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How to tweet smarter about politics
5 Rules for (Political) Life
This is going to sound appallingly grandiose, but I think that I’m an above average analyst of politics.
That doesn’t mean my predictions are always correct. Like everyone else, I expected that Remain and Hillary would win – but I think that I have trained my mental model of How Politics Works to follow some effective rules that help me anchor my understanding of events closer to reality than if I were just farting out half-baked reckonings and passing them off as insightful.
So inspired by Sam Freedman’s excellent post1 about how to separate the signal from the noise on COVID information, I want to share some of these ‘rules’ that you should try to follow when processing political events.
To be clear, my rules do not capture every aspect of being a politics_understander, but I think that are useful heuristics that will help you avoid some of the traps that we often fall into.
So without further ado, here are some rules that I 100% guarantee will make you smarter at tweeting about politics.
That’s right, I really am this arrogant. But if you like 100% correct takes about a wide range of things, then please do consider subscribing to this newsletter (for free!).
Rule 1: Fundamentals shape outcomes
It’s easy to get swept up when something dramatic happens, such as Labour opening up a ten point polling lead ahead of the Tories. But as exciting as fluctuating public opinion is to us nerds, the boring, structural realities of politics often remain unchanged.
For example, though Labour’s rise is exciting, there is still the problem of Scotland and the SNP. Without Scotland, Labour need to flip even more seats that are not demographically predisposed to vote for them. So despite polling excitement Labour still has a mountain to climb2.
Similarly, right now energy prices are rising due to tensions between the West and Russia, but even if Boris Johnson were to give the greatest speech in history, and make Martin Luther King look like the shy kid in the nativity play, Boris is still boxed in by the economic factors that are largely beyond his control – and these factors could cost him the next election.
Obviously, it is possible to over-correct on relying on this “fundamentals” approach3 – but in the heat of battle, it’s very easy to assume that what is happening right now is the most important thing, only for it to turn out… not to be.
Rule 2: Beware of your priors
A lot of the time, politics is basically paint by numbers. A thing happens, and very quickly people will start explaining the thing by jamming it into a box to sit neatly alongside all of their pre-existing opinions.
It’s why whenever anything bad happens, the most predictable people on the left will say that it is because Labour isn’t being radical enough, and the most predictable people on the right will blame the woke kids.
Priors can particularly lead us astray when news is breaking, when the full facts of a situation are not yet known. Why bother waiting to learn more information when we take the most superficial things we know, such as the skin-colour of the attacker and use our pre-existing opinions to fill in the blanks?4 Why bother to wait for the political scientists to dig into the election results to understand what happened5 when we can explain it using the story we already know?
To be clear, having pre-existing assumptions – or priors – can be a useful tool for understanding events. This list is literally a list of suggested priors that you can internalise and apply to events as they unfold. But they can also be blinding, and lead to a poor reading of events, as per Maslow’s old adage that when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Rule 3: Don’t overrate how much normal people care
If you spend your days reading and talking about politics, you are by definition, a total weirdo. As strange as it might seem, most people do not care as much as we do. They have families, work, other interests and commitments. They may even have well balanced mental health.
This means that you, you freaky weirdo, probably overestimate how much the general public know and care about whatever the big story of the day is, and how much they know about politics in general.
A really stark example of this are the occasional polls on what politicians people recognise. Here’s one example from last year, looking at Starmer’s shadow cabinet, which reveals that just 59% of people say they have heard of Angela Rayner. That’s not “know anything about” or “understand the Kremlinology of why announcements were allegedly timed to undermine her” – that’s literally have heard her name before.
In fact, I would bet money that the polling overstates how much people know about politics. Because surely rather than admit ignorance many people will just bullshit their way through? Though I cannot prove this, I do have compelling evidence in the form of a very funny poll from 2020, in which eleven percent of people obviously lied and said they knew “a fair amount” about Anneliese Dodds. I’m confident that nobody knows “a fair amount” about Anneliese Dodds.
