Saturday, February 18, 2017

Under Trump, presidential rhetoric has gotten less important

source: unknown (sorry)

Compared to his predecessors, the correspondence of Trump's presidential rhetoric to current and future government outcomes is dramatically lower.

This is true for two reasons. One, the signal-to-noise ratio of his communication is wildly lower: instead of talking and writing in a clear way, Trump's words have a large proportion of incoherent sentences and riffing; of the share that is coherent, a much lower proportion is about government outcomes directly.

His rhetoric contains a huge amount of commentary and reflection on media narratives, social conflict and status evaluation--all of which have a less direct causal relationship to tangible government outcomes. In other words, the absolute amount of important information contained in each presidential communication is far lower compared to past presidents (it might be fair to say that his total communication quantity is greater overall (i.e. he uses twitter differently), but this effect isn't enough to make up the difference--he isn't communicating that much more).

Secondly, of the (smaller) share of presidential rhetoric that is coherent and directly on-topic, the conversion rate of meaningful statements about government outcomes into actual government outcomes is lower.

Trump's constant lying, bullshitting, overconfidence and commitments to unrealistic outcomes degrade the value of his on-topic communication: compared to past presidents he's simply not as reliable a guide to what's actually going to happen (or is happening). Most politicians are careful about what they say, either because they have an inherent and healthy respect for language and social interaction, or because they know huge mismatches in rhetoric-vs-outcomes can be used against them as effective political weapons. It has become conventional wisdom to note that the range of likely government outcomes is far higher under Trump compared to past presidents; at least some of this is due to Trump's unwillingness (or inability) to treat rhetoric as a constraint.

In general, the main takeaway regarding Trump's on-topic presidential rhetoric is this: there's less of it, and it's less reliable.

Well so what? Why does presidential rhetoric matter at all? And what should we do if we do think there is a problem? Let's take each of these in turn.

Presidential rhetoric--what a president communicates to the public across any medium--matters for several reasons.

First, it matters for its own sake. Government has a socially symbolic component. Rightly or wrongly, people view elected officials as representing some metaphysical "will of the people", so when the highest-level politician speaks, in some sense a collective "America" is speaking. People get emotionally attached to politicians, and care about what they say irrespective of the downstream effects on public policy and culture. I've written previously about why I think these sorts of internal subjective psychological effects aren't a very good basis for ethics and advocacy, but they do undoubtedly matter to a lot of people.

Second, presidential rhetoric matters because it affects other things people care about--it has instrumental value. One example, related to the first point, might be social or cultural effects: Trump's words have inspired and antagonized, prompting actions by other people which in turn trigger their own effects. These sorts of causal relationships are often complicated and hard to prove, and are again highly subjective and value-laden.

More clear, however, is the simple informational utility of what presidents say. The federal government is massive and sprawling, so presidential rhetoric is a really convenient way of getting information. If you don't follow politics much, a president-focused narrative is the simplest and most natural focal point for achieving minimum political awareness*

To break down the informational aspect of presidential rhetoric somewhat further, it gives us data about current government outcomes and future government outcomes (a subset of which is character/personality information).

When a president provides information about things that have just happened, or are happening, there's generally not much wiggle-room between rhetoric and reality. Statements are usually able to be verified and evaluated for accuracy. In this category, Trump's mendacity is especially unusual and ridiculous.

Presidential communication about future government action--policies being pursued, broad goals, etc.--is by far the biggest source of value. Presidential politics mostly matters to the extent that the president's choices affect people's lives in tangible ways; presidential rhetoric is the best source of information about what those choices might be. When a president says they're going to do this or that, we increase the probability of those associated outcomes. When they say they absolutely won't do that or this, we decrease the associated probabilities.

This type of value--information about future government actions--is the reason why foreign governments and financial markets hang on the president's every word. The assumption that if a president says they'll pursue something they actually will is, generally speaking, accurate. In Trump's case, his rhetoric undoubtedly provides directional probability adjustment information--merely much less per communication relative to his predecessors.

A big subset of this dimension of value concerns how rhetoric can provide information about a president's analytical style, personality, character, cognitive profile, etc. Hearing presidents talk about stuff feeds data into everyone's implicit agent-modelling system, which is used to make predictions and update outcome probabilities. Trump's incoherent speaking style, bizarre feuds, and short sleeping schedule revealed by tweet timestamps provide information about his psychological health, for example.

So what does this all mean? Trump's unique communication style has made presidential talk cheaper than ever in terms of its correspondence to real, meaningful policy outcomes. And yet it's driving political media narratives more than ever as well. In addition, activists and political opponents are harnessing the daily swirl of crazy, offensive and unusual statements to galvanize support. It's a weird dynamic.

My overall impression is that the media has to some degree lost its way and become marginally less focused on tangible government outcomes--upon which heavy presidential rhetoric reporting is largely justified. The media increasingly seems lost to a sea of personality-driven process coverage. Political media institutions have developed norms of coverage based on the longstanding tight relationship between presidential rhetoric and government outcomes. Trump's cheap talk has degraded that relationship, yet media institutions have so far failed to adjust accordingly.

I have no illusions that we will see a renormalization of media attention paid to public policy outcomes instead of process narrative. People have been griping about how the media "doesn't cover the issues" forever. But it is striking to see us moving so heavily in the opposite direction, driven primarily by changes on the government side instead of the journalism side.

Historically the problem has been: "given the quantity and reliability of presidential rhetoric about government outcomes, journalists aren't talking about government outcomes enough". But now, it seems increasingly: "given journalist incentives and norms in covering presidential rhetoric, the quantity and reliability of rhetoric about government outcomes is declining." In other words, the primary driver of the change in total quantity of coverage about government outcomes is being caused by changes in presidential rhetoric, not changes in journalism coverage.

I don't know what the solution is--certainly it's hard for individual defensively-profit-focused media institutions to unilaterally change their approach and not lose relevance.

I am reminded, however, of the original promise of data journalism. 2015, 2016 and 2017 so far have been big years for the traditional "find a source, get a quote" style of journalism. That's nice, but it does strongly reinforce an emphasis on personality-driven process soap opera narrative spinning. The structure of data journalism forces a certain skepticism of process narratives, necessarily rebalancing towards more coverage of tangible outcomes (that are measurable). I think we could use a little more of that these days.

*This is a somewhat meta point: people follow presidential rhetoric in part because everyone else does, not because they care about the information it may provide about future government outcomes. Many people care about being perceived by their peers as at least somewhat knowledgeable about federal politics, so media coverage about the president is the lowest-cost way to achieve that minimum awareness. If anyone tried to unilaterally stop paying attention to presidential rhetoric, they would bear a social cost without changing the prevailing equilibrium of [presidents are how we understand federal politics].

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