The Path Not Taken
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A podcast with Anand Menon - Why is so much political commentary misleading?

A podcast with Anand Menon - Why is so much political commentary misleading?


Recently on Tom’s Curiosity Shop, I’ve reflected on the quality of political commentary, arguing that much analysis is misleading. Though media evaluation of policy agendas and the conduct of politicians tends to be better, analysis of policy effects and the role of parties is very poor, even in the ‘quality’ press. When assessing policy records, commentators tend to mistake noise for the effects of policy interventions, research suggesting that performance metrics are mostly outside the control of politicians. For example, it’s very difficult to evaluate the economic policy records of governments; most variables which influence economic development are outside government control!

Why is so much commentary misleading? What are the implications of this? I had the pleasure of discussing these issues with Anand Menon, professor at King’s College London and Director of the UK in a Changing Europe thinktank. Anand is one of the UK’s best known academic commentators, regularly appearing in the UK media. As Director of UK in a Changing Europe, he is famous for his rigorous and impartial analysis of Brexit.

Given his experience as an academic and commentator, Anand was the perfect guest! I hope that you enjoy our conversation. If you do, please think about subscribing to Tom’s Curiosity Shop – it’s free!

You can listen to the podcast or a transcript is below.

Tom: Hello Anand, it’s great to have you with us today. Could I start by asking whether you think that analysts and voters can accurately evaluate the effects of government policies?

Anand: With great difficulty, I think. One of the reasons it's particularly difficult at the moment is there's just so much going on. So, if you take the obvious example from a UK perspective, we left the European Union. There had been a long, quite boring debate for four years before then about the economic impact this would have. And of course, when we finally did leave, then COVID struck.

So, untangling the macro-economic impacts of Brexit from those of COVID is virtually impossible. Even at the best of times, it's hard because politics and economics are very complicated and there's a lot going on at any given time. But at the moment, it’s particularly so. I think Brexit is still the best example. People are talking about whether Brexit is impacting on the economy and it is.

But discerning what is Brexit and what is Ukraine and what is a hangover from lockdown is hideously difficult. The other thing which applies to the media but particularly to voters is that there’s quite a lot of evidence around what we call "motivated reasoning." People will interpret evidence through their own ideological lenses. So, one of the striking things, again, with regard to Brexit, though U.S. listeners will recognize this from their own politics, is that people who back Leave think the economy is doing better than people who back Remain, even when confronted with exactly the same economic data. So, there is an element of bias to our interpretation as well.

Tom: But in recent years, there’s been a quite of lot of commentary which simplifies things greatly. Rather than evaluating the influences which you identified, such commentators might attempt to blame specific events on processes like Brexit or politicians like Joe Biden or Boris Johnson. Would you therefore say that lots of commentary is misleading?
Anand: I think a lot of commentary is misleading. A lot of commentary is explicitly partisan and it's important to know who you're listening to at any given moment. I remember being with a friend of mine in the United States around the time of the Democratic convention in 2016, and we were watching the commentary on Fox.

My friend turned to me and said, "My God, these people really don't like the Clintons" because Bill Clinton was in the audience and you sometimes don’t appreciate, that in the U.S., you have very partisan media where even the news commentators are sort of biased.

UK in a Changing Europe is strange, in that we're a bunch of academics who try and play the role of a think tank. My experience is, people really appreciate it if you're in a debate and say “I don't know” or "actually, we can't really tell that now." So, there is a space, I think, for doubt. But I think the reality of the media environment nowadays is certainty and clarity. It tends to get more clicks than honest lack of knowledge.

Tom: So would you say that this is what’s driving this? The desire for clicks and subscriptions?

Anand: Yeah, I think so. And I think there’s the danger of echo chambers. That if you're on the left, for example, and you produce headlines that appeal to left-wingers, they'll click on it because it's what they already think. The trick to effective commentary, I think, is to be able to bridge those divides so that both sides will listen to you. I would like to think that when members of UK in a Changing Europe go on the media, people genuinely don't know what they're about to say. I think one of the problems with public debate is, all too often, you know exactly what someone's going to say. In the U.S., there are the big partisan debates around guns or abortion or things like that. But in the UK, we have Brexit; and if you get someone on from a particular side talking about Brexit, you're pretty certain what they're going to say. And so, the debate just becomes very parochial and awfully predictable.

Tom: As an academic who does lots of media work, is it easy to get drawn into simplistic arguments and explanations?
Anand: There are certain basic steps we would take to avoid it. If the BBC ring up and say, "Can you come into the studio to talk about X?", your first question is, "Is there anyone else going to be there, too?". We will always say no to being the second person in the debate. We will insist on either being the only person, as in here’s someone who's an academic who's going to comment impartially, or being the third person.

