How political analysis is like celebrity gossip

AFP/Getty Images It strikes me, reading about Vladimir Putin’s latest mysterious maneuver, that the business of analyzing opaque political systems like those of Russia, China, Iran, or Venezuela is a lot like what celebrity gossip magazines do. Poor Brad Pitt doesn’t show up at daycare one morning, and suddenly Star, People, and US Weekly are writing ...

598958_071001_chavez_05.jpg
598958_071001_chavez_05.jpg

AFP/Getty Images

It strikes me, reading about Vladimir Putin's latest mysterious maneuver, that the business of analyzing opaque political systems like those of Russia, China, Iran, or Venezuela is a lot like what celebrity gossip magazines do. Poor Brad Pitt doesn't show up at daycare one morning, and suddenly Star, People, and US Weekly are writing hush-hush stories about how Angie just doesn't know if Brad loves her anymore, and how he's taking it out on the kids. And then there's the standard frowning celeb photo—who wouldn't frown at the paparazzi?—that is always accompanied by guesswork as to why Britney or Jennifer or Paris or Christina is so unhappy these days.

I got a taste of this kind of journalism one day when Jason, an acquaintance of mine in college, was photographed crossing the street next to a girl named Victoria, who happens to be crown princess of Sweden. A Swedish gossip rag snapped a picture of Jason and Victoria and ran it with the blaring, 100-pt. headline, "Victoria's boyfriend!" Of course, Jason didn't even know Victoria.

AFP/Getty Images

It strikes me, reading about Vladimir Putin’s latest mysterious maneuver, that the business of analyzing opaque political systems like those of Russia, China, Iran, or Venezuela is a lot like what celebrity gossip magazines do. Poor Brad Pitt doesn’t show up at daycare one morning, and suddenly Star, People, and US Weekly are writing hush-hush stories about how Angie just doesn’t know if Brad loves her anymore, and how he’s taking it out on the kids. And then there’s the standard frowning celeb photo—who wouldn’t frown at the paparazzi?—that is always accompanied by guesswork as to why Britney or Jennifer or Paris or Christina is so unhappy these days.

I got a taste of this kind of journalism one day when Jason, an acquaintance of mine in college, was photographed crossing the street next to a girl named Victoria, who happens to be crown princess of Sweden. A Swedish gossip rag snapped a picture of Jason and Victoria and ran it with the blaring, 100-pt. headline, “Victoria’s boyfriend!” Of course, Jason didn’t even know Victoria.

In the political context, a lot of cultural expertise and background knowledge goes into analysis of what a man like Vladimir Putin is thinking. But at the end of the day, as Dmitri Trenin put it, “Putin will probably beat any analyst at that game” because only he knows what he will do. But at least Putin appears to have a cold rationality to him, and the Chinese system generally follows fairly well-established rules of behavior, and decision making is a little less concentrated in the hands of one man. Try figuring out what Hugo Chávez is going to do next. That guy is crazy. I mean, skipping the U.N. to meet with Kevin Spacey? Who could have predicted that?

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