What The Atlantic Gets Wrong about Third Way

Earlier today, Molly Ball, a reporter we have long known and admired, posted one of her last stories for The Atlantic before moving to Time. The topic was her visit to Wisconsin with some members of the Third Way team to talk to folks there about their lives.

We are dismayed that in the story, Molly writes that we omitted information that is actually in the report we drafted about the WI visit. And she indicates that we have drawn conclusions that we do not reach and do not share.

This trip was part of Third Way’s ongoing project to visit key Congressional districts. To date, we’ve also been to Illinois, Florida, New Hampshire, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Texas. We are asking broad, open-ended questions, and then documenting, in very brief reports, some of our impressions.

Molly wrote her story based on the second of two visits to the district. So while our report is based on eight days of interviews, Molly was there for only four of these days. Therefore, she missed half of the information we collected, and she asked us almost no questions about we had heard in those first four days of interviews.

Molly’s story left us confused. Here’s why:

1. Much of what she says we left out of our report actually is in our report.

Molly writes that we omitted things that are, in fact, in the report. We could cite many such examples. Here are just a few (quotes from the story are in bold italics; quotes from our report are in un-bolded italics):

a. I heard all the optimism they did, but I also heard its opposite: that one side was right and the other was the enemy; that other Americans, not just the government, were to blame for the country’s problems.

But our report quotes a number of direct attacks by our respondents of a perceived enemy, based on the work ethic of their fellow citizens. To wit:

People seem to believe that their sacred work ethic is not distributed among all WI-3 residents…’You could own the world if you work hard and have common sense and put down the cell phone. There are good jobs available and they can’t fill them’ one man said…’Some people give up too early. Sometimes you need to start at the bottom and work up, but people expect to start at the top.’ ‘People are lacking fire in their belly,” another man said.

b. There are no quotations from the people we met who were pro-government, such as the teachers and laborers and activists, who voiced concern that local, state, and federal government ought to be doing more to take care of people.

This is technically true — those folks aren’t quoted. We summarize them instead. As we write in our report, people’s view of government is very positive, when it’s local:

  • Good roads, good schools, good health care, good economy, good colleges, great job opportunities…
  • Hard work, community and family — those are universal values in WI-3 and those are the values they see reflected in their local government (emphasis added).

c. Whether the question is about immigration or banks, taxes or welfare, the people we spoke to generally felt that government policies were irrelevant to their daily lives,” [the report] states. This view is made to sound like one that was broadly expressed, but in fact, we mostly heard it in just one session — the group of curmudgeonly farmers. Almost all of the quotations in this section are drawn from that group.

This just isn’t true. In that section of the report, we quote five people. Only two of them were actually in the so-called “curmudgeonly farmer” group, and only one was an actual farmer.

In our eight days of visits, we found substantially more people expressing anti-Washington, anti-Scott Walker sentiments than we had room for in the report. In reviewing our notes, there were almost NO comments from people who are pro-FEDERAL government. That’s why our report is devoid of those sentiments.

d. [The report] quotes a local employer who sang the praises of automation, but none of the union members who worried about jobs disappearing.

True, we don’t quote a worker worrying about their job prospects. Instead, we use a quote from a mom that we felt was the strongest representation of people’s anxiety about work: The American Dream is lost — my son will graduate with $60,000 in debt, and maybe he’ll get a job.

We also summarize many quotes we heard, asserting these widespread beliefs:

  • For workers, rising costs threaten quality of life and the bedrock promise that hard work will pay off.
  • Schools were strained under Governor Scott Walker’s budget cuts; its economy was challenged by the forces of automation and globalization.

2. Many of the things we put into our district visit reports directly rebut — not confirm — our world view.

Molly’s piece creates the impression that our report is designed to comport with what she sees as Third Way’s policy and political positions. Several of those reports are already public, so you can judge for yourself.

Each of these reports contain pieces of information we heard in our listening sessions that are out of step with Third Way’s agenda:

– In Illinois, we heard and reported on nearly a dozen variations on this theme: “’NAFTA hurt manufacturing.” Not exactly music to the ears of trade proponents like us.

– In South Florida, as we wrote, one person defined income inequality and divided communities as the area’s largest weakness. “We have pockets of wealth and poverty and that gap is our Achilles heel,” they said. “That gap must get smaller or there will be problems down the road.” Third Way is on record many times arguing that income inequality is not the defining economic problem of our time. Yet we included quotes of people saying that it is, because that’s what we heard.

– In Arizona, we talked to — and reported — that a group of smart and passionate DACA kids actually think DACA has done more harm than good. That doesn’t mean that Third Way is not at the barricades fighting to preserve it. But again, we reported the sentiment regardless of the fact that it doesn’t comport with our own.

3. We never reach the conclusion that these voters want what Third Way wants.

Molly sums it all up like this: The report had somehow reached the conclusion that Wisconsinites wanted consensus, moderation, and pragmatism — just like Third Way. We heard people blame each other for their own difficulties, take refuge in tribalism, and appeal to extremes. But the report mentioned little of that.

Yes, in the last page of the report, we provide some evidence that people believe they can still work together. But nowhere in the report do we even imply that means they think politicians should support a centrist policy agenda.

We also made sure to express some of the points of view that contradicted this “work together” sentiment. See, for example, number 1 above, in which we cite quotes from the report in which people blame one another for societal problems. And we quote someone noting that Wisconsin’s “blue collar [Trump] voters wanted to ‘stick it to the system.’” That’s a fairly tribal view.

Moreover, this research is by its very nature anecdotal. It is about impressions, which can vary widely, not quantitative data, which can be extrapolated. We make that very clear in our description of the project and in each of the reports on the visits we’ve done, each of which have been quite different from the rest.

So we are left scratching our heads at many of Molly’s conclusions. We hope that if you read her piece, you’ll read our reports as well and draw conclusions of your own.

What The Atlantic Gets Wrong about Third Way was originally published in Third Way on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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