So, during the Brexit referendum, we were often the third person and the presenter would come to us and say, "Actually, is that right? Does that make sense?" There are certain tricks you can learn to avoid being forced into a corner. I mean, sometimes you get a pugnacious interviewer who will try and wrong foot you. A very, very common question that was posed to us on air during the referendum was, "How are you going to vote? or afterwards, "How did you vote?". So, you need to learn different tricks for sidestepping that one, but there are ways around it.

I suppose that the importance of politics depends on context. By context, what I mean is there are moments when you get the windows of opportunity which academics call critical junctures. In the United Kingdom, I’m pretty convinced that we're living through one of those moments. Lots of things that were inconceivable a few years ago are no longer inconceivable. For example, this morning I dug out a Financial Times editorial from just before the election of 2015. It very grudgingly said, "Yeah, you should probably vote for the coalition. We need the continuation of the same government. Not because we think they're great, but because we think Ed Miliband is obsessed with inequality."

Since then, UK political debate has become obsessed with inequality. And we're doing things that were condemned in 2015 as Marxist, when they were proposed by Ed Miliband. So, the windows of the possible have opened far, far wider than they were then. At times like that, politicians can be absolutely central to shaping outcomes and the direction of public policy. Now, that's not to deny for a moment that in the process of making a policy, experts, civil servants play a key role in some of the detailed stuff. For example, with the cost-of-living crisis, the Treasury will have off-the-shelf things that it wants to try to address.

But the decisions about whether we do it via capping prices, whether we have to tax people more to do it, whether it's a long-term mortgage on the British taxpayer, that's a political decision. And so, the broad outlines are shaped by politics, I think, particularly at times of flux like this when the traditional way of doing things is seen as bad. But equally, in periods where things are calmer and there's less change, I think there's less room for manoeuvre. Actually, one of the things we saw pre 2010 is the gap between the two political parties narrowed a lot. In terms of policy alternatives, there wasn't a lot to choose between the two.

Tom: Recently, we’ve heard a lot about Liz Truss being a Thatcherite. But looking at this from another angle, the Truss energy plan is one of the biggest government interventions in recent history! How much of a dissonance between commentary and reality do you think that there is? In lots of cases, it seems that analysts are just evaluating noise?

Anand: To an extent, and I think we're partly confronting a phenomenon that will be very recognizable to your American listeners, which is we've had a Tories leadership contest in which Liz Truss was trying to get the votes of Conservative members, and in a broad sense that's like a primary. You're talking to the party and the party tend to be, in the case of the Conservatives, to the right of the British population. Now, the question is whether, as in many American elections, a right-wing politician tacks back towards the centre after the primaries.

We don't know yet whether Liz Truss meant everything she said, or whether that was just a ploy to win the election and now that she's won the election, she's actually going to govern from the centre. There are examples of both in the U.S. I remember pre-Trump, lots of people saying "Okay, well, he's running in the general election. Now, he will start behaving better" and he didn't and that took lots of people by surprise. The first thing is the degree to which these words are tailored to specific audiences.

The second thing is, whatever the personality of the prime minister, you don't get to govern by yourself. To govern, you must have the backing of a majority of MPs and, for Liz Truss, that means the backing of her party. And so even if she were, for instance, to have been joking or fibbing when she talked about tax cuts during the leadership election, it may be impossible for her not to deliver those tax cuts now because she may face a rebellion among our own party and her budget might not get through. So, there are various layers of constraint working here.

My sense with the Conservative Party— and this is where it gets interesting— is it is, in economic terms, quite right-wing and committed to tax cuts. It's a government who, if you ask most of them, would say they want to see a small state. At the same time, they’re a government in power at a time when the government has no choice but to subsidize the energy bills of the whole British population. So, you have a right-wing government at a time when what would normally be called "left-wing" policies are basically compulsory. So, those labels are becoming less useful, I think. Giving tax cuts whilst helping out the British consumer to the tune of a hundred billion pounds, well, that's less obviously a conservative policy.

Tom: Let me play the devil’s advocate. What if I say that, given systematic constraints, Liz Truss’ personal ideological preferences are irrelevant and will have no influence on policy outcomes. Is that a serious hypothesis?

