A week ago I suggested that we needed an indomitable will to fight and make it through this election. The election is over, but that sentiment strikes me as even more true today.
I have a few things to say about the election. Some of it is about why we missed what was happening in our country. Some of it is about why it matters. And some of it is about what we need to do next.
I Fucked Up
Yeah, you read that right. I sure as hell didn’t call the election right, and neither did any other serious political scientist, and the pollsters were wrong too. Plus, you know, I’m guessing it was a bit of a shocker at Clinton HQ. Here are three things we missed that I think mattered most.
- Turnout. Almost every poll and aggregation of polls that you and I saw during the election was weighted using some sort of likely voter model. That means that people who seemed more likely to vote, based on who voted in previous elections, were weighted more in predictions, and people who seemed unlikely to vote were weighted less. While we don’t yet have final numbers, the big picture suggests that especially in swing states, more rural white folks and fewer black folks voted than in past elections. This meant these polls all systematically underestimated Trump support (political scientists call this bias).
- Non-response. To get those polls, you have to call people. Most people don’t like being called during dinner, so they don’t pick up the phone (and that’s assuming they even have a landline), which is called non-response. The sort of people who do pick up the phone are weird. Probably nice weird — it’s not a bad thing — but they’re weird, in the sense that they feel like talking to a stranger about politics for free, on their own time, during dinner. Political scientists have grown increasingly concerned about non-response for two reasons: first, non-response has sharply increased over the last few decades. In 1996, you might have had to call two thousand people to get one thousand people to take your survey. In 2016, you’ll be lucky if you only have to call ten thousand. That means the people who answer are now even more unusual than they were before. Second, we have a growing body of evidence that suggests that who responds isn’t random — in other words, they’re systematically weird. For instance, we know that when a candidate is doing well in the news, their supporters are more likely to answer the phone, inflating the candidate’s perceived level of support. This adds a second layer of bias, again likely to overstate Clinton support since she was ahead for most of the race.
- The Bradley Effect. If you ever took a psychology class, you might be familiar with the phrase “social desirability bias.” It means that people don’t want to say things out loud that they think other people will judge them for. The eponymous example comes from the 1982 California gubernatorial race, where Tom Bradley, the African-American Mayor of Los Angeles, lost to George Deukmijian, a white Attorney General, despite being heavily favored in all the polls. In other words, people didn’t want to sound racist, so they said they’d support him, and then they didn’t support him on election day. It is certainly possible that voters were afraid to say they supported Trump (making them sound racist, sexist, etc.) or wouldn’t actually support Clinton (making them sound sexist). Both of these behaviors would systematically overstate support for Clinton — the third layer of bias.
The bottom line: even with all our polling and models and on-the-minute updates, we missed it. Big time.
What Does It Mean About Democrats/Hillary/The Liberal Agenda/The Nation?
You will even now be scrolling through a newsfeed full of finger-pointing and blame-throwing and “what if Biden/Sanders/Warren had been the nominee” screeds. For those of you for whom this is your first election, or perhaps your first election in a while, know that this hate-circle jerk is usually not worth following in detail. Fighting about who ate the icing on the roof of your gingerbread house is probably not as useful as noticing that the entire gingerbread house is being carried away by someone orange. (Especially if he’s doing it with the help of 59 million other people.) Here are a (non-exclusive) list of things I think we should keep in mind going forward:
- Turnout. A lot of people are harping on the fact that Democratic turnout was depressed, particularly in swing states. Some have tried to make the argument that this is because Clinton failed to inspire her base, or that Democratic GOTV operations suddenly sucked. This ignores one obvious potential culprit, which is voter suppression. States with new voting restrictions in place included Arizona, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Some of these names may be sounding familiar to you right now. It will take a while to do a full analysis of whether and to what extent suppression may have contributed to lower turnout, particularly among minorities, in these states. Regardless, our focus must be removing barriers to participation, because it’s an issue we can actually do something about.
- Pantsuit Nation. This one may sound dumb, but hear me out. I believe we witnessed a major preview of how different social media would be if women were in charge. Women clearly had different priorities over traditional approaches to social media: quality of content was valued over quantity, trolls and bullies were ruthlessly hunted out by a massive team of moderators, privacy was valued over impact or monetization, and the social rule of law about how to communicate was incredibly strong. In turn, many of the millions of people in the group described it as “reaffirming”, “validating,” and even “life-altering.” This is what we keep saying we want the internet to be. The experience of this group laid out a clear roadmap of how we could get there.
- Clinton. Honestly, dialogue about how mediocre/corrupt/uninspiring/non-transparent/etc. she is could not sound more ridiculous to me, especially when it comes from the far left. Do I think being an establishment candidate at an anti-establishment time was helpful? No. Do I think she was a perfect candidate? No. But please, spare me your privileged white dude assessment of how “uninspiring” she was, how she should have been “a little more vulnerable,” “let people in” a little more. Hillary Clinton spent her entire working life under assault for everything from her cookie recipes to her hair to her values to Anthony Weiner’s goddamn texting problems. I, and at least a few million other people, find her willingness to get up every day and fight again incredibly inspiring, and I dare any of the armchair generals telling her to be more “vulnerable” to run for office themselves and then to report back on how that worked out. Go on; I’ll wait. Until then, you should probably spend some time considering whether you might have internalized 25 years of sexist takes on the kind of leader she is.
- Liberalism. Beyond Clinton, Democrats also performed more poorly in Senate and gubernatorial races than was originally predicted, even though many of them outperformed Clinton among Dems in their states. That suggests to me the possibility that the current Democratic platform is just not as popular, period, as we might have hoped. Whether that was TPP and NAFTA or immigration and the refugee crisis or trans-friendly bathrooms and gay marriage and so on is probably too complex to disentangle right now, but the bottom line is that this story really is not just about Hillary Clinton (obviously she matters, but it’s not the whole story). It’s about a reaction to the perceived priorities and structure of our government, and that reaction is a huge rejection of the liberal agenda of the last eight years.
