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Punditry as a Vocation

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Punditry as a Vocation"

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Frank Rich’s humble and intelligent farewell column on the promise and peril of political punditry put me in the mind of research from Georgetown’s Hans Noel that I was recently shown. He reveals, somewhat to my surprise, that political pundits appear to have a quantifiable impact on American politics. A number of his papers get at this (and I think a book will be forthcoming) but “Listening to the Coalition Merchants: Measuring the Intellectual Influence of Academic Scribblers” speaks most clearly to this issue:

Following Converse’s advice that ideology is the product of a “creative synthesis,” conducted by a narrow group of intellectuals, this paper reports on attempts to study ideology at its point of creation. I develop a measure of ideology expressed among pundits, based on coded opinion pieces in magazines and newspapers from 1830 to 1990. I use this measure to test the impact of ideas on party coalitions. I argue that ideologies, as created by intellectuals, strongly influence the coalitions that party leaders advance. In three cases – the realignment on slavery before the Civil War, the Civil Rights realignment in the mid-20th century, and the party change on abortion more recently – there is evidence that intellectuals reorganize the issues before parties realign around them. This evidence suggests that the patterns of “what goes with what” that intellectuals design have an impact on the nature of political cleavages.

In other words, pundits don’t do much to tilt the balance on the high-stakes issues of the day. But we do help define the congressional landscape of tomorrow by influencing ideas about how the different issues fit together. So I guess I should be more explicit about this! People ought to support progressive taxation and upzoning to support denser land use and marriage equality for gay couples and reform of intellectual property law and taxation of polluters and others who consume our common natural resources while welcoming immigrants as contributing to the economic and cultural vitality of the country. Plus—less war.

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