One of my least favorite things in political writing is when people try to shoehorn political narratives into quickie pop culture narratives. Stuff like “Donald Trump is like Voldemort and Hillary is like Hermione!” Or “How ‘Game of Thrones’ explains the 2016 election!” I get that such analogies can be fun. I certainly get that the people who write them do so in part because it may draw readers in (who among us has not written clickbait?) but as substantive political analysis, it’s reductive and silly for the most part.
Now baseball is getting its crack at the 2016 election. It does so in this Washington Post Op-Ed from Sonny Bunch which argues that the Trump campaign was playing “Moneyball” in defeating Clinton:
Of all the pieces of pop culture floating around, the one that might best help those searching for an explanation for Donald Trump’s victory is a 13-year-old book about baseball strategy: Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball” . . . If there’s anything that the political market is full of, it’s inefficiencies. And the Trump team, to its credit, understood just that.
I don’t have a substantive criticism of anything Bunch argues there. There is certainly a surface appeal. His analysis of how everyone misread “Moneyball” at first is also a topic I’ll never tire of revisiting.
I think, however, that like anything else along these lines, it’s reductive. There will be reams of scholarship written about the 2016 election in the coming years and, I suspect, it will result in lessons and insights that go beyond an 800-word analogy to a popular baseball/business book. All but the most basic phenomena occur due to a complex interaction of multiple factors, plus chance, plus mistakes, plus opportunism, making for a complex stew which defies such easy explanations. And that’s before you bring Russian hackers and the vagaries of public opinion polling into it.
Mostly, though, I think this sort of analysis falls prey to the same sort of flaw from which analysis in any arena — baseball included — often suffers: the inability to appreciate that more than one thing can be true.
A strong team can choke but the inferior team can also play better. A player can be overrated but he can also still be good. Financial inequality between teams can help the richer team but the richer team can also have smarter executives. The decision to steal second base can be stupid yet nonetheless successful. A political campaign can do dumb things but still win or could do smart things and still lose. There are a lot of factors in play in everything this side of coin tosses.
So, sure, the “Moneyball” analogy is fun. But I think it’s less enlightening than the author here — or the author of any other quickie “here’s what happened!” piece — wants it to seem.
Besides, if your go-to baseball book for 2016 isn’t “Veeck as in Wreck” I don’t even know what you’re talking about in the first place.