The Watergate Fix
“I must get my Watergate fix every morning,” Gore Vidal famously said to Dick Cavett in the final days of the Nixon administration. In his memoir In Joy Still Felt, Isaac Asimov writes: “I knew exactly what he meant.” He elaborates:
I knew we had [Nixon]…From that point on, I took to combing the Times from cover to cover every morning, skipping only the column by Nixon’s minion William Safire. I sometimes bought the New York Post so I could read additional commentary. I listened to every news report on the radio.
I read and listened with greater attention and fascination than in even the darkest days of World War II. Thus my diary entry for May 11, 1973, says, “Up at six to finger-lick the day’s news on Watergate.”
I could find no one else as hooked on Watergate as I was, except for Judy-Lynn [del Rey]. Almost every day, she called me or I called her and we would talk about the day’s developments in Watergate. We weren’t very coherent and mostly we laughed hysterically.
Now skip ahead four decades, and here’s what Wired reporter Marcus Wohlsen wrote earlier this week of a “middle-age software developer” with a similar obsession:
Evan is a poll obsessive, FiveThirtyEight strain—a subspecies I recognize because I’m one of them, too. When he wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t shower or eat breakfast before checking the Nate Silver-founded site’s presidential election forecast (sounds about right). He keeps a tab open to FiveThirtyEight’s latest poll list; a new poll means new odds in the forecast (yup). He get push alerts on his phone when the forecast changes (check). He follows the 538 Forecast Bot, a Twitter account that tweets every time the forecast changes (same). In all, Evan says he checks in hourly, at least while he’s awake (I plead the Fifth).
Wohlsen notes that the design of FiveThirtyEight encourages borderline addictive behavior: its readers are like the lab rats who repeatedly push a button to send a quick, pleasurable jolt coursing through their nervous systems. The difference is that polls and political news, no matter how favorable to one side, deliver a more complicated mix of emotions—hope, uncertainty, apprehension. But as long as the numbers are trending in the right direction, we can’t get enough of them.
And it’s striking to see how little the situation has changed since the seventies, apart from a few advances in technology. Asimov had to buy two physical newspapers to get his fix, while we can click effortlessly from one source to another. On the weekend that the Access Hollywood recording was released, I found myself cycling nonstop between the New York Times, Politico, Talking Points Memo, the Washington Post—where I rapidly used up my free articles for the month—and other political sites, like Daily Kos, that I hadn’t visited in years. (I don’t think I’ve been as hooked on political analysis since George W. Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, which still stands out as a golden age in my memories.) Like Asimov, who skipped William Safire’s column, I also know what to avoid. Instead of calling a friend to talk about the day’s developments, I read blog posts and comment threads. Not surprisingly, the time I spend on all this is inversely correlated to the trajectory of the Trump campaign. During a rough stretch in September, I deleted FiveThirtyEight from my bookmarks because it was causing me more anxiety than it was worth. I still haven’t put it back, perhaps on the assumption that if I have to type it into my address bar, rather than clicking on a shortcut, I won’t go back as often. In practice, I’ll often use a quick spin through FiveThirtyEight, Politico, and Talking Points Memo as my reward for getting through half an hour of work, which is the only positive behavior on my part to come out of this entire election.
Of course, there are big differences between Vidal and Asimov’s Watergate fix and its equivalent today. By the time Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned, Nixon’s goose was pretty much cooked, and someone like Asimov could take unmixed pleasure in his comeuppance. Trump, by contrast, could still get elected. More surprising is the fact that the overall arc of this presidential campaign has been mostly unresponsive to the small daily movements that analytics are meant to track. As Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium recently pointed out, this election has actually been less volatile than usual, and its shape has remained essentially unchanged for months, with Clinton holding a national lead of between two and six points over Trump. It seems noisy, but only because every move is subjected to such scrutiny. In other words, our obsession with polls creates the psychological situation that we’re presumably trying to avoid: we’re subjectively experiencing this race as more volatile than it really is. Our polling fix isn’t rational, at least not from the point of view of minimizing anxiety. As Wohlesen says in Wired, it’s more like a species of magical thinking, in which we place our trust in a certain kind of magician—a data wizard—to see us through an election in which the facts have been treated with disdain. At my lowest moments last month, I would console myself with the thought of Elan Kriegel, Clinton’s director of analytics. The details didn’t matter; it was enough that he existed, and that I could halfway believe that he had access to magic that allowed him to exercise some degree of control over an inherently uncontrollable future. Or as the Wired headline put it: “I just want Nate Silver to tell me it’s all going to be fine.”