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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The Coming Aftermath

25 September 2012


Excursus on US Electoral Futurism

For the most part I avoid writing about US domestic politics, but I did write a series of posts about the beleaguered Republican Party after its defeat in the previous election cycle. These posts included the following:

The Strategic Consequences of Republican Meltdown

More on Republican Disarray

Of Weeds and Flowers

The Republican’s Existential Crisis

Republican Evolution

Another Nail in the Republican Coffin

Why do I usually avoid writing about US electoral politics? Several reasons. Among these reasons are the saturation media coverage of the event, the fact that I find it all deadly dull, and the likelihood that whatever I write will be misconstrued. Since I am a US citizen and a resident of the US, my objectivity is likely to be questioned, and it would be assumed that I write with a partisan agenda. This last is probably decisive.

While the idea (much less the ideal) of objectivity is not highly valued today, and many would say that the denial of the very possibility of objectivity is one of the central features of postmodernism, I take a great pride in my objectivity, and I would not want to be thought to be just another voice repeating one party line or another. What is objectivity? At least part of objectivity is the continual struggle against anything that might prejudice, distort, or alter that which is demonstrably the case. At least one form of the failure of objectivity, then, is the underdetermination of an account of things. Thus we see that a political perspective is a theory about the world that is underdetermined by the evidence.

Domestic US politics is especially vulnerable to those who are passionately committed to one side or the other thinking themselves into a frame of mind in which they really believe to be true that which they want to be true. The passionate state of mind distorts everything by interpreting it in accordance with an underdetermined political theory. Once a person thinks themselves into such a frame of mind it is extraordinarily difficult to reason with them. It is probably better not to try, so instead we must simply set aside the passionately committed.

If we set such persons aside, there remains a core of commentators who don’t allow themselves to be swayed by partisan rants. Among this core, you would be hard-pressed to find any who thought that Romney would win the election. Now that Romney’s fate has been sealed by the release of the secretly recorded video from Mother Jones magazine, it is worthwhile considering the ramifications of Romney’s coming defeat.

The press must of course pretend that there is still a contest, but it isn’t much of a contest. While recent events have driven home the unlikelihood of a Romney victory in the general election, as I noted above, almost no one really thought he would win. Objective Republicans can read polls just as well as objective Democrats, and they all knew that it would be difficult if not impossible to defeat President Obama in the present election. It is for exactly this reason that several prominent Republican candidates chose not to run. If the president had been viewed as highly vulnerable, stronger candidates who did not want an embarrassing defeat on their record would have joined the contest.

There will be those who say that US presidential elections are always predicated upon domestic economics, and that the softness of the US economy made Obama vulnerable. Yes, that is true, but vulnerability is not always the same as defeatability. It is likely that the domestic economy will take several points off Obama’s margin of victory, but these points won’t be enough to make a difference. A sufficiently large margin of victory can absorb a certain amount of vulnerability.

So my first prediction, apart from the now-obvious prediction that President Obama will win the general election, is that the commentators will wear themselves out telling the public how usual and unprecedented it is for a president to be reelected with the domestic economy in such poor condition. This spin will in turn be further spun to make the claim that President Obama’s reelection represents a truly profound shift in US electoral politics. (It does, by the way, but it will not be the shift that the commentators will identify; I have already identified the actual shift in Appearance and Reality in Demographics.)

Probably many of the commentators who will appear on television on election night have already written their scripts, so that they can appear to have had penetrating insights into the nature of the result spontaneously as the numbers begin to come in. Like I said above, none of this is a surprise to anyone. In fact, the biggest surprise will be to see how exactly the coming aftermath plays out. Here there remain several unknowns.

A careful observer of US electoral history will have noticed that so many statistics are kept on US elections that it is nearly inevitable that every time a US presidential election is held, some statistical trend that has always perfectly predicted the election in the past is upended, therefore demonstrating the “unprecedented” nature of the election. While it is true that some statistical correlations are more robust and significant than others, there is nothing surprising in and of itself that each and every election should involve a statistically unprecedented result. In fact, I would even say that it is statistically inevitable that there will always be statistically unprecedented results. If not, we wouldn’t bother to hold elections, because the outcome would always be determined on the basis of precedent.

One of the most obvious consequences of the Republicans losing two presidential elections sequentially will be a strong call from within the Republican Party to do something — to do anything — to make sure that they don’t lose again. For one party to be permanently shut out of a duopoly on power is for the duopoly to cease to function and for the party out of power to become restive. Such crises often result in highly pragmatic electioneering that focuses on finding a candidate for the next election who can win. All standards other than electability tend to go by the board. Whether this pressure for pragmatism overcomes the the pressure for ideological conformity is an unknown. It is not impossible that “country club Republicans” could re-take control of the party, expel the evangelicals (who would likely go on to form their own minor but ineradicable party), and return to a classic (i.e., pre-Reagan) Republican agenda, but it is not likely either.

Another obvious consequence is that the Democrats, after two sequential presidential victories, may indulge in triumphalism and consequently engage in ideological overreach that will cost them in local elections two years hence. There will be some democrats who understand the underlying demographic realities resulting in their victories, but many if not most will view the victory as an ideological victory and will claim, and perhaps also attempt to live by the idea, that the US electorate is permanently re-aligning itself with a Democratically-defined political ideology. Depending upon how much Democrats attempt to live by this delusion, the Republicans may be able to count upon a reaction that will return them to power — at least temporarily.

One of the medium- to long-term consequences of President Obama’s reelection to a second term and the consequent heightened soul-searching within the Republican party that is sure to follow, will be whether the Republicans choose to change their orientation so that they do not face extinction as a political party. Ideologically motivated Republicans felt that the last election was lost due to a failure of ideological purity. If this faction should triumph within the Republican Party, the party is doomed is irrelevance and eventual extinction. This in itself presents a fascinating problem.

Many commentators over recent years have made a point of reporting the “gridlock” in the US political system. The really interesting question if Republicans fail to reform themselves and if political gridlock persists is this: how can an another party emerge to take the place of the Republican party in the duopoly of the US two-party system in the midst of political gridlock? And if political gridlock has made the US political system too sclerotic even to change, how can the status quo be maintained when the Republicans are experiencing a gradual dissolution as a viable political party?

Whether the coming aftermath is a bloodbath or a re-alignment, it will be perhaps more interesting to watch than the usual US domestic melodrama.

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