Wonkworld vs the Mediaverse

Facts are no match for a compelling narrative, says Jonathan Green. Despite the efforts of left leaning bloggers, conservatives are winning arguments and elections because they have better stories.

Voters see themselves as struggling with an ever rising cost of living, the federal government mired in debt and the parliament paralysed by the lack of governing majority. According to Green, none of these things is true. But against a "conservative political machine happy to deal with well-calculated and skillfully deployed impressions", truth is no defence:

The blogosphere is filled with number crunchers, graph bloggers and fact checkers. The picture they provide is lucid, accurate, and challenging to many of the familiar political tropes.

But it is the tropes that leave the lasting public impression. The frustration for the left is the lingering impression that facts ought, in the best of all possible worlds, to get in the way of the story. Trouble is, the story is increasingly the story.

What works politically is in fact a compelling, ahem, narrative – whether it be manufactured from fact or fiction is not really to the point.

So here we are in chapter one of a gripping tale with heroic wonk bloggers battling against conservative spin merchants and the mainstream media they understand so well. Will our heroes be defeated? Will they embrace the tactics of their opponents and be lured over to the dark side? Or will they turn to the light side of the Force and use the power of narrative for good?

Who knows. It’s Green’s story so I’ll let him finish it.

Matt Cowgill’s take on the piece is that "wonk bloggers like me are largely wasting our time". Is that right?

There are at least two reasons not to get sucked into Green’s dramatised version of events. The first is that wonk blogging is about more than helping your team win the next election. It’s about influencing policy. The second is that Green’s peddling a false dichotomy. We don’t have to choose between dry facts and gripping narrative. Some of the most effective advocacy weaves facts and numbers into compelling stories.

A lot wonk blogging is about the design of government programs. For example, in a recent post Cowgill explains the unavoidable trade offs involved in reforming Australia’s income support system. Chances are, whoever is in power after the next election is going to want to tinker with the welfare system. If the people who are advising ministers are part of the conversation Cowgill started on his blog, his arguments may have some influence.

Most government programs don’t change just because the government changes. The Coalition didn’t abolish Medicare and Labor didn’t abolish the GST. The Coalition did abolish the Commonwealth Employment Service and replace it with a privatised Job Network, but once that was done, Labor tinkered with the policy rather than restoring things to how they’d been before Howard.

Wonks like to talk about how programs perform and how they tweaked or replaced with something better. Wonk bloggers can help shift policy by talking to the people who talk to ministers.

In the US some of the most influential writers have been those who weave statistics and facts into persuasive narratives. Charles Murray is a good example. Losing Ground, his first influential book, is stuffed with graphs and tables. But it also tells a story about how well intentioned liberal reformers created a welfare system that’s making things worse.

It’s interesting to contrast the style of Murray’s book with the approach David Brooks takes in Bobos in Paradise and his essay ‘One Nation Slightly Divisible‘. Rather than rely on statistics and analysis, Brooks reaches for the toolkit of the new journalism. His sketch of the lifestyle of America’s new bourgeois bohemians is an exercise in character and description. As Sasha Issenberg explains he brings "social movements to life by zeroing in on what Tom Wolfe called ‘status detail,’ those telling symbols — the Weber Grill, the open-toed sandals with advanced polymer soles — that immediately fix a person in place, time and class."

Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart, fuses the two approaches. He combines data with rich descriptions of how America’s elite and white working class live their lives and tells a story about where the nation is headed if things don’t change.

According to sociologist Tom Medvetz, writers like Murray occupy a niche somewhere between academic research, journalism, and government policy making. It’s a niche occupied by think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Brookings Institution.

I’m guessing that most of Australia’s wonk bloggers write about policy and politics because they find it fascinating and want to talk about with others. If it turned out they had no influence on what government does, they’d probably keep blogging anyway. But it’s a mistake to think that writing driven by data and analysis doesn’t influence the political world just because swinging voters in marginal electorates ignore it.

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19 Responses to Wonkworld vs the Mediaverse

  1. nottrampis says:

    It doesn’t matter what ‘left-leaning bloggers’ want to write about if the government are full of people who couldn’t sell a cold beer on a hot day and have advisors who have been more wrong politically than Catallaxy

    Remember a majority of Yanks thought the invasion of Iraq was about 11/9.
    We had peole here who thought recently interest rates were higher now than when the ALP won government!

    Still it appears now coalition supporters have realised finally they were wood-ducked about the ETS and its effect on the economy.
    Maybe reality is starting to beat up on people to silly to know.

    however in the end it comes down to the Government

    • Marks says:

      Yep. Green cites the ‘Pink Batts’ scandal as an example. However, I saw the interview by Kerry O’Brien of PM Rudd.

      Instead of blasting Kerry with the facts, Rudd just rolled over and accepted the criticism. If the leader of the Government, with all the help of the public service to crunch the numbers for him, would not even advance facts positive to his case, then why blame the media, or why blame us iggerent voters in swinging seats?

      This lack of response goes back to the time of Whitlam. Australia under the Coalition pre 1972 was the poster child for the evils of high tariff walls. Whitlam inherited a sclerotic tottering economy ready to fall over at the first puff of wind. He could have sheeted home the blame to the Coalition, but did not even try.

      So why should anybody be surprised that the economic narrative in Australia is what it is?

  2. Mr Denmore says:

    The issue , Don, isn’t that the conservatives have better stories. They may do. It’s more that journalists aren’t performing their professional responsibility to present the facts to people. The tendency now is just to report what anyone says, with no appeal to the facts. Green’s criticism is really of a lazy media who would rather revel in hyperbolic-laden conflict than do their readers the service of the truth.

