Pundits are people who are paid to get things wrong – it is their vocation. But this skill has been taken to a new level with their hilarious misreading of the American election campaign.
In any other job, they would have been fired for incompetence. Instead, having devoted almost a year of their lives to explaining why Hillary was destined to win, they are now shamelessly explaining near the end of it why Hillary was destined to lose. That’s pundits for you.
I should know: I used to be a minor one myself. Weekly in Scotland on Sunday and for a manic interlude six days a week on the back page of the Scotsman, I was a serial pontificator. But in 1992 my life changed: I was diagnosed with Babbity Bowster’s Syndrome.
For those unfamiliar with this rare condition, I should explain that it is caused by over-exposure to a fashionable bar in Glasgow’s merchant city known as Babbity Bowster. ‘A highly civilised milieu, with an excellent cross-section of Scotland’s chattering classes’, as David Kemp once described it.
Unlike Mr Kemp, I was never a regular, but you didn’t actually have to be there every lunchtime to be vulnerable to the ailment that he was the first to identify and name. Though infectious, it afflicted only one section of the community – journalists with an opinion habit.
The virus first surfaced during the general election of campaign of 1992. Victory for Labour under its prolix leader, Neil Kinnock, and a strong showing by the SNP were widely and confidently predicted. The SNP had its new best friend, the Sun, on its side, and was expected to benefit electorally from the closure of the Ravenscraig steel works. Its vice-chairman for publicity, Alex Neil, spoke catchily of Scotland becoming ‘Free by 93’ and the party had the most professional of the party political broadcasts, employing such ambassadors of pop culture as the singer-songwriter Pat Kane to woo the youth vote.
The result was a morale-sapping anticlimax. Labour lost nationally, the SNP failed to make the anticipated breakthrough and the Scottish Tories, whose extinction had been gleefully prophesied, attracted a decent 26% of the vote.
The post-mortem was almost comically self-regarding. David Kemp, who a week before the election had detected 'a real vision of a possible future’, confessed that, in Babbity Bowster, 'self-delusion appears to flourish’. He added that ‘Brigadoon had come alive once again, and it was intoxicating. There was such an air of certainty. The Tories were going to lose almost everything...it was all nonsense, of course’.
The despair spilled over into the op-ed page of Scotland on Sunday, where the regular columnists – Joyce McMillan, James Naughtie, Muriel Gray and myself – had fraternally succumbed to a life-threatening bout of Babbity Bowster’s. We were later mocked for our lamentations by the BBC’s Maurice Smith in his entertaining book on the Scottish media.
Another of the brethern, Ian Bell, put his finger on the nature of our problem: ‘We chatterers in the central belt should do a little more travelling and much less talking’. It was true: we didn’t get out enough. And when we did get out, we tended to venture no further than Babbity Bowster.
Soon afterwards, I gave up punditry and, following Ian Bell’s advice, went on the road for the Observer, visiting a different city or town each week for a series of sketches which aimed to capture the spirit of the time and the mood of the people. It occurs to me now how costly a project it must have been. Those were the last of the pre-internet days, before online competition robbed newspapers of most of their revenue and put an end to such extravagance as a year-long, expenses-paid tour of Britain by the likes of me.
Punditry is cheap: a column or talk show costs next to nothing. Real journalism involves leaving the office and spending serious money. That is why there is more punditry and less real journalism.
It may also help to explain why the pundits messed up the American election so comprehensively. Most of the thinking and writing was done in front of computer screens on the eastern seaboard, where the metropolitan elite chose to believe what they wanted to believe and remained stone-deaf to the distant rumble of the disaffected millions. David Kemp’s phrase echoed down the years: self-delusion flourished.
From the avalanche of post-election analysis, I unearthed a single nugget: ‘If you didn’t live in one of those small towns of rural America, you couldn’t understand the hopelessness’. It seems that, intuitively, Trump did understand. How many others? Where were all the campaign reports from this alternative America: the one that ultimately determined the outcome?
The lack of understanding was partly down to a failure of inquiring journalism, with the result that the vast surfeit of punditry lacked a credible evidence base. For reliable impressions of what was going on, you might as well have cast around in the semi-literate jungle of social media, where everybody’s a pundit, than depend on the august pages of the New York Times.
There is no easy way back for punditry. Every columnist and talking head will be compromised by the misjudgements of 2016, while every mistaken assumption of the year will be immortalised on the web. Babbity Bowster’s Syndrome, having claimed relatively few victims in Scotland 24 years ago, has finally mutated across the pond – with potentially fatal consequences for any opinion-former who dares to risk a new thought.
I watched the results of this awful election in a small city in Maine. In the morning, to try to get my thoughts in order, I sent an email to friends and family. Here it is, slightly bowdlerised:
What can one say? Perhaps only this, until it really sinks in.
1. None of us really understood the depths of the misogyny that infects the body politic. Seems very hard for a woman to become head of government in a fully functioning democracy other than indirectly, through a legislative election. Even when one does, they destroy her (cf. Brazil).
2. The polling industry now surely needs a greater overhaul than it got after the 2015 general election and the Brexit vote. Explanations that amount to saying that the operation was a success but the patient died won't do.
3. The strain of nativist nihilism runs so much deeper than any of us believed, or wanted to believe. Nativism has had its upsurges in the USA before, but it has never got near the presidency.
4. As with Brexit, the capacity of people to vote against their own interests is staggering. That would be admirable if the motivation were altruistic, but it is not. Goodbye Obamacare, abortion rights, tolerance and inclusiveness. By the way, the death penalty did well in referendums on the night. And in Maine, a proposal to introduce modest background checks on gun buyers fell.
5. Using the wrong email server is more heinous than serial sexual assault and lying.
6. The Trump Republicans will now control all three branches of government here. Checks and balances? Do me a favour!
7. What price President Le Pen, next year? Anyone want to bet on another term for Merkel?