A Victory for the Deplorables
10 November 2016
The parallels between the US presidential election and the recent Brexit vote are so numerous and so telling and it is difficult to discuss one without the other. In both cases, almost every mainstream social institution declared itself for the status quo, the polls seemed to point to the maintenance of the status quo, the narrative of the media was a relentless drumbeat for the status quo that made the alternative not so much something to be avoided as something unthinkable, and yet the status quo was upended by a popular vote. The aftermath of the Brexit vote is still unfolding, and there are sectors of the media that, even today, months later, continue the drumbeat, which indicates that they are not yet reconciled to the accepting the result of the vote. Those who voted against the status quo did so in the face of overwhelmingly negative portrayals of such a vote, and of any voters who would so vote.
And make no mistake that this was a vote against the status quo. This was not a vote of left vs. right, or liberal vs. conservative, or even Democrat vs. Republican. This was a vote of insider vs. outsider, establishment vs. non-establishment, status quo vs. change (or even the media haves vs. the media have-nots). It is true that Trump ran as a Republican, but he did so in the face of many if not most of the party leadership explicitly in opposition to him. Indeed, the Republican leadership was every bit as bitter in its condemnation of Trump hijacking their party for his purposes as the Democratic leadership was bitter in denouncing Trump.
Perhaps the most telling headline I noticed was this: World media shock and dismay at Trump win. The media was not impartial in this presidential fight; they had a stake in the outcome, and, when the outcome failed to confirm their narrative, there was indeed shock and dismay. There was also this from the New York Times, indicating the first signs of soul searching on the part of the media: How Did the Media — How Did We — Get This Wrong? by Michael Barbaro. A surprisingly candid BBC piece from Rod Dreher, Senior editor of The American Conservative, US election 2016: America’s front-porch revolt, acknowledged that he, too, had been drawn into the media narrative — though, as I noted above, the presidential election was not about liberal vs. conservatives, so the conservative élites were just as likely to misread the election as were liberal élites.
In the wake of the surprise result, it will widely said that the polls cannot be trusted, and this will be used to imply that polling methodology is fatally flawed. But it is not the polls, but the pollsters, that cannot be trusted. Pollsters, like the media, have come to constitute their own political class — or, rather, pollsters belong to the same political class as journalists and pundits, and, sharing the assumptions of this class, they shared the idea that anything other than a Clinton victory was unthinkable. They formulated their polls on this basis, and so their methods dutifully repeated back to them the only message they were capable of hearing. There is a name for this in the study of cognitive bias: availability cascade.
It certainly isn’t rocket science to understand why the polls failed. Many people told me privately that they planned to vote for Trump, but no one who told me privately that they would vote for Trump said publicly that they would do so. (Yes, I understand that this is merely anecdotal evidence, but when statistical evidence has been compromised by statisticians in the grip of an availability cascade, telling personal anecdotes can provide a window into events that has been missed by the statistics.) Why was this the case? Why would individuals privately discuss their vote, but not discuss their vote publicly? Because to publicly state your support for Trump prior to the election was to be subject to a torrent of abuse (cf. the experience of Peter Thiel, alone among Silicon Valley notables supporting Trump, and who found his business interests threatened by this support). Not surprisingly, individuals do not wish to be subject to a torrent of abuse, so they simply choose to remain silent. I would not be at all surprised if Trump supporters intentionally misled pollsters, not out of any sense of malice, but simply knowing that they were talking to someone who had completely bought into the availability cascade of a Clinton victory, they may have found it easier to tell the pollsters what the pollsters expected to hear. This kind of thing cannot even be captured in the language of the questions of the poll: it may be the tone of voice or the attitude of the pollster that communicated the message.
The issue of subjecting those who differ from the establishment narrative to personal abuse and denigration is more important than is usually recognized. The phenomenon has been evolving in American political life since the tumult of the 1960s, first with the Civil Rights movement, and then with Vietnam war protests. With these issues it was widely felt that the establishment was not acting upon moral imperatives viewed as central at the time. Because no results were being had by traditional means of political participation, a culture of organized civil disobedience came into being. Traditional politicians told young people during their messianic stage (also known as youthful idealism) that the proper way to express themselves politically was to vote. But voting was not felt to be sufficient to address the evil at hand, so protest became an additional avenue of political participation.
The rise of protest as a form of political participation — and the observed efficacy of well-staged protests — resulted in what I will call the dialectic of activism and electoral politics. Activism has been so effective as a political tactic that some political pressure groups have entirely abandoned electoral politics (i.e., seeking a vote on an issue) in favor of activism. Activists do not need an electoral majority in order to realize their political ends; they merely need to be effective activists. The emergence of activist politics changed the political landscape of the US, allowing small minorities to advance their agenda in a way that electoral politics would not have allowed. One might say that it is the business of successful activism to create an availability cascade and so give the appearance that their cause represents the electoral consensus. But the success of activist politics that serves minority viewpoints means that electoral politics then becomes the opposite swing of the pendulum, and society is moved back and forth between votes that express an actual majority of the electorate, and activism that expresses the views of the most motivated and most effective activists.
With the Brexit vote and the US presidential election, the élites of their respective societies — political élites, policy élites, journalist élites, celebrity élites, business and financial élites, and even activist élites — not only created an availability cascade that was at odds with the electoral majority, they moreover believed the narrative that they themselves had created. Thus the shock at the electoral correction. And this dialectic of electoral and activist politics should be expected to continue. The most motivated and passionate activists will continue to press for political change unrelated to electoral politics, and electoral politics will repeatedly place politicians in office unrelated to the political demands of activists.
It is often noted that the US political system is gridlocked and incapable of functioning effectively (I wrote about this in Checks, Balances, and Gridlock, and a recent Harvard study, Problems Unsolved & A Nation Divided by Michael E. Porter, Jan W. Rivkin, and Mihir A. Desai, with Manjari Raman, focused on political paralysis; also cf. an article on this study at Geopolitical Monitor by Oscar Silva-Valladares, American Decline and the Limits of Academic Thinking). On the one hand, activism is a response to political paralysis, since it promises results outside the usual mechanisms of political influence, but, on the other hand, the dialectic of activism and electoral politics is itself a source of gridlock and stagnation. In order for democracy and popular sovereignty to have a future in the twenty-first century, it may be necessary to find a way around the traditional mechanisms of electoral politics that is nevertheless responsive to the electorate. Consider this a research question in the future of democracy.
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