- Whitelash. I love the nomenclature and agree with the core idea, but I think this misses some of the nuance of what has happened here. Yes, whites hugely went for Trump. But about a third of Hispanics also did, despite the fact that a large number of Hispanic voters registered to vote for the first time this year, presumably due to their outrage over Trump’s anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant rhetoric, and it’s even more crazy that more Hispanics voted for Trump than voted for Romney during 2012. Since I’m pretty sure they weren’t doing it for the Trump Tower Taco Bowls, what happened? The short version, as I see it, is that the story about economic anxiety that we’ve been hearing — that many people have been left behind by globalization, marginalized by urban political elites, and broken by endemic poverty and rampant drug abuse — has become synonymous with white identity. Being white, for many of these people, is now the same as having been left behind. People of color are right to roll their eyes so hard at this that they pop out of their heads: it betrays a complete lack of understanding of structural racism and our nation’s history. Nonetheless, what we are seeing at the moment is a confluence of real suffering in these communities (that extends beyond whites to Hispanic and black and Asian families as well) with a media narrative that suggests that this suffering might have been avoidable if our government had made better choices — and perhaps it could have. This combination of ignorance of history and misattribution of blame (in the sense that anyone who hated Obama’s handling of globalization should have hated the previous several presidents as well) is fueling discontent with our government’s economic policies, not just on the right, but in the center and on the left as well. Racism has gnawed at the heart of this country since its inception, but by itself I don’t think it can explain 29% of Hispanic voters choosing Trump. My take? A lot of people are unhappier at the prospect of a closed factory and a slow suicide by heroin than at the prospect of a racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, xenophobic president. Is that still racist and coming from a place of great privilege? Absolutely. Is it unintelligible? No. If we don’t take seriously the need to transition to a more equitable economy, we’ll be scratching our heads a few years from now when we nominate some other white person to run again after years of unified Republican government and they still get their ass handed to them.
- Bench. We need one. Period. The Republicans have been wrecking us year after year, from local elections on up. Democrats’ strength in cities, which grants us the popular presidential vote and a large number of safe urban districts, has blinded us to how poorly we’ve developed our pipeline. For a group that says we care a lot about the people, we seem to spend a lot of time in our safety zones instead of taking risks, and we are not doing enough to recruit new blood into office. I don’t have the numbers, but I’m sure that if we controlled for the size of the population that supports us, we generate fewer people running for office per capita than Republicans do — let alone investing enough to win big in these state and local races.
- Media. The persistent failure of the news media to inform rather than scandalize represents one major obstacle to progress. The other, however, is our growing reliance on social media for news. The profusion of bogus news sources is, as others have said, drowning everything else out and inhibiting our ability to have a meaningful debate about policy. We are, to put it mildly, several minutes in to Monty Python’s argument sketch (“An argument isn’t just contradiction!” “Yes it can be!”). Bemoaning people’s poor taste in blogs is not useful. New policy would be useful. Regulating an insistence upon facts on the Internet may seem impossible, but minor changes could have major consequences on the quality of our democracy (and day-to-day sanity). Clearly fraudulent articles and ads, like the one about voting via text, should be more easily reportable and removable. Similarly, policy needs to catch up to issues like doxxing, swatting, and illegal sharing of private information. In the US, free speech is typically regarded as a higher right than anything but public safety (the “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” analogy). Other countries, like Canada, weigh the social utility of the speech more finely. It’s time for us to evaluate whether free speech is a higher priority than functional democracy.
Finding Your Inner John Paul Jones
When faced with a demand to surrender, at the peak of a vicious 18th-century naval battle, Captain Jones reportedly responded “I have not yet begun to fight.” I too am about to enter the fight.
I was complacent during this election. I believed the future was now — that the trend toward progress was slow but inevitable, that the blossoming of rights and riches our country saw under Obama would continue, that the growing number of people of color and rising strength of women voters would prove an unbeatable phalanx. I thought working as an educator was doing my part to diminish the prejudice that grips our society, that working as a researcher on gender discrimination meant I was paying my dues. I was wrong, and my mistake has cost us our country.
As my husband and Anil Dash have said, it’s time to get to work. Our failure to convince the majority of our electorate of the need to address prejudice in all its forms means that we will have to pay the toll ourselves. Moreover, those of us who can afford it — the white, the wealthy, the educated, the working, the able-bodied, the privileged — need to pay the toll for those who cannot afford to: the immigrants, the queers, the brown-skinned, the non-English-speaking, the children. They have been asked to pay too much already, and they are the ones who will bear the brunt of what will happen in the next four years.
Each of us should find an issue (or issues) to which we will commit for the next two, four, eight (!) years. We need to start making calls, and going to city council meetings, and donating money, and talking to our neighbors, and talking to people who disagree with us, and running for office, and building a decade-long plan. It’s not good enough to punch the time card any more. We have to do all of it. If that sounds intimidating, start with part of it — whatever part sounds least horrifying. But make an unshakeable commitment. We will need to care every day as much as the opposition did on Election Day in order to stand a chance, because they will have everything stacked on their side. They will have a president, a united congress, a supreme court, 33 governors, and 23 unified state legislatures, gerrymandered districts, and voting restrictions on the books in dozens of states…just to start.
If you have an A game, now’s the time to bring it. As Elie Wiesel said, “There may be times where we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” It will be a cold day in hell before I roll over for Donald Trump.
“I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do
if the love one claims to have for the world
- Mary Oliver, Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness