The Anecdotal Style

 Posted by on May 5, 2013
May 052013

The distinction is not as perspicacious as it could be. Categorically, it is, indeed, rather confused.

Yes, “there was a basic divide in horse race analysis” during the 2012 presidential election. On one side stood the “quants,” as Jonathan Chait terms them, “who built their predictions on comprehensive polling data.” On the other side stood the “magical thinkers,”  who “preferred to follow their gut or the consensus among their friends or yard signs.”

A similar divide, Mr. Chait continues, characterizes analyses of legislative processes and presidential leadership. The “quants” believe that “a law will get passed if a majority of the House and 60 Senators deem it in their interest to change the law in such a way that the president also deems an improvement over the status quo,” while the “magical thinkers,” who “understand politics largely in narrative terms,”  believe that the legislative process correlates with “the success or failure of a lead character, who is always the president of the United States.”

Quant is short for quantitative, and the usual antipode to the quantitative is not the magical, but the qualitative. As investigative methods, the difference between the quantitative and the qualitative is that the former represents empirical observation with mathematics, while the latter does not. Both the quantitative and the qualitative are equally capable of being comprehensive and cogent.

What Mr. Chait actually means to privilege is not the quantitative per se, but that which is comprehensive and cogent, and therefore a worthy and reliable guide for understanding politics. He means to privilege, in a word, the systematic. The opposite of the systematic is the anecdotal. The “quants” are an example of the systematic, and the “magical thinkers” are an example of the anecdotal.

In its original Greek anekdota meant unpublished things. The word began to acquire its modern English sense only once it was applied to Procopius’s unpublished memoirs, which detailed the previously untold, but ever so revealing stories of Emperor Justinian’s court. At the grand center of the Anecdota were the stories about Justinian himself, the great protagonist of the best court tales. The memoirs made public what had been private, and purported to lay bare the hidden motivations and reasons behind political actions.

Today we call any brief, incidental narrative an anecdote. But anecdotes used to be the whispered stories of a connected courtier class. They were the stories known only to those select few, and they contained knowledge that belonged to those few alone. Only they were special enough to be privy to the secrets.

Keepers of secrets, are often also the tellers of secrets. Because possession of secrets is in itself a mark of status and access, there was no doubt a definite self-aggrandizing pleasure in telling secrets, a pleasure, that is, in displaying exclusive rank. And they certainly also took displeasure in any suggestion that their professed knowledge, that fruit of their personal prestige, was of dubious value, perhaps actually worthless, and maybe even worse than worthless.

It is no different today. The old anecdotal style lives on in our contemporary courtier press. They tout their exclusive access and special knowledge. They alone have the scoop. They know it in their refined guts, by virtue of their connected friends, because only they possess the keenness and skill to read the signs. As always they seek that best scoop of all, the one that is ever so revealing about the man at the center of their courtly scene. They delight in telling their tales, because they too delight in displaying their special favor and position.

There is one thing even more galling to these strutting new courtiers than the suggestion that their proximity and connection tends actually to make them less reliable counsel for understanding politics. That is the clear demonstration that, when compared to those more plebian but systematic sorts who do no more than view politics from a distance, their political counsel is actually worthless, and maybe even worse than worthless.