Nate Silver’s back. He’s baaaaaaaaaaack. Last week, fivethirtyeight.com relaunched kinda like the independent website it was in its pre-New York Times days, but this time in partnership with ESPN. After being crowned (by Jon Stewart) “Lord of the Algorithms,” after becoming America’s tea-leaf-reader-in-chief, Nate Silver peered into his cup and decided that his best long-term business interests lay with sports fans. That’s almost a rebuke to half of 538’s readers. More on that in a moment.
If you follow the news, you perhaps know that 538 recently predicted that Republicans have a 60% chance of seizing back the U.S. Senate in this November’s midterm elections. For some Democrats, this is the equivalent of “the sky is falling!” “the sky is falling!” – although instead of being reported by Chicken Little, the authority is closer to Russell Crowe as Noah. (Please tell us he’s not “singing” like in Les Misérables. Please tell us he’s not “singing” like in Les Misérables.) As Silver says, the Democrats are lambasting him with one hand, and using him as a fund-raising tool with the other.
But really, are any Democrats genuinely surprised that Nate Silver isn’t “one of them”? They make a habit of disbelieving everything they hear on Fox News, so when Fox News called Silver a Democrat in disguise, was that the one thing they actually believed?
I give Republicans more credit for consistency, in that they’re not suddenly saying, “Oh, now we believe Nate Silver because the forecast looks better for us.” I see four big reasons for this. One: in no upcoming year are they going to forget that Silver was used as Democrats’ go-to rebuke throughout 2012, and so they’ll keep taking Silver with a Gibraltar-sized grain of salt. Two: they’ve got their own polls, like Rasmussen and the aggregates published by realclearpolitics.com. Three: why trust someone who calls himself Mr. Objective, when their whole point is that all media isn’t objective, and thus they can be as bad as they wanna be? Four: they hate apostasy, or perhaps I should say they know better than to anoint someone an expert if they can’t trust said person to toe the party line.
It’s in that fourth reason that Democrats are becoming a little too much like Republicans. On the one hand, sure, if you belong to an organization, you have to fight to keep it strong. On the other hand, filtering all reality through the lens of your group’s best interests seems a little…warped. Tribalism amongst the two major parties seems to be increasing in a (negative) feedback loop: the more people spurn the two major parties (and they sure do, in poll after poll after poll), the more fundraising emails sound defensive and out of touch.
Now, it sounds like Silver may have screwed up a bit on hiring a climate denier. Silver himself sounded quite defensive about this on The Daily Show last night. But let’s give the site time to see how that shakes out. For now, it’s just an interesting argument.
I would be very bullish on Nate Silver if I were Wall Street. I would invest in him for the time when the millennials come to power. Because his basic outlook isn’t partisan. It’s closer to that of the average ESPN viewer. His worldview is statistics-based, but not only that; it’s also, “Hey, Democrats, Republicans, you’ve had plenty of chances to describe how things are. Now here’s some reality.” And yes, people like that. Especially people who got their first job in the 21st century and don’t mind questioning anything from the 20th that isn’t working anymore.
For decades, the Democrats and Republicans have relied on monopolizing the American people’s mindsets when they get political or get serious about a given problem. Has this led to world-beating innovation at democrats.org or gop.com? Of course not! Both parties, as manifested by these boring websites, still act like Microsoft in 1999, like they could never have to face true structural changes, or that if anything is wrong it’s the other guy’s fault. They tend to see Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party as opportunities for co-opting, not as serious existential challenges. The last thing they want to hear is that a non-partisan populist wave could come and invalidate both parties. Nate Silver could be heralding their worst nightmare.
Nate Silver exists outside of our political apparatchiks and pundits – like Beyoncé or Architectural Digest – but he also directly affects how they live, like the D.C. crime rate or the name of the Washington Redskins. They’d prefer that he be like Politico, in the sense that even if Silver is pretending toward objectivity, at least he will flatter for access and speak as though he wants to be an insider. But (at least for now) Silver doesn’t appear to care about access or being an insider. People used to think that Nikki Finke at deadline.com was like Hollywood’s Politico, but eventually she made it clear that access wasn’t as important to her as independence and sometimes getting on her high horse. Nate Silver is closer to Nikki Finke with numbers, although he hardly restricts himself to politics. (Still, that whole naming your website after the amount of electoral votes needed to win the Presidency thing means you can’t exactly pretend that you’re as interested in the NCAA results as you are in the midterms. By the way, Nate, you can afford 20 employees but you can’t buy 538.com off that Chinese site that’s squatting on it? Really?)
Every major website talks about having its own Nate Silver, the guy who’s actually doing the data modelling and coming up with percentage predictions. Percent signs are in and gutshots (“I just feel in my gut that invading this country is right”) are out. If he died tomorrow, Nate Silver would have already helped America immeasurably just with that, since most other civilized countries have been making policy according to such models for decades.
Nate Silver has espoused “making the news less sexy.” But you know how it goes with any guy who turns down the sex; it’s kind of a sexy turn-on. Silver doesn’t fit inside the boxes of what you had to do to become famous ten years ago, and that’s exactly why he’s got so many fans amongst the same millennials who flocked to twitter, Instagram, imgur, reddit, and everything else that didn’t exist ten years ago. I mean, sure, he’s not as famous as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, but so what? (I’d like to see Nate Silver poll people and ask “Who leads Russia?” Despite the Olympics and Crimea, I bet half of Americans would have no idea.) Silver isn’t a solution; he’s a symptom, a sign, of a populist America that’s tired of tribalism and rearguard actions from the two major parties. In this case, people should listen to their kids. You can h8 the game, but don’t h8 the N8.