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March 10, 2014 | by  | in Opinion |
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Ramblings of a Fallen Hack

You already know who will win this year’s election.

It’s obvious. Key is bored, National’s out of ideas. They’re free-market ideologues straitjacketed by the compassion of New Zealand. They’re incompetents incapable of proper state management. They’re a self-serving capitalist elite and the people are waking up.

It’s obvious. Cunliffe is confused, Labour can’t find the right tone. They can’t reconcile their middle-class welfare tax and spend-gluttony with the fiscal prudence sensible Kiwis demand. They’re devoted to a fictional proletariat a century into extinction. They’re hijacked by gay feminists, abandoning the working-class voters to whom they belong.

Political forecasting is the bedrock of hackery bullshit, the credential upon which our tribalism is constructed. The production of plausibility is how we know who’s smart and who’s not. Whether conspiratorial mutters between Backbencher pints or partisan panelists on TV One’s Q+A, how the polls will react to the latest controversy is the core of political sport. Reality doesn’t matter – within the wandering of the polls, accountability is impossible. What matters is that the speculation is interesting, that it’s surprising and clever, that it plays to our sense of justice, of irony, of comeuppance. Truth will always come second to tragedy.

This love of a well-spun yarn is global. American show The McLaughlin Group finishes each episode with its panellists making a prediction. 1000 of these predictions were checked by Nate Silver, a stats geek famous for his own political forecasting. Of those that were testable, 285 were completely true and 268 were completely false. In Silver’s words, “the panel may as well have been flipping coins”.

Silver champions the latest fashion: statistics over speculation. But without the bullshit, the predictions get boring. During the last American election, we knew Barack Obama’s lead in most polls meant he would probably win. During the last New Zealand election, we knew the popular first-term government would be untroubled by an opposition barely capable of drafting a press release. Data can only put a number on the obvious.

Politics is hard. An election is an aggregation of four million voices, each driven by an intractable combination of material and mood. Into this batter of half-baked beliefs strike events. The Teapot Tapes. The Christchurch Earthquake. Pike River. The Global Financial Crisis. A Russian invasion of Ukraine. That which matters is almost always unforeseeable. To pretend we can forecast both the unpredictable and how the unpredictable will shake that amorphous ‘mood of the nation’ is entirely nuts.

But we don’t care. It’s fun to parade our pet theories to the world, showing off how well our smarts can turn to drivel. And certainty is bliss; there’s a joy in knowing which way the world will fall. Amid the churning of the political seas, we’re never forced to accept that we don’t.

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