Wednesday is the day of the Great Pundit Pivot. It happens every four years, the day after a presidential election. Before the election, every commentator wants to be Michael Barone. Afterward, everyone wants to be Oswald Spengler.
Barone is a rightly esteemed Washington journalist — long ago a wonky liberal, now a cranky conservative, but still an intrepid interpreter of demographic and political statistics — whose claim to fame is that he’s visited every one of the country’s 435 congressional districts. There is no bit of electoral minutiae too small for Barone to explain how it just may be the key to understanding everything. Long before NBC’s Chuck Todd and CNN’s John King, Barone was reading the tiny tea leaves and noticing an increase in the population of Armenians in South Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District that might tip the balance in the House of Representatives.
Up to election day, Baronism dominates the coverage and commentary, as political journalists compete to display their expertise. The ultimate goal is to find the one person, probably in Ohio, whose vote — through a series of complicated and subtle developments involving the electoral college, “super PACs” and tracking polls for each election cycle — will determine the result.
This year Barone predicted a Mitt Romney landslide. Since I write on election day, you may well know as you’re reading this whether he’s right, while I don’t as I’m writing. But the point is not to be right; the point is to be bold. If you’re right, you’re a hero. No one will remember if you’re wrong.
Then comes election day. The world of punditry turns briefly and bizarrely quiet, as if in the eye of a storm. TV talking heads keep talking, but no sound comes out, or at least no sound worth hearing. This blessed silence used to last a day or more. Now, thanks to the Internet, it only lasts a few precious hours, if that.
Early or late in the evening Tuesday, as the polls close and the outcome first becomes to seem probable, the winds of punditry start up again. By Wednesday midday, they are in full force.
Only now the minutiae no longer matters. President Obama’s performance in the first debate, Romney’s latest Etch-A-Sketch moment, whether Paul Ryan’s budget adds up or Joe Biden smiled too much — all these matters that have obsessed us these many months will turn out to have had little or nothing to do with the result, which, it now develops, was dictated by broad historical forces.
Barone is out. Spengler (1880-1936, philosopher and author of “The Decline of the West,” which I’ve never read either) is in. On TV, on opinion pages, the political consultants are escorted off the premises and in come the historians.
Whereas before the election, the goal of punditry was to narrow the group of people who are responsible for the result (citizens of Ohio, soccer moms, undecided voters, black Republicans, Irish Catholics in Iowa and so on), after the election the goal is to produce a theory that implicates the entire nation, or indeed the world and known universe in the result, whatever it may be. And it matters even less whether you are right or wrong than it did before the election. Whether you’re right or wrong won’t be known for at least 100 years or so anyway.
This lasts a day or so. Then we start on the minutiae for 2016, and the great cycle of punditry goes round and round.
Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor at The Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.