An Introduction

What does it mean to be an intellectual forum in the age of self-assured data journalism, hackneyed punditry, and ceaseless Twitter commentary?

By Nathan Pippenger

Editor’s note: The journal is proud to introduce Nathan Pippenger as a contributing web editor. He was previously a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. He is pursuing a Ph.D in political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Anybody who follows—or tries to follow—politics in this moment must feel not only bewildered, but exhausted. As this journal’s editor Michael Tomasky recently put it: “Today, no one really ‘has to’ read anything. Instead, what one must now do is monitor an endless flow of information and commentary from a vast range of points of view, via new technologies like RSS feeds and Twitter.” We have to be up-to-date; or up-to-the-minute; or (brave new world!) up-to-the-second: the stress, more and more, is on knowing things that are new.

And so there was something strange about the recent hubbub surrounding Nate Silver’s expanded data-news venture, FiveThirtyEight: The political class was, for a couple of days, fascinated by a few things that are very, very old. There was much talk of Silver’s chosen logo—the fox. It was a reference, he explained, to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, who lived before Athenian democracy, before Plato, before most of Western thought as we know it. “The fox,” said Archilochus, “knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” In our own time, this distinction was revived in a famous essay by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Through the rigorous use of data, Silver and his team will know “many things,” in contrast to numerically illiterate pundits who, Silver noted, tend to get quite a bit wrong.

Silver’s punchy manifesto set the tone for the ensuing conversation among political watchers, who exchanged a few blows about the role of numbers in journalism, but a deeper question was mostly ignored: What does it mean to be an intellectual forum in the age of self-assured data journalism, hackneyed punditry, and ceaseless Twitter commentary?

The truth is: nobody yet knows. This is a problem that we can only work out by doing. And that’s been the mission of Democracy from the start: to “serve as a place where ideas can be developed and important debates can be spurred.” Yes, progressives are at their best when they’re empirically rigorous, but our tradition has also relied on experimentation, creativity, even playfulness: We have to stay rooted in reality, but we should never discount the role of ideas in shaping the data we look for in the first place, or how we interpret that idea, or what we decide to do once we have the facts in our hands. In other words: There’s no need for a zero-sum showdown between data journalists and opinion journalists.

Democracy has long tried to blend empirical rigor with a strong point of view, and this blog will expand that mission. This will be a space for discussion, analysis, and regular provocation on politics and progressivism: what our tradition has been, is, and might be in the future. We call ourselves a “journal of ideas,” and the blog will not depart from that project—the work of developing and applying the American progressive tradition to twenty-first century questions and problems. The goal is not just to think critically about our country and world; it’s to produce writing that readers will find more thoughtful, more reflective, and more lasting than what is offered by most political blogs.

If it’s not too grandiose to use the term, you might call the foregoing our blog’s “manifesto.” At any rate, that was the tag chosen by Silver for his introduction to the new FiveThirtyEight. There was a touch of irony here for the self-described “fox,” since the author of history’s most famous “manifesto” was Marx—”the most implacable hedgehog of them all,” as Michael Ignatieff noted in an introduction to Berlin’s famous essay. Marx once asserted (rather tendentiously) that philosophers had only “interpreted the world,” when “the point is to change it.” We don’t need to agree with the “one big thing” known by that particular hedgehog (or any hedgehog!) to start off with the humble suggestion that, as progressives have long shown, it is entirely possible to do both.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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