Over the last few weeks, it has become part of the conventional wisdom that Republicans will take control of the House of Representatives following this November’s congressional elections. Stu Rothenberg and Charlie Cook, who direct Washington’s two most trusted political forecasting outfits, have both revised their estimates of Republican gains past the threshold needed for the GOP to claim a majority in the House during the 112th Congress, and based on recent reports one would be forgiven for thinking that would-be Speaker John Boehner is measuring enough drapes to single-handedly stimulate the United States textile industry. The wise men and women of the chattering class are sure in their predictions confidently setting the terms of the national discussion bound to dominate the intervening weeks between now and November, and they may well prove to be correct. But even weathermen are wrong on occasion, and political prognostication is an infinitely less exact science than meteorology. This begs the question: What if the promised flood doesn’t come?
I am not arguing that the commentariat is underestimating the Democrats’ chances this fall, though I believe that they are; nor is my purpose to inveigh against the Tea Party or make easy jokes about Rand Paul. Instead, I want to talk about accountability, especially as it pertains to those who make their livings producing what might well prove to be nothing more substantial than hot air.
If auto manufacturers spent months making faulty brakes or Apple released a new iPhone plagued by malfunctions, nobody would pat them on the back and congratulate them on a job well done. Their industries would not be eliminated, but a correction in course would be called for, and at the very least, those affected would get a free case for their faulty phone. But if Republicans come up short on November 3, nobody who predicted otherwise will lose their jobs. More than that, they will offer no apology, instead repeating that nobody could have predicted that they might have been mistaken, while enjoying the increase in ratings and celebrity that manufactured shocks and breathlessly delivered “breaking news” stories inevitably bring.
Why is this a problem? If not even our friendly neighborhood weathermen can tell the future, can it be fair to expect clairvoyance from any professional other than Miss Cleo?
When pundits’ certain assertions are disproved by reality, a number of consequences redound. Most significant of these is a further erosion of trust in what used to be viewed as reliable sources of knowledge. When “the experts” are unabashedly wrong, and nobody seems to care, the average citizen has no reason to believe them in the future. While a critical and questioning public is unquestionably a good thing, facts do remain facts. Much of the polarization the country is currently experiencing is due to the fact that both sides of each issue believe that they and only they are privy to the truth. This mistake is easier to make when the idea of an objective factuality is called into question by an irresponsible media. This is not to say that, coming from the same set of information, all reasonable people will reach the same conclusions. However, when two sides of an issue believe that both the opinions of the other side and the facts used to derive those opinions are false, the possibility of reaching a compromise becomes ever more distant.
The problem with so much modern political commentary is thus not that predictions are sometimes wrong, but that they are made without the humility necessary whenever one talks about something as difficult to predict as human behavior. There is clear value in having a commentariat which can synthesize and narrativize the overwhelming amount of raw data produced by our political system. Not only does it lower the barrier to entry into any conversation about politics (which none but an aristocrat would argue is a bad thing), it also does produce a more informed, engaged electorate. The problems begin when predictions are given as certainties, and the false prophets are never held to account.
This is further complicated by the fact that in today’s world, the news is as much a generator as a presenter of fact. The story is less important than the story of the story; the narrative an object with a large degree of independence from what it narrates. As such, false predictions at once trouble our ability to believe and create to some extent a parallel reality, which encourages the propagation of wild theories (such as ACORN’s alleged theft of the 2008 presidential election) to explain why this alternate reality does not come to pass.
When the media forgets that the news must be the product of an outside reality, its function is reduced to that of an entertainer: a spinner of fictions, or a satirist at best. While the temptation towards a sensational lede is strong, too much of our history remains to be written before we’re ready to go to press.
Ilan Ben-Meir is a junior in Berkeley College.