Anand: It's not unserious in the sense that you and I don't know what Liz Truss really thinks. There's a psychological element to this and there's a political element. The psychological element is, is she just saying stuff she doesn't believe in because that's the stuff she knows she can get through or that's the stuff that will get her elected? That we'll never know. But the ability of the British prime minister to shape outcomes depends upon conditions in the real world. That’s to say, you might think, "Okay, I've become prime minister, I want to shrink the state, cut taxes and not do any bailouts." If you thought that, you would bump into reality quite quickly with the cost-of-living crisis. So, you need to be broadly attuned with empirical reality.

Secondly, as I said, you need to keep your party in line behind you. The third thing, and this is another constraint on British public policy, is that we're going to have an election within the next two years. So, anything any government does, anything any prime minister does, assuming— as I think we should— that the ultimate goal of that prime minister is to get re-elected in two years’ time, will have an eye on the British electorate rather than simply on what they want to do.

But I think that preferences do matter. I think, as we saw at Truss’ first Prime Minister's Questions with Keir Starmer, that we're actually in a world where the two candidates to be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom are talking about policy and there's clear blue water between them. But that’s within the context of myriad constraints that limit the autonomy of the person in Downing Street.

Tom: OK, we broadly agree that there’s something of a dissonance between what the media, both traditional and social, think is happening and what is actually happening. What the implications of this? Are they good or bad?
Anand: I'd say, in terms of the quality of public debate, it's probably bad. I think in terms of the real world, it's probably inevitable. I would say as well, that academics aren’t completely impervious to the lure of clicks or follows! I mean, I can think of academics who go beyond the evidence to make claims on social media, and it makes them notorious and being notorious nowadays is a good thing. It gets you noticed.

But I think social media probably makes it worse because it's easy to attract a following by being mildly outrageous. And this isn't necessarily swearing a lot or whatever, it's saying things that are counterintuitive that make people notice you. There's a whole media industry of counter intuitiveness out there. You think of outlets like UnHerd who specialize in publishing articles with headlines that make you think, "Really?"

Tom: And maybe we could reflect on implications for liberal democracy. As we were saying, there’s quite a lot of aggressive commentary out there which tries to blame people for different problems. And on social media, certain people seem to relish blaming the Tories or Remainers or whoever. So, on one level, you have the proliferation of analysis which is inaccurate. On another level, you have the proliferation of narratives which blame others! I think that this is very undesirable…
Anand: Okay. First and foremost, I'm not going to defend the tone of a lot of commentary on social media. I mean, particularly for a woman, the sort of abuse that gets meted out, it's hideous and actually I'd like to see the social media companies act more decisively to stop that.

Secondly, what I'd say is that politics is a contact sport, particularly in systems like the UK and US, where you have a majoritarian system. Winner-takes-it-all elections tend to breed that sort of behaviour in which your way to success is not just to put forward a coherent message yourself, but to blame the other side for everything that has gone wrong. So, it's kind of inherent in the sort of politics we've chosen to have. It's interesting that in your question, you phrased it as liberal democracy, because the one thing we're very bad at in this country is appreciating the fact that we live in a liberal democracy, not a democracy.

It's too easy in the UK to use the word "unelected" as a pejorative. Whereas, actually our system depends not just on parliament, which is elected, but also on judges, on regulatory agencies, on the Bank of England, on a whole host of unelected bodies, that play a role either in keeping governments in check or in helping to shape public policy. And so, I think, in sum there are two things. Yes, the debate is always going to be fairly angry in this adversarial system. Two, it is too easy to forget that politics isn't simply the purview of elected politicians, but it's governance by other institutions as well.

Tom: I guess there’s an opposite danger. Imagine if the media echoed the conclusions of some scholars of governments, arguing that parties don’t really make a difference to socioeconomic outcomes and systemic influences are far more important than parties. What would be the implications of that?
Anand: Well, I'd say there are lots of answers to that question. First, the worst thing a politician can do is claim not to have power. I remember back in the 2002 French presidential election, Lionel Jospin, the candidate of the Socialist Party, made a speech in which he said, I paraphrase, “Look, we have economic policies. But there's only so much we can do because the forces of globalization and the presence of the European Union means that the French government is very limited in what it can do in terms of economic policy.” He dropped in the polls overnight having said that. So, I think honesty about the constraints under which we live is probably not the best idea for politicians who are seeking votes.

The second thing I would say is we have periods in our history where it does look like parties are all the same. I talked about the first decade of this century where basically both the Labour Party and Conservative Party were broadly economically liberal and socially liberal. And famously, that line about politicians all being the bloody same really took root, and what you ended up with was people voting for protest parties and things like that.

