Matt Lewis

In defense of punditry

“But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.”

– Burke


Politics, when done right, can be romantic. Not just when it’s about ideas — though that is what draws us in to begin with — but also when it’s about the horse race.

As sick as we all are of this campaign — and, by now, we are all Abigael Evans — we are also blessed to be able to watch democracy unfold. And some of us are even lucky enough to document it or opine on it.

We have long ago dispatched the old guys on the bus. Their cigar-chomping style has given way to a new breed of political reporters and pundits. You don’t see a lot of Jack Germonds these days.

Still, this year’s election cycle has seen a new dynamic emerge. A sort of war on pundits. Anyone who dares to incorporate experience, wisdom, or instinct into their forecasting is now viewed as the lumpenproletariat. Math, we are told, is all that matters.

To be fair, I have also been skeptical of predictions made by political pundits — going so far as to pronounce that a monkey would have as good a chance of making correct predictions.

But while I am skeptical of political pundits, I am equally skeptical of the utopian notion that the “best and the brightest” young technocrats can crack the code and build a “model” to predict the complexities of human behavior.

I realize this sets me up to be compared to one of the scouts from the movie, “Moneyball.” As you might recall, while hero Billy Beane was focused on Sabermetrics, the scouts were obsessed with irrelevant attributes when rating players’ potential.

“Ugly girl friend means no confidence,” one scout averred.

(It turns out, the scouts weren’t exactly the villains they were portrayed to be — but that’s another discussion.)

Regardless, I have little skin in this game. Punditry and commentary will, of course, live on. The rise of the technocrat may make life harder for those who do horse race “process” coverage, but it can’t speak to what should happen — what policies a good society should embrace. And that’s what should interest us most.

But I also hope we don’t turn campaign coverage into a sterile prediction game. A kid with a computer can work wonders. But I also want to hear from at least a few writers who have experience, sagacity, and, yes, preferably, a three-martini lunch habit.