Monday, December 26, 2016

The Yearly Sift 2016

The past is never where you think you left it.
The opening quotes of the Weekly Sifts of 2016 are collected in "Sift Quotes of 2016"

One of the things I like best about writing the Sift is that it keeps me focused in the present, with an eye to the future. But once a year I try to take a broader perspective on where we've been.
2016 was the most dismal year I've had to look back on since this blog started -- leading, as it did, to the present moment, in which President-elect Trump is assembling his henchmen and deciding which aspects of the world order to screw up first. Not only was I very consistently wrong about what would happen next in 2016, but looking back at the plausible arguments and scenarios I laid out only emphasizes how many times and in how many ways events could have taken a turn for the better, but didn't -- right up to election night, when shifting a handful of votes from one state to another would have changed the outcome.

But prognostication has never been the primary purpose of the Weekly Sift. (In fact, one of my major criticisms of mainstream media is that it spends too much time on speculation, rather than telling us what is happening and why.) Primarily, I'm trying to cut through the hype and propaganda to focus my readers' attention on what is real and give them tools to think about it effectively. But that doesn't mean you're going to know what will happen next, because I certainly don't.

The themes

I've broken the primary theme out into its own article "The Year of This-can't-be-happening". It covers my repeated attempts -- from the beginning of the year to the end -- to understand how anyone could support Donald Trump and what could be done to persuade them not to.

A second theme of the year was also Trump-related: The decline of Truth as a political value, and a corresponding rise in propaganda. Those posts were: "No facts? What does that mean?", "The Big Lie in Trump's Speech", "The Skittles Analogy", and "Four False Things You Might Believe About Donald Trump". (The most insightful article I linked to on this theme was David Roberts' "The question of what Trump 'really believes' has no answer".)

And finally, there were a number of posts about the Bernie/Hillary split in the Democratic Party. Early in the year, I had to decide who to vote for in the New Hampshire primary. Bernie better expressed my ideals, but I had more faith in Hillary as a candidate. (I still think Bernie's supporters underestimate how vulnerable he would have been if Republicans had ever taken him seriously, a position I laid out in "Smearing Bernie: a preview" and "Do we still have to worry about the McGovern problem?") My decision process -- ultimately resulting in a Bernie vote -- played out in "Undecided with 8 days to go" and "Imperfections".

Late in the year, I tried to persuade Bernie supporters to unite around Hillary -- a position in line with the one Bernie ultimately took himself (which I explained in "Why Bernie Backed Hillary".)
And finally, one long-term theme of the Sift is the decline of democratic norms and institutions. In March, I updated that with "Tick, Tick, Tick ... the Augustus Countdown Continues". As Democrats have to decide just how obstructionist to be during the Trump years, I'm sure I'll have many opportunities to update it further. Another perennial theme is race and privilege, which led to  "My Racial Blind Spots", "Sexism and the Clinton Candidacy", "The Asterisk in the Bill of Rights", "What Should 'Racism' Mean? Part II", and "A Teaching Moment on Sexual Assault".

Themes for 2017

In general, I never saw the Bernie/Hillary argument as being about goals. Rather, it seemed to me to revolve around methods and tactics: Is it better to push for big, revolutionary changes or to head in the same direction in incremental steps? And I was skeptical that electing a progressive president could actually bring about that revolution without a more fundamental re-education of the electorate, as I spelled out in "Say -- You Want a Revolution?"

That's an argument that continues into the future, even if neither Hillary nor Bernie runs again. I'm not sure why it has been so hard for candidates to straddle the difference: This is where we want to go ultimately, and this is the next step we want to take to get there. Preserving and patching up ObamaCare is not an end in itself, but we're also not going to pass single-payer any time soon.
A theme I announced after the election, which I hope to continue into 2017, is that liberals have to begin re-arguing issues we used to think were long decided, but which the Trump victory proves are still open. The first of those posts was "Should I Have White Pride?".

The numbers

The blog's traffic statistics tell two contrasting stories. On the one hand, this year the Sift had no breakout viral posts, or posts from previous years that went on a viral second run. As a result, the overall page view numbers are down: from 782,000 in 2015 and even 415K in 2014 to somewhere around 350K this year (with a few days to go).

On the other hand, all the signs of regular readership are up. The number of people following the blog (according to WordPress; I have no idea exactly what they're counting, but I assume it's comparable from year to year) rose from 3820 to 4269. Hits on the home page,, held the gains of 2015: from 44K in 2014 to 100K in 2015 to 101K this year. (I interpret that as views from people who are not looking for any particular post, but have the site bookmarked and want to see what's new.)

Two years ago, a 1000-view post seemed like a big deal; sometimes I'd go a whole month without one. This year, the featured post each week almost always topped 1000.
Most encouragingly, the number of comments continued its upward trend: from 879 in 2014 to 1432 in 2015 to 1751 so far in 2016.

So what happened to the total page views? In 2015, a post from 2014, "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party", had a second run bigger than its original run, getting 302K views. Another golden oldie, "The Distress of the Privileged" from 2012, added 52K. 2015 had its own viral post, "You Don't Have to Hate Anybody to Be a Bigot" at 102K.

By contrast, "Not a Tea Party" and "Distress" put together garnered about 45K hits for 2016, and the most popular posts written in 2016 were "Why Bernie Backed Hillary" (17K), "Tick, Tick, Tick ... the Augustus Countdown Continues" (11K), and last week's "How Will They Change Their Minds?" (7K and counting).

Viral posts, as I point out every year, are unpredictable. Some years they happen, some years they don't. Hall of Fame baseball player George Brett used to claim that most of his home runs were mistakes: He was trying to hit line drives, but sometimes he swung just slightly under a pitch and it went up and out of the park. If he tried to do that, he knew, he might hit a few more home runs, but he'd also wind up with a lot more pop-ups and strikeouts.

That's how I feel about viral posts. Every week, I'm trying to serve the needs of my regular readers. If once in a while that intention produces something that gets the attention of a larger public, that's great. But if I tried to swing for those home runs, I think the overall quality of the blog would decline.

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