This is a danger in democratic politics. If it looks like you're not giving people a real alternative, they look elsewhere for it. I think Trump was partly a reaction to that in the United States. That sense that there are moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans, and what is there really to choose? I think we have something very similar here with Brexit, which is a kind of two fingers to the whole establishment. So, I suppose this is a warning to people who complain about polarization. Obviously, excessive polarization isn't a good thing but for democracies to function properly, you need some polarization because if all your political choices start to look identical, then the people start to think they've been conned.

Tom: I’m still struck by the dissonance between academic and political analysis! Many academics would agree with Jospin’s analysis; governments have little influence on policy outcomes! So, in a way, it’s in the interests of everyone to ignore certain academic analysis and emphasize agency! Can we conclude that?
Anand: Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. And it's incumbent upon academics to understand that your average voter wants to feel like they have a degree of control over outcomes. The more remote the people taking the decisions are, the more you're in danger of stoking popular resentment about policies. Maybe the Blair governments went too far towards technocratic politics, giving the impression that they thought they knew best. Now, we’re compensating with a very populist form of politics where government seems to be intent on stripping down as many of the checks and balances on its power as possible. I'd say the sweet spot is probably somewhere in between. But I think there’s a tension there and it's a tension that people need to be aware of, that people need to explain; politicians probably need to talk about it. One of the most disturbing things in the Brexit saga was seeing government ministers turning a blind eye to newspapers calling judges enemies of the people. That's not the way to strengthen the functioning of our liberal democratic system.

Tom: How do you think that the press or analysts could improve?
Anand: I'm not sure it's for me to say how the press could improve because ultimately, the incentives of the press are commercial. They need to have subscribers to continue to function. I think we're lucky in this country to have the BBC because they don't face exactly the same sort of pressures, though Lord alone knows they do face pressures, and I think that the BBC is the one thing that marks us off decisively from the United States in terms of media landscape.

I'd say several things about academics. Firstly, if you're a social scientist you should contribute to public debates. I think far too much academic knowledge is either hidden behind walls or disguised behind complicated language that no one outside the academy could read. I think it's incumbent upon us to share our findings.

I think, secondly, there are two ways of doing that. There are some academics who are campaigners. So, they're either Labour or Conservative or they're environmental campaigners. I think that's potentially problematic in the sense that once you've declared yourself as a campaigner, it's harder to be taken seriously as an academic. It's harder to think that you are impartially presenting evidence, if you have declared a cause.

UK in a Changing Europe tries to remain rigorously impartial and just present evidence and leave it to other people. So, we never lobby for particular outcomes. We just say, "Okay, this is the choice you have. These are the potential economic implications of that choice. Go ahead and make up your own mind." And what we found with that kind of approach, which is a hard approach in a polarized country like the UK, is that you get a grudging hearing from both sides.

UK in a Changing Europe faces all sorts of pressures. We face pressures from our funders who think that sometimes if we say things that annoy the government, we should be a bit more careful because our funders are funded by the government and we worry about that. We face abuse from both sides of the Brexit debate. Leavers think we're Remainers. Remainers think we're Leavers.

We face calls on social media for the government to stop funding us because we're a disgrace or whatever. Yeah, we get that sort of thing and learn to live with it. I mean, I'm pretty confident that the research we produce is good, high quality state-of-the-art social science. And my line is, if you want to talk to us about the research, we'd love to. If you want to have a go at us as people, we're not going to listen.

Tom: Has the social media abuse affected you?
Anand: Personally, it doesn't bother me at all. In my job, Twitter is indispensable. But I tend to think of Twitter as being fun and don't tend to get too upset. Curiously enough, the most vitriolic criticism comes from the people who self-identify as liberal, cosmopolitans. It's that side of the debate that can be the most scathing when they decide that you said something they don't like.

Tom: We’ve talked about a series of problems with political commentary. Finally, would you have any advice for people who would like to be better informed?
Anand: Choose your sources. There are think tanks that produce very good work but do look into what their leanings are. The Monkey Cage blog in the United States, on which academics write for the Washington Post, always produces interesting analysis. I'm delighted to say that more academics are joining the public debate and sharing their findings. I can't give you a definitive list but there are all sorts of places that you can go for informed commentary and analysis of what's going on.

In the United Kingdom, there's an organization called Full Fact, which is the UK's official fact-checking charity; they do a brilliant job in scrutinizing the claims of politicians. They have partnerships with Google and Facebook and they're doing a sterling job, very much against the odds I have to say, in trying to ensure that politicians are honest and that what they say is factually correct.

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