  3. Don Arthur says:

    But Mr D, isn’t reveling in “hyperbolic-laden conflict” a good way to be “provocative with the ultimate aim of generating public debate“?

  4. TimT says:

    Does he really say that ‘despite the efforts of left leaning bloggers, conservatives are winning arguments and elections because they have better stories.’ Specifically, that conservatives are winning ‘elections’ because of that?

    Well we didn’t win the last federal election. I can’t really see it applying to the Queensland or NSW state elections. Abroad? Certainly not in the US, and it would be a stretcher to apply it to the UK.

    As a matter of fact the only case that this may apply to is the forthcoming Australian federal election – which is, of course, still to be decided. Being forthcoming and all that.

    The facts/narrative split Green makes is a false dichotomy at any rate. People who are good at numbers do not have a monopoly on the truth; narrative can be just as fact-filled as a spreadsheet or a graph.

    If Labor does lose the election it may be because supporters like Green miss the important narratives altogether – Gillard is untrustworthy, factional fighting has begun amongst Labor already, the party has for a long time been defending indefensible causes like Peter Slipper’s tenure as speaker, and Craig Thomson’s continuing employment as an MP – and their big publicised policy successes may turn out to be very expensive failures (NBN) or may not do anything at all (the carbon tax). In summary: a divided government, doesn’t trust itself, and when it tries to do the job a government should do, govern, it doesn’t do it very well.

    How’s that for narrative?

  5. TimT says:

    A related story I read a few weeks ago about the rise of the policy wonk in the US.

  6. murph the surf. says:

    Compelling it seems.
    The last 3 decades of economic reform look to me to have been a bipartisan work and both sides can take credit.
    Comparisons of small but still significant economic and welfare structure adjustments can’t compete with stories casting one side of our duopoly as in terminal moral and ethical decay.
    Even if all the ALP politicians are acquitted the electorate would just put this down to the system being perverted to serve politicians first and the public second.

  7. Pedro says:

    “The frustration for the left is the lingering impression that facts ought, in the best of all possible worlds, to get in the way of the story. Trouble is, the story is increasingly the story.”

    Funny, I thought that was the frustration felt on the right about climate unchanging taxes deceitfully sold as being part of a global effort; constitutional reality denying taxes that have worked exactly as predicted by everyone but the lying liars who spruiked them; idiotic border protection flip-flopping; educationless reform programs; and dubious credit claiming for long run economic strength that is slowly being ground down by stupid policy.

    And is Wayne Swan anything but a bare-faced liar and likely target number 1 for the ABC’s post slaughter retrospective series on the govt.

  8. Steve Carey says:

    Pedro’s comment is a bit dispiriting on a blog like this (which I have just discovered through John Quiggin’s links). Basically I believe the wealthy do not pay their way and our nation is on the low tax end of the scale. You would have to look hard to see this reflected in the MSM. Symptomatic of this is a system that allows a Rinehart or Obeid to amass fortunes from minerals that appear to be gifted to them by a perverse system. How is this fair or just? I agree with Green’s thesis that the sheer volume of “stories” on commercial radio/TV/ news Ltd.carries the day. Who will carry a progressive political message in a media environment like ours? Stephenroger1.

  9. john r walker says:

    ” We don’t have to choose between dry facts [and] gripping narrative. Some of the most effective advocacy weaves facts and numbers into compelling stories. ”
    TOO right.
    A convincing narrative is not a shrink wrap around the “facts”. Constructing a convincing narrative is thinking – not some optional extra.

    I think the increasingly narrow specialized technical focus of much higher education is part of the problem, many experts these days rarely read outside the area they are expert in. Constructing working narratives is an art I.e it involves a lot of; imaginative reuse , recombinations and recursive usage of old narrative forms … hard to do if your education has been too narrow.

    As for conservatives in the US sense , I suggest the republican core is ethnically narrow and mostly of an age group where the future is past tense… they are experiencing loss/grief the first stage of which is denial and anger… not conducive to open minded listening to new stories, full stop.

  10. nottrampis says:

    Pedro is simply doing a catallaxy impression.

    I am eager to know what policy the government imposed apart from a contractionary budget( remembering fiscal fossils like Davidson said was expansionary ) has caused the present weakness in nominal GDP. The principal reason is the downturn in the TOT.

    • Pedro says:

      But the earlier upturn in the TOT was irrelevant as we rode a wave of recession-busting success engineered by the world’s best finance minister? Or at least, that’s how a remember you talking a couple of years ago.

      Homer is spending up or down?

  11. murph the surf. says:

    If I could ask Mr Paxton which nominal GDP figures is he using?
    From 2011 results to 2012 I can only see estimates of the figure for 2012 and it was above 2011.
    Do you have access to figures for 2012 which aren’t estimates?Could you provide a link?

  12. nottrampis says:

    The figures are in the National accounts.

    Martin Parkinson confirmed all this this week at Senate Estimates.
    (see Peter Martin’s blog)

    This talk has been all the rage since the budget at ricardian Ambivalence

  13. nottrampis says:

    Just to give an indication of how pathetic the present government is.

    Before the pink batts insulation scheme came in there were around 65,000 houses insulated and 65 fires eventuated.

    The scheme insulated 1.5 million houses. If industry standards were the same there would have been about 1960 fires.
    There were around ten times less than that!

  14. nottrampis says:

    my theory is the lack of decent staff in both government and opposition offices gores back to the ‘disencouragement’ by the previous government to bureaucrats to be in (then) opposition offices.
    Previously bureaucrats from the best departments were seconded to both government and Opposition offices.
    Paul Keating had Don Russell and Ken Henry whilst john howard had Tim Stewart and Arthur Sinodinos, all from treasury.

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