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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The BBC main page was more concerned with Clinton's concession speech than Trump's victory speech. This is one way to keep banging away on the same flawed narrative.

The BBC main page was more concerned with Clinton’s concession speech than Trump’s victory speech. This is one way to keep banging away on the same catastrophically flawed narrative.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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4 Responses to “A Victory for the Deplorables”

  1. Hi there!

    I just want to say thank you to all Americans that voted for Donald Trump against Hillary. You have very likely done a great service to the world by not electing that ringwraith into office!

    Please accept a sincere thank you from myself and (probably) a better part of humanity.

  2. Xcalibur said

    I voted for Trump. I based my decision on known evidence for Hillary’s corruption, collusion, and bad judgment; and on my agreement with most of Trump’s policy points.

    I made posts in other online communities leading up to the election arguing for Trump, and I was clearly in the minority. Expressing support for Trump led to backlash, including people assuming that I was a troll, lol.

    I also agree with Brexit, as I’ve stated before. The EU is too bureaucratic and top-heavy, and it is unresponsive to the popular will and unable to deal with serious challenges (immigration, sovereign debt). When it collapses, there will be a great deal of fallout. The sooner countries leave the EU, the better off they’ll be (the French would be wise to leave next year, if the Front National gets its referendum through).

    The dominant discourse is that the establishment is good, and those opposed to it are branded as racists, bigots, islamophobes, uneducated plebs, and so on. Naturally this is the case as collusion between media and government has led to a politicized, partisan media. The whole concept of media integrity and nonpartisanship has been undermined – the current media is dominated by propaganda.

    But propaganda is notorious for distorting reality. The reality is that many people see the current US political establishment as a corrupt oligarchy that serves itself at the expense of everyone else. This undercurrent of thought propelled both Bernie Sanders and Trump, and it was a major factor in Trump’s victory.

    Across the pond, many Europeans believe that the EU and even the Euro is in danger of collapsing due to its fatal flaws. They perceive Muslim immigration as a threat to their civil society, as these immigrants bring terrorism, violent crime, and refuse to assimilate. This is wildly politically incorrect, but this is an accurate portrayal of the seething undercurrent. This is the force behind Brexit and the success of Front National.

    Yes, Democracy has shown stagnation and weaknesses, but Trump and Brexit prove that it is still tenable – ruling elites can be defied by the popular will. I predict a lot of friction in the near future over this.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for your comment.

      Ironically, while the mass media in Britain is still banging away on what they see as the disaster of Brexit (the FT has been particularly guilty on this score), the real story is that Brexit was an existential threat not to Britain, but to the EU. Britain will survive, but the EU is almost certainly headed for the scrapheap of history. Like communism, it was a noble, well-meaning, and idealistic experiment, but flawed in its implementation. With Stalinist communism, the purges were enough to wake up most people; the EU has not had and will not experience purges or a gulag archipelago, so it is easier to deny its failures. Though I expect this denial to continue, I also think it likely that Marine Le Pen and the FN will be elected in the next election cycle (pressed for a number, I would give FN a 60-70 percent chance of coming into power in France in the next round of national elections), and this will make the formal dissolution of the EU more likely.

      I agree that democracy is tenable, but is a tenable democracy good enough for a world of seven billion people? Being tenable is, by definition not optimal. What we would hope for is an optimal democracy, and what we would settle for is some point along the continuum between the tenable and the optimal. When Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that had been tried, he was placing democracy on a continuum, but democracy itself admits of a continuum. Settling for merely tenable democracy is, I think, in the long term, not sustainable.

      Best wishes,


      • Xcalibur said

        Yes indeed.

        I also agree that our current form of Democracy is not optimal, and it can be improved. This is important, especially when there are strong and influential opponents to Democracy: Fascism, Communism, and most recently Islamism/Islamic Fundamentalism.

        I can’t outline a solution right now, but I believe that Democracy can be improved, and that it must be improved in order to retain its role as a dominant political ideology and institution.

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