Downright Prescient

by Gail Robinson
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Two Carnegie fellows, some political pundits, and a brace of cable news prognosticators walk into a bar …
Picture This! As the crowd takes photos, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Atkinson, New Hampshire, November 4, 2016. (Photo: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Regardless of their politics, most Americans can agree on one thing about the 2016 presidential election: political pundits and forecasters suffered a humiliating defeat.

They are neither pollsters nor television cable news panelists — and they did not predict Donald Trump’s victory — but demographer Kenneth Johnson and election law expert Nathaniel Persily did better than most. Many months before Trump received the Republican nomination, these two 2016 Carnegie fellows identified key developments that contributed to Trump’s election. Today their work is attracting attention and making both fellows seem downright prescient.

In 2015 Kenneth Johnson, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, proposed to study rural America, notably the changes that the Great Recession had brought to the 74 percent of U.S. land area that is home to 46 million people. Way back in 2015, says Johnson, rural America, was “outside the spotlight of where all the media and foundation attention tends to be.” It has, though, been Johnson’s field of expertise since he received his doctorate in the 1970s.

Trump’s victory gave Johnson’s area of expertise immediacy among a broader public. “The 2016 election turned out to be a great indicator that rural America still matters in the political process,” he says. Delving into the results with political scientist Dante Scala, Johnson found that while Republicans generally tend to do better than Democrats in rural America, Clinton did particularly badly. He and Scala are now probing the reasons why.

Packed to the Rafters Supporters of Donald Trump wait for him to take the stage at Stevens High School in Claremont, New Hampshire, January 5, 2016. The campaign rally filled the school gym with fans of the Republican front runner. (Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

As reporters rushed to cover a population they had long ignored, some made mistakes, such as assuming all rural people work in agriculture or have little education. The biggest error, according to Johnson, was “lumping all of rural America together.… People who can discuss the subtleties separating Manhattan’s Upper East Side from its Upper West Side somehow think all of rural America is alike.”

Meanwhile, in 2015, Stanford law professor Nathaniel Persily had been considering how — with the advent of the Internet — campaign finance regulation needed to change. When he received his Carnegie award, Persily expected that, from a digital perspective, the likely narrative for discussing the 2016 campaign would revolve around a Clinton victory and focus on digital campaign geniuses, small-dollar fundraising, and microtargeting. It did not quite work out that way.

“With the deterioration in democratic values occurring both on- and offline, we should not expect technology to rescue us from the historical and sociological forces currently threatening democracy.”
— Nathaniel Persily

Before the election, few saw the digital age as a “political Utopia,” says Persily, but since 2016, “people see it as more dystopian.” His project has shifted to address this concern. Discussing his research, he observes, “The whole Russia incursion is a result of the Internet not just here, but elsewhere. The web is worldwide.” The Internet, he believes, poses a unique threat to democracy because of a number of factors, including the volume of material, the speed at which “information” spreads, the lack of gatekeepers, and anonymity.

While technology has exposed what Persily calls “the soft underbelly of democracy,” his project focuses on how we might respond and make our institutions less vulnerable. Some of his suggestions, such as deleting or censoring hate speech and trying to crowd out false stories with better quality news, are already used in a number of countries. Others, such as creating digital “trip wires” to delay the spread of stories, are more novel.

Persily acknowledges that any change is challenging when things are moving so fast, and that such fixes cannot begin to solve all democracy’s problems. As he wrote in “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” (an essay published in the Journal of Democracy, April 2017): “With the deterioration in democratic values occurring both on- and offline, we should not expect technology to rescue us from the historical and sociological forces currently threatening democracy, even if that same technology facilitated the disruption in democratic governance in the first instance.”

Learn More: Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program

See complete list of the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Fellows


Gail Robinson is a freelance writer specializing in education and public policy and an adjunct lecturer at Baruch College, City University of New York.

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