Suppose we say that some percentage of a society holds the belief system that elites are in charge, the media plays a mediating role, education is part of the process of elite formation, and so on. Some percentage of the society holds a different belief system, maybe that the will of the people is important. Maybe some smaller or larger third percentage, making up the rest of the population, holds neither one.
What can we conclude from this about the makeup and relative power of the two groups, about which of these is closer to reality, about what kind of mobility is possible between groups, or what kind of lives are possible within groups or for those who attempt to move or communicate between them?
My answer: We can conclude nothing at all.
We don’t even know that within each group, there aren’t divergences significant enough to overwhelm the similarities.
We certainly don’t know whether movement between the groups is considered impermissible, difficult but possible, or even mandatory.
We don’t know whether everybody knows that there are three basic kinds of belief systems in this society, or whether they don’t. We don’t know how the disclosure of this information will be understood.
If there’s a general practice among some people of movement from one sphere to another, we don’t know, from this barebones account, how it’s carried out. We don’t know whether some children are selected for education from the start into a different group’s belief system, whether they’re expected to make a kind of conversion later on, whether they’re expected to see that their beliefs had always already been the same, or what.
Social scientists can use this general kind of form of analysis to organize facts about a society, to understand what’s going on. They can say that in the West in the twenty-first century, only a few combinations are possible. They can use this kind of category to structure an examination of some specific place and time in a way that will make sense. They can even draw conclusions from the general forms of the statement.
But what I say above is a basic truth of epistemology and the scientific worldview. Someone (a layperson, non-expert like yourself, not a social scientist, someone not associated with an institution that backs up their knowledge and makes it important or interesting for you to know) who tells you that this kind of abstract, mathematical (almost) analysis tells you substantive truths about the world—in my experience—is either a member of a group like Marxism who thinks you’re going to intuit that you can find your way to your local socialist party group, or ask the socialist of your nearest acquaintance what advice he has for you—or else an autodidact without much academic exposure to social science or the humanities, who believes he’s intuited a factual meaning from the theoretical statement and whose metaphysical assumptions lead him to expect you to draw the same conclusions.
Matthew Yglesias doesn’t fall into either of those categories. He knows that it simply does not follow, from an abstract analysis like the above, that the world is any particular way. But he was educated to believe that only one or two, at most a handful, of particular ways, are relevant for us, here, now. He knows perfectly well that most of his readers didn’t go to Harvard and didn’t learn what he did, but still he believes, apparently, that what he was taught is true. That there could be more than one interpretation of that kind of analysis—he has never seemed to understand this.
So he seems shocked, and almost bitter, that the 2016 presidential election would seem very much to be refuting the kinds of home truths he’s been “explaining” to the world since he got his first blog.
(Of course, I don't know what he thinks about reality refuting the conventional wisdom, since all he does is list a bunch of factual assertions.)