In her omniscient narrative voice, George Eliot says in Middlemarch that prophecy is the most gratuitous form of human error. It is an insight from which we can learn a lot. The other forms of human error are less gratuitous. They are nevertheless probably all inherent in humanity.
Why undertake to predict the future under uncertain circumstances? It’s part of the job of political punditry. Error is an occupational hazard. Moreover, there is no price for error. One can always excuse oneself for failing to see the unexpected. Few pundits seek to hold themselves accountable in any manner for the errors of their prophecy in any event. They don’t even seek to hold themselves accountable for their failure to see what’s in front of their nose.
E.J. Dionne represents a case in point. In a September 27, 2016 column, for example, he observed “Clinton shifts the election in her direction.” And yet Clinton lost. What happened?
Looking back in December 2016, Dionne wanted “to see us revisit our Electoral College,” although he didn’t see much chance of it changing any time soon. Good prediction!
One can see the spirit in which Dionne wrote in his September 21, 2016 column on the stakes in the election: “How we vote will determine whether the forces of democracy, openness and religious tolerance remain strong, or whether our country throws in its lot with tribalism, prejudice and authoritarianism.” Lest there be any doubt, that was an expression of support for Hillary Clinton.
Republicans obviously confront an unfriendly map as they seek to maintain their Senate majority this coming November. They are defending 23 of the 35 seats that will be on the ballot, several of them in races that would be close under the best of circumstances. Democrats only have to defend 12. The odds faced by Republicans are daunting and the dire consequences of the epidemic deepen them.
What good purpose is served by predictions under the circumstances? When leftists like E.J. Dionne predict that Republicans “may lose it all” in Senate races this November, they serve the cause they support. In Dionne’s case, it is part of the accustomed cheerleading. It expresses his activism. He seeks to encourage political friends and demoralize political enemies. And he may be right! If he’s wrong, he can assert that his prediction was tentative. He only said Dems had a good shot at it.
Anyone can see that Republicans seeking election or reelection do so in an environment raising unprecedented challenges. Let’s seek to deserve victory, muster our resources, and overcome the challenges in every decent way possible.
PAUL ADDS: We have made predictions about political races since the early days of Power Line. At least three of us continue to make them.
Assuming that such predictions are based on a good faith belief about what will happen, I see nothing wrong with making them, either on our part or on the part of mainstream columnists.
It’s true in a sense that we pay no price for predictions about political races that turn out to be wrong. But in the same sense we pay no price for posts about policy issues or the likely outcome of court cases, for example, that turn out to be wrong. That’s the difference between being an actor and a critic.
A blogger or pundit who makes too many erroneous predictions — whether about political races, the outcome of court cases, or the impact of policies — risks losing readers. So there may be a price to be paid in that sense.
Does E.J. Dionne serve the purposes of Democrats by saying they have a good chance of capturing the Senate? I don’t know what motivated him to write that column. Dionne may think he is helping his cause. I doubt he has helped it. If his predictions mattered, Hillary Clinton would be president.
What good purpose is served by predicting the outcome of the 2020 elections? In the case of my post on the subject, the purposes were some of the same ones that animate many of my blog posts — to express what I’m thinking regarding matters of major concern, to cause readers to think about these matters, perhaps in a somewhat different light, and to sound alarm or overcome complacency.
As to the last of these purposes, I sense that some on our side are too sanguine about the GOP’s prospects in November, especially President Trump’s prospects.