Graphing the Ideology of the SOTU
Steven L. Taylor
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
The Monkey Cage has a nifty graph and interview with its creator: The political ideology of State of the Union addresses (in 1 graph).
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective.
He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog).
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A couple of items stood out for me:
(1) Bush mapped to the center in his first address and then well to the right in subsequent addresses.
(2) In no surprise, Obama has generally mapped slightly to the right of Bill Clinton (the Democratic president that Republicans seem to love).
It’s a left of center world.
Except for Republicans since Bush’s 2nd year.
I guess this graph could be dumber – no, I was wrong, I just read how they developed it.
What was dumb about it?
Or do you happen to disagree with where Clinton, Bush, and Obama placed on the spectrum?
@Pinky: Ok, I’ll bite. Why is it dumb? And why does how it was made make it dumber?
Oddly, I have to agree with Pinky. Simple word counts are a poor basis for assessing ideology among different speakers. Not only does it take those words out of context, it relies on very subjective classifications of those individual words as “left” and “right.” And since the words are not provided, it’s impossible to judge the validity of those classifications.
Studies like this are one reason why I got out of the social science game. Next to useless.
I think (hope) we can all agree that individual policies are more than “liberal” or “conservative”. There’s a wide variety of policies that can fit under those broad terms, and the meaning of those terms is evolving over time. Rating policies on one axis tells you next to nothing.
I know we can all agree that SOTU addresses have little to do with actual governance. So even if this graph told you the ideology of the speech, that wouldn’t tell you anything about the presidency.
Thing is, this graph doesn’t even meet those low expectations. It graphs words as liberal/conservative without looking at the policies they describe. I could stand up and say “this socialist president is ruining the country”, and this analysis would find the word “socialist” as liberal. It’s meaningless. Literally meaningless: the analysis ignores the meaning of words.
@al-Ameda: I didn’t even look where the three place on the spectrum. But dissatisfaction with results isn’t a reason to condemn a methodology.
@mantis: And yet, it ends up that the tool provides a breakdown that actually comports with general, if not specific, expectations. That is interesting in and of itself. Does it tell us everything? Certainly not, but no one measure or analysis can be expected to do so.
@Pinky: But ideology isn’t about policy as much as it is about a framework that explains how the world is and how ones thinks it should be. And words convey ideology. You are correct: this chart does not tell us much about policy, but it is not designed to do so. And, as I noted to Mantis, I think you are both expecting one graph to do more than one single graph can do.
But, at least I have an idea from where you are coming.
But in regards to this:
Yes, but there is a rather substantial difference between analyzing a single sentence using a single word and analyzing hundreds of sentences using a variety of words. No one would claim that a single observation is sufficient for much of anything.
I must say that I’m not very impressed with John Sides’ most recent work. (I’m unfamiliar with his older work, so I can’t express a view on that.)
So, once again, both sides do it. (Move right.)
To further a point made above: if the data were, in fact, meaningless, the graph should look like a random scatter. It doesn’t. That tells us something. Does it tell us everything? Certainly not. But, of course, a graph of temperatures, rainfall, or the heights and weights of NBA players don’t tell us everything about those areas of inquiry either.
@PJ: This isn’t actually Sides’ work, but rather a blog post by Sides about someone else’s work.
@mantis: Mantis, thanks (although there’s nothing odd about finding fault with faulty methodology).