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Events Have Multiple Causes And Joint Responsibility Does Not Eliminate Individual Culpability

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In this Thursday’s NFL game, two things happened:

  • Sam Bradford put on a clinic for why the Vikings were idiots to trade 1st and 4th round picks for him — you don’t need to give up very valuable resources to find a QB who can make 3-yard throws to wide open receivers, including on 3rd-and-long. At the end of the game, he did put together one of the intermittent shows of competence that have caused people to make excuses for him during a career of consistently below-average play, leading a potentially game-tying TD drive. And then, on the 2-point conversion, he out-Bradforded himself, heaving the ball out of the endzone when he didn’t immediately spot an open receiver. (Since the game ends on any failed attempt, you’re better off throwing into triple coverage than throwing the ball away.) This wasn’t the only mistake that cost the Vikes the game despite a brilliant defensive performance, of course — under the temporary head coaching stylings of noted bigot Mike Preifer, their punting was awful, and a low-upside high-downside punt return deep in their own territory in the 4th quarter led to a critical game-altering fumble.
  • The Vikings were completely screwed on the missed two-point try that ended the game, with the refs somehow missing a direct blow to Bradford’s head. We’re not talking here about a marginal arguably missed holding or pass interference call, were the distinctions are always going to be somewhat arbitrary, but a call that under NFL practice is black-letter. Bradford should have had another chance to lob the ball into the 3rd row after not seeing a completely wide-open receiver in the end zone.

To state the obvious, it can be simultaneously true that 1)Bradford played badly and 2)the refs blew a critical call that materially affected the outcome of the game. Pointing out one does not eliminate the responsibility of the other. The Vikings players and coaches can be primarily responsible for winning the game, but that doesn’t mean that the refs can’t be criticized for blowing a critical call or that it didn’t potentially affect the outcome.

And yet, when it comes to politics, people like to pretend not to understand this obvious point:

(TBF, Glenn did follow up by conceding that “Pointing out that primary responsibility for winning & losing lies with the campaign/candidate doesn’t preclude media critiques,” which OK, although since 1)I had no role whatsoever in the Clinton campaign and 2)as anyone familiar with my work knows, my belief that people massively overrate the effects of campaign tactics and messaging in the context of presidential elections long predates the 2016 elections, I’m not sure what the point of the first tweet was if it wasn’t to say that we should yadda yadda the role of the media and the FBI because it distracts from the central fact that Hillary Clinton sucks.)

My analogy is actually too generous to people who think that the failed institutions other than the Clinton campaign should be given a de facto pass. Players and coaches actually are primarily responsible for winning, and we know that the marginal relative quality of a team’s passing game is the most important variable determining the outcome of contemporary NFL games. Campaigns, conversely, are not the primary determinant of election outcomes. The vast majority of votes are not gettable for one campaign or the other, and even with swing voters since they tend to vote retrospectively rather than prospectively, messaging is not really effective at affecting many of their votes.

Admittedly, in a context of an election as close as 2016, this qualification is less important; it was certainly possible that better messaging and resource allocation by the Clinton campaign could have affected the outcome. But there’s another problem here. In football, there are good measures of both team and individual quality. We can very accurately measure how good a team’s offense and defense are and how they influence outcomes. Apportioning individual responsibility is more complicated, but at most positions we can tell a good player from a bad one, and even where context makes measurement imprecise we’re not totally at sea — any remotely sophisticated observer knows that you couldn’t plug Dak Prescott into the Rams or 49ers or Vikings and expect the same results he’s producing behind the league’s best offensive line and with a lot of weapons in Dallas, and if you think that the superior Dallas personnel is solely responsible for Prescott’s strong performance, I have two words: “Brandon Weeden.” When it comes to political campaigns, however, arguments about “messaging” are mostly just unfalsifiable speculation, with a strong tendency to mask ideological arguments as tactical ones. I have nothing against this speculation, per se, and some arguments have more basis than others, but I do object to people placing great confidence in their just-so stories about how if candidate X had just done one magic trick Y they absolutely would have won.

All this, though, is beside the point. You can agree with the political science that in presidential elections the effects of campaign tactics are very marginal and what the effects are is very difficult to establish, or you can agree with Mark Halperin that campaign tactics are of immense importance and with countless pundits that messaging aligning with the pundit’s ex ante policy views is, by pure coincidence, also always a winning political strategy. Either way, mistakes made by the Clinton campaign (of which there were surely any number) and the deficiencies of Clinton as a candidate (of which there were surely many) are neither here nor there when assessing the role of the media or the FBI. It is self-serving for the Clinton campaign to focus on the Comey letter and how it was covered, but it’s equally self-serving for the media to want to focus on Clinton’s flaws rather than their own, so that’s just a wash. What matters is whether the arguments are right. And, in fact, there is very good evidence that the Comey letter materially affected the election. (And it’s not just a simple post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy — there’s not only the otherwise inexplicable magnitude of her decline in the polls after October 28th but the fact that she had a similar decline after Comey’s grossly inappropriate editorializing in July, and the demonstrable, massive shift to negative coverage about Clinton after both.) No such counterfactual can be proven with dispostive evidence, of course, but if you wan’t to say it’s not enough you really can’t proceed to assert with no evidence whatsoever that Clinton totally would have won had she just campaigned on the single-payer health care program that Rob Portman and Ron Johnson and Pat Toomey voters were clearly desperately aching for.

If you have a defense of the media’s hyping up of inane trivia about Clinton while almost entirely ignoring policy, then make it. If you have a defense of James Comey’s intervention into the election or a serious rebuttal to the strong evidence that it swung the election, go ahead. But “Hillary Clinton made mistakes” or “Hillary Clinton wasn’t a good candidate” are not relevant rejoinders. Hillary Clinton’s mistakes do not exonerate the media’s gross malpractice or James Comey’s reprehensible and unethical foot on the scale, and vice versa.

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