So an important anchor for your thinking should be that most people don’t engage with politics most of the time, and instead experience politics basically as a vibe. This means that unless the story of the day is a really big story, like the Downing Street parties or Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle, it almost certainly isn’t going to make much difference6. What matters more to politics is how all of the stories add up over time, and the stench they give off collectively.
Rule 4: Institutions and systems are not black boxes
As a complex, industrialised society, our lives are governed by a wide array of institutions in both the public and private sectors, from the government, to Parliament to TfL to Ofcom.
However, a lot of of the most facile political analysis often fails to take into account that these organisations are not monolithic black boxes. They are living, breathing entities with their own agendas, objectives and incentives. And they are staffed by individuals too.
This means you should exercise caution when making sweeping statements that treat the organisation as though it is a single entity with a hive mind. Instead, institutions should be understood as systems that we can peer inside, to understand what causes them to behave the way that they do.
Take the PPE procurement controversy, for example. A commonly held view is that it was just the malevolent Tories using the pandemic as an excuse to siphon off cash to their mates.
Maybe this is true, but if you instead spend a few moments breaking down how the system works in your head, it becomes easy to imagine how the story is more complicated: Ministers needed to obtain PPE at speed, while locked into a zero-sum competition with every other country in the entire world that wanted the same gear. So how could they do it at speed, given the exponential growth of the virus?
Given this context, it almost becomes understandable that they would leverage existing relationships, and cut corners on the procurement process where possible, because the alternative would be negative headlines about hospitals at the start of the pandemic not having the equipment they need.
The end result is that we can still think that the outcome is bad – look at all of the wasted money! – but we can perhaps reason our way to a better understanding of why it was misspent, without the need for a whiff of conspiratorial thinking to make it work.
Rule 5: Doubt is good and to be encouraged
Finally, the most generalisable rule, which isn’t just good for politics but is a good rule for life. As Sam also observed, it’s important to remain a “scout” and not a “soldier”. This is a metaphor that was invented by Julia Galef, and refers to the different roles of the two occupations: The soldier’s job is to defend their position against any attack, but the scout’s job is to collect information and build an accurate picture of the battlefield.
This is especially applicable to politics, where acting like a soldier – defending your team and your allies – is highly valued, and where acting like a scout – being the voice in the room asking “But is this really true?” – can mark you out as a troublemaker.
But if you want to really understand a situation, it is important to be a scout.
If something sounds too good to be true – if it perfectly matches the grotesque stereotype of your ideological opponents in your head – then that is the moment to be the most on guard.
So embrace doubt, and before you smash the retweet button ask yourself “Is this really true? How can I know it is true?”7
And maybe if we all do this, we can not just tweet smarter, but collectively make Twitter slightly less unbearable too.
Congratulations, you made it to the end! I’d love to hear your own ‘rules’ for better understanding politics in the comments. And if you enjoyed this and can get past my grandiose claims about being better at politics than you, then please do share this post, subscribe to the newsletter (for free!) and follow me on Twitter.
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I don’t think it is enormously clear the extent to which Labour’s improved position is flipping swing seats vs running up the totals in slam-dunk safe seats.
Amusingly. contrary to my example above, Sam thinks that a Labour majority is under-priced relative to expectations!
I can’t be alone in noticing that even terror incidents can become wins or losses for a given political team - once we know if the attacker is a Nazi or an Islamist, we implicitly know which mainstream-ish political team on Twitter has permission to crow about it for a bit.
The classic example of this is the shift towards Trump from Latin voters in 2020, which seemingly defies the fact that Trump is a massive racist. Very quickly on election night, the conventional wisdom coalesced around the fact that in Florida the shift was because of the unique circumstances of Cuban voters, but later examination revealed that the shift happened across the board.
I like Stephen Bush’s rule of judging a story’s impact by how it is being covered in the 90-second news bulletins on commercial radio – as that’s how most people, particularly the persuadable people who decide elections, consume political content.
And “Will James quote-tweet my stupid tweet to point out how stupid it is?”