Trump’s win was somewhat flukish, taking advantage of a big Electoral College-popular vote split and an opponent who was really disliked and had some bad news hit at the wrong time.
At 6:15 AM on November 9, I was surprised to find myself as Jonah Goldberg’s strange bedfellow. In the parking lot of Cumberland Farms, I heard the National Review editor on NPR saying he felt traumatized. That’s how I felt. He was much less upset about the direction our country would take than I was, but like me, he felt that the world had been turned upside down. Democrats had lost the Presidency, Senate, House, and Supreme Court. Almost no one saw this coming. Like many, I thought we were on the cusp of a gradual change to Democratic dominance; instead, an unanticipated explosion of national proportions blew us backwards 20 years and breathed new life into a Republican Party whose imminent death was greatly exaggerated.
The Monday morning quarterbacking began that Wednesday, though much of it was hard to take seriously. After all, almost everyone in the know (including me) turned out to be wrong, and they didn’t have much data to base their thoughts on. The predictions of the direction of Trump’s future presidency were even more ridiculous. The President-Elect had no record of governing. On the campaign trail, he consistently contradicted himself, sometimes in the same sentence, there was nothing to go on. A few weeks later, there is a bit more clarity. Trump has appointed some officials. We have some data about who voted and who didn’t. To understand this election, however, we have a long, long way to go. Having all the right information doesn’t guarantee a sound conclusion.
There’s a temptation to attribute big causes to big effects. It’s a version of salience bias. The outcome of this election was so cataclysmic, we assume that there must have been a huge reason and ignore the fact that the race was so close that the winner actually lost the popular vote. Changing one or two of the innumerable factors in this election could have easily changed the electoral result.
Unremarked upon, in fact, ironically so, is another factor that we tend not to consider: randomness. Sometimes there is no pattern. Sometimes there is no predictability. If we could hold the election 100 times, we’d have a good idea of just how much randomness is involved, but the fact is, the election result, while legitimate, might have been an accident. Millions of people making intentional decisions doesn’t mean the election result was a result of collective intention.
For better or worse, political commitment means trying to learn what we can do to get the votes we need to make our country a better place. Here are my lessons:
Voting is not a particularly rational activity. Voters are not stupid. Some are uninformed, some misinformed, and most do not think deeply or rationally about voting. Encouraged by the mainstream media, people consistently use the irrelevant heuristics for making the best choice for themselves. My favorite example: the large number of my friends who voted for Trump who said “we needed a change.” Unless they were being dishonest with me or themselves, but their thinking was frighteningly shallow. They weren’t saying we needed a change in policy. They weren’t thinking that deeply. Still others said “I just hate Hillary Clinton.” It would be make sense for people to say I don’t trust Hillary Clinton to do what she says she will, but liking her? She’s not coming over for Thanksgiving.
More information is not enough. In spite of mountains of good information available, voters either ignore it or seek out what confirms their bias. The market for confirmation bias is growing to the point that fake news now has a place in our information ecosystem. There have always been websites dedicated to falsehood, mostly on the right. The Left is starting to catch up. (I was almost fooled by a Facebook story that said the Pope endorsed Clinton). The future of politics will include battles of false information. Democrats will have to figure out how to fight these battles.
Political parties lost their grip on the party system. Each party primary was upset or nearly upset by an insurgent. Part of the GOP’s problem was that everyone and his uncle ran for president. By default, attention inevitably focused on Trump who was good for network ratings and knew how played the media attention to the hilt. The GOP establishment tried and failed to control him. Fielding more than a dozen primary candidates was a bad sign of party unity, and one subplot of the campaign season was the death of the Republican Party.
The Democratic primary was no less problematic for the party. Bernie Sanders may caucus with Democrats, but he was not a Democrat. We tend to forget that parties are composed of not just like-minded individuals, but party members. Sanders was not a member of the Democratic Party. We have hashed and rehashed the primary before and don’t need to do so again, but it says something about the party establishment that a non-Democrat, though certainly a fellow-traveler, came close to winning the Democratic nomination.
The mainstream media doesn’t care about fairness or truth. Once upon a time, the media could set the agenda and decide what was appropriate. JFK’s affairs and FDR’s polio were hidden from the public because the media saw little benefit in covering them. In 2016, the mainstream media, primarily the televised media, gave Donald Trump hours of free publicity. Media allegiance is to profit, not fairness or truth. The three cable news networks shamelessly covered Trump. As Eric Alterman writes,
In the final days of the campaign, virtually every media organization chased FBI chief James Comey’s nonstory about new Clinton e-mails as if it were the moon landing. Even The New York Times ran three stories above the fold the day after Comey made his phony pro-Trump intervention. Days before the election, The Toronto Star listed and categorized 560 lies that Trump told during the campaign. And yet when polled, Americans judged him to be more trustworthy than Clinton. It would be difficult to imagine a more damning indictment of our political media.
Most people don’t understand the working class. The working class (everyone pictures it as white, by the way) is the soccer mom and the NASCAR dad of 2016, an oversimplified, misunderstood demographic. We talk about the working class as if it were a discrete group of people that can be easily isolated and appealed to. As work changes, however, so does the working class. My niece and nephew are college graduates. They work in a restaurant. Are they working class? Just short of a doctorate, I’m about as educated as you can get. But my aunts and uncles didn’t have college educations. My family income is less than many of the “working class” people in my town. Am I working class? As much as I would like it to be so, I’m not sure “working class” will turn out to a very useful demographic. As one knowledgeable commentator has written,
My gripe with much of the punditry is that they so routinely mistake one part of the white working class for the whole, thereby stereotyping a class of people with whom they have little direct contact or knowledge. I insist on the value of using a union organizer’s approach when discussing the politics of working-class whites. Following Andrew Levison’s three-part breakdown, based on opinion research, one part are unreachable conservatives who can never be won over, but you must work to “neutralize” them in order to reduce their influence on others. Calling them boilerplate names rather than engaging their arguments doesn’t accomplish that, however, and it may actually increase their influence. Another part consists of solid supporters, and you need to enlist their activity and leadership in persuading “the persuadables,” which is the third part that Levison calls “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand thinkers.”
in spite of being rhetorically unappealing, a promising idea is the precariat, the traditional working class, marginalized migrants and minorities, and educated not finding much a future. Their employment is unstable. They’ve lost rights and benefits that have keep them from being secure.
As income has shifted income to the extremely rich, our personal incomes have dwindled. Benefits have disappeared. First to go were defined benefit retirement plans. Then job security. Temps began to make up a larger portion of the work force. Health insurance covers less and costs more. People feel the insecurity. People are scared. The middle-class–hardly anyone talks about the poor these days–is on the edge of a cliff. Our generation hasn’t done as well as our parents; our children’s outlooks isn’t much better. We may be stuck with the working class idea, but we need to acknowledge that it’s not sufficient.
Donald Trump shouldn’t have won this election. Blame whoever you want. Whatever you want. If blame’s your game, there’s enough to go around. America needs to be made great again, but unless it’s by accident, it isn’t going to happen at the hands of Trump. It may take a butterfly. It may take an earthquake, but things must change.