Thursday, April 20, 2017

Against Autopsies

One thing I've seen popping up again and again since the election last fall is calls for Democrats to perform some sort of "autopsy" of that election, and sometimes a separate autopsy just about Hillary Clinton's campaign in particular, to determine what the party should do to improve its lot in the future. Over at The New Republic Jeet Heer recently wrote a pretty typical example of these sorts of pieces:
The Democrats desperately need an authoritative autopsy of 2016: a winnable election with disastrous results. There are all sorts of questions the party needs to ask itself about messaging and strategy: Should Democrats have a more populist message, to appeal to the white working class? Should they double down on identity politics and intersectionality? Should they rely less on data mavens and political consultants? Should they devote fewer resources to national organizing, and more to rebuilding the party from the ground up?
I'll give Jeet some real credit, he does point out that endless Hillary bashing is now pointless as she's almost certain to never be on the ballot again (although I'd argue that his implied criticisms of her as a candidate don't really add up when you start actually examining them). But even if he does avoid the trap of endless Hillary bashing, which is still going strong on certain parts of progressive Twitter, his plea for an "authoritative autopsy" is still a pretty pointless idea in my opinion.

To begin with it's a terrible metaphor. An autopsy is of course a sophisticated medical procedure performed by trained experts to use the tools of science to determine how someone died. But while a skilled medical examiner can tell you if a stab wound was made before or after death, or if someone died from the flu or more exotic disease, or how drunk they were when their car hit the tree, there's no person on Earth who can definitively tell you why an election (decided by less than 100,000 votes in a few states!) went a certain way.

Oh there are theories, lots and lots of theories, but it's just really hard to tell which ones are right and which ones are wrong. Indeed from a certain political science standpoint the "winnable election with disastrous results" was the product of "fundamentals" of the election cycle with things like party incumbency in the White House and economic growth in 2016 dictating a pretty predicable result. In other words Trump only won because of a very lucky distribution of his votes, meaning his win was a bit of a fluke due to the less than ideally democratic nature of the Electoral College.

This theory by the way can't be proven right or wrong definitively, unlike the question of if the slug pulled from the victim's body was fired by that of the same type of handgun found in the defendant's home.

But let's set aside the metaphysical questions about how to prove anything and just look at the practical considerations. Let's say the Democrats did set up some sort of "authority" to try and figure out what to do? What would it look like? Well there's your first problem because the make up and nature of the body is obviously going to determine it's eventual "plan for how to fix everything." That is some sort of board split between Hillary and Bernie die-hard would probably spend a lot of time arguing over issues that divided the party in 2016. Likewise a board representing a broader swath of the party that was chaired by Joe Biden (or pick a party elderstatesman/woman of your choice) would probably have a lot of debate about Biden's brand of politics as well.

And that's just the start of the problems. Even if you are able to come up with some great group of wise and learned women and men that balances all the political considerations of a massive decentralized political party in a polity of over 320 million people, they are going to have to hear evidence from "experts" or whatever before they write their report right? Well let me go out on a limb and say that since "politics" is in many ways about dividing up resources, the competition for scarce party resources, that is things like money, staff, and party messaging, will help drive what "experts" or party leaders or witnesses or whatever argue is the key to victory in 2018 and beyond.

It would probably go something like this:
  • Labor person: "We have to rebuild the Labor Movement to win back the white working class."
  • Intersectional Feminist: "We need need to double down on intersectionality to build power with not over."
  • Black political leader: "Black people are the heart and soul of this party, we need better outreach and more of the party's agenda and resources directed towards their concerns."
  • Good government reformer: "We need to overturn Citizen's United and end the electoral college." 
  • Progressive leader: "We need single payer and a 15 dollar an hour national minimum wage!"
  • Moderate leader: "Stop being so liberal! Most people don't want to give up their healthcare for some government program. We need a middle class tax cut, and you're killing us with business interests who might be willing to support us!
  • Newer Think Tank Guru: "We need new ideas"
  • Established Think Tank Guru: "The old ideas work, we just need a better messenger."
  • Data maven: "My data tools can win 2020 for you."
  • Consultant: "I can win 2020 for you."
  • State Party Chair: "We need to rebuild the party on the state level by giving more money to state parties."
  • Local Party Unit Chair: "We need to rebuild the party on the local level by giving more money to local parties."
  • Bernie Diehard: "This is all Hillary's fault."
  • Hillary Diehard: "Shut the fuck up."
  • Party Hack named John Anderson: "Things aren't so bad, we'll murder the SOBs in 2018!"
  • Kirsten Gillibrand: "Come friends, let me tell you how I bridged these divides in my time in Upstate New York, and have raged against Trump in my time in the Senate. Not that this has anything to do with who the nominee should be in 2020 or anything."
The joke gets old but the point is pretty clear. Any sort of "authoritative autopsy" would turn into a political competition to try and determine the future of the party and how the party's resources ought to be distributed. Which of course is what party politics is all about, but Democrats don't need some formal board or report to do this because they are arguing right now about things like which special elections to spend money on or if Bernie's recent endorsement of a Democrat with a less than stellar pro-choice record in Omaha's mayoral election makes sense.

Don't get me wrong, there is need for some self-assessment after 2016 when it comes to formal party organizations and the like. Information security clearly needs to be a major priority moving forward, there's also questions about how best to use the email list Hillary gave to the DNC recently with information about 10 million donors apparently not in the DNC's system. I think arguments about superdelegates at this point are stupid and a good example of progressives fighting the last war (supers could save Democrats from a Trump style hostile takeover in the future) but I suppose it's something that needs to be addressed, and figuring out how to get more resources to the legions of people interested in running for office for the first time makes a lot of sense too.

But when it comes to the "all sorts of questions the party needs to ask itself about messaging and strategy" that Heer assures us need some definitive answer on? I'm really skeptical. Back in 2013 the Republicans came out with their own "autopsy" about what went wrong and how to fix it after they suffered a drubbing at the polls.

The report called for a more "inclusive" party. That is to say Republicans needed to stop being the party of angry old white people, they needed to reach out to minorities and women, they had to embrace some form of immigration reform, they needed to stop offending important voting groups all the time, and desperately needed to build a well run, data driven, and field heavy organization for 2016. Their nominee of course ignored every piece of advice in the report and won anyway.

So yeah, the whole autopsy thing strikes me as being a waste of time.

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