punditry that this column has already arrogantly dismissed), and I’ll highlight a few of the pieces I’ve most enjoyed reading at the end of each column.
Feel free to send any journalism you think ought to be included in the roundup, suggestions to improve the column or reasons why any particular point I make indicates to you that I am one of the most moronic people to ever have walked the face of the Earth (and other assorted vitriol) to me at firstname.lastname@example.org; I’ll endeavour to respond to them all. You can also follow Flaneur on Twitter (our handle is @flaneur_mag) and Facebook (just search @thesaunterer) so that you can see these columns as soon as they are published, and thereby disappointingly find out exactly how irregular a semi-regular column is. Of lesser importance to me but almost certainly more valuable to you, following Flaneur on Twitter and Facebook will also let you know as soon as the other, more talented writers of this magazine publish their excellent pieces.
This week’s roundup understandably focuses on the conventions (fair warning: Trump articles will likely be a recurring theme):
I’m including this piece not so much because I think it is a great article, but instead to highlight what I thought was the best speech given at either convention