“Those who do not remember the past and fail to learn from it are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana (tweaked by me)
I couldn’t resist. I had to add that phrase just to be sure Santayana’s point wasn’t missed.
Which brings me to another occasion where his observation fits perfectly and reconfirms more of the Fundamental Principles, but this time with national leader wannabees who didn’t and still don’t “get it” – “get” meaning not only that ongoing learning from mistakes was supposed to be built into life, but that “not getting it” impacts more than just their “image.”
I am referring, of course, to the event that just happened to occur as I was researching another post: the Presidential Election on November 8th.
To say the least, the outcome was shocking, unexpected, and surreal. I am still trying to process it.
Thanks to many others over the last few weeks there has been no dearth of articles and commentaries that have actually tried to make sense of the results. Thus presented with both event and a large volume of material, I switched my post topic.
Needless to say, I could refer back to my November 7th post, or the one from November 2014, and say “told you so,” but I’ll refrain.
Due to the nature, and volume, of material, I broke this post down into the COMMENTARIES themselves, REFLECTIONS, and then IDEAS and OPPORTUNITIES. Quotes from articles are indented; my immediate thoughts are not (and my short ones are italicized)
Amongst the wave of analyses and commentaries, the following relatively obscure and not picked up by the mainstream media, stand out. Their confirmations of various Fundamental Principles are rather poignant.
Inside the Loss Clinton Saw Coming (Politico)
Publicly they seemed confident, but in private her team admitted her chances were ‘always fragile’… Everything that Democrats and pretty much anyone else thought they understood about politics was proven wrong this year with a resounding exclamation mark … Democrats and many others are now in crisis … the crisis is sharpest in Clinton campaign headquarters: not only do they feel like everything is about to go deeply, collapse-of-America wrong, but it’s going to happen because she failed… Sanders and Trump had correctly defined the problem …
Assuming that one’s information and the ways of obtaining it have always worked in the past, why wouldn’t they still work today? Presuming this can lead to errors of omission. Politicians thought they knew, but didn’t realize they didn’t. Fundamental Principle 7c: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know. And Fundamental Principle 6: There will always be Missing Information.
Digging further, I came across the following deeper analysis that identified the source and nature of a large part of the electorate (italics mine).
This election, surely the most extraordinary in American history, was a revolt against the political establishment.
It also demonstrated so much rage and discontent. There was extreme dislike of both candidates, but Clinton’s extended to distrust and an authenticity problem, a problem probably disregarded by the identifiable electorate (those the polls recognized), but not the forgotten electorate.
With an attitude and approach of ‘steady-as-she-goes’ (no pun intended), both Democrats and Republicans trusted the polls, not knowing the polls also had a “Missing Information” problem.
The slogan “Stronger Together” was never as snappy as “Make America Great Again.” There was the difficulty in crafting a strong message that would not only resonate beyond the famed Blue Wall (states not traditionally Democratic), but inside it also.
The widespread consistency of the election results indicated that “this was not just a rejection of Hillary Clinton, but also a rejection by half of the country of Barack Obama’s America.”
The BBC article politely hints at a significant underlying issue brought out in another Politico article.
… she took her 2016 opponent too lightly and thought she could cruise … in the first cold light of the day after, one big cause seems clearer than others: Her complacency. Years of it. A chronic case of complacency, in fact.
… Political Complacency (assuming she could retain her “Blue Wall”), Policy Complacency (never developing the kind of central animating idea or program that wins elections and can be communicated in a heartbeat, re: “Stronger Together”), and Personal Complacency (as in 2008, she miscalculated that an upstart insurgent could beat her, and that anxious voters eager for change would settle for less).
In a nutshell, she didn’t dog it. Her famous work ethic was always in high gear. Yet from the start, Clinton ran her 2016 campaign in a cautious, defensive crouch, painting first Sanders and then Trump as basically unqualified, but ignoring or minimizing the widespread signs of their powerful anti-establishment appeal, while failing to offer a persuasive alternative aspirational message of her own.
President Obama lent support to this view.1
And it didn’t/doesn’t seem to be an issue of sexism, of not electing a woman to be head of state. Thatcher was PM of Britain, and May is now. Brazil has a female head of state, as does Germany. Polls (if we can believe those now) indicate that most voters no longer see electing a woman as constituting major change.
The hidden message wasn’t that there was no support to elect a woman to our highest office, but just not enough to elect this woman.
Bill Clinton, once defeated by angry voters in Arkansas, famously said that his daddy never had to whip him twice for the same mistake. His wife never really learned that lesson.
A different issue is that America in 2016 is not the one that Bill Clinton won and governed. This comes through in the following article:
Tear Up the Democratic Party (Jonathan Tasini, CNN)
Written by a staunch (Sanders supporting) Democrat and union member, its observations are, literally, devastating,
We can now launch a difficult but urgent mission – shaking the Democratic Party down to its foundation, ejecting the failed Bill/Hillary Clinton economic and global worldview and standing up for a set of populist, sound economic and foreign policy principles that could earn majority support.
Starting with NAFTA, Bill Clinton forced ‘free trade’ upon the party. … During Clinton’s so-called ‘good economy,’ the decline of organized labor continued. … Hand-in-glove with Wall Street, Clinton got rid of the Glass-Steagall Act, which removed the separation between commercial banks, insurers and investment banks, …
The latter was a major contributor to the housing mortgage crisis and the ensuing recession of 2008.
There is so much more: A planet dying because for years fossil fuel interests were coddled. Welfare reform. Mass incarceration of people of color, which had both racial and economic consequences. The praise of the Clinton years, and red-faced defense by its leader, was always couched in contrast to the Reagan and two Bush administrations.
And then there is The Clinton Foundation. Sorry, but no time for that shore excursion on this cruise.
Tasini also refers to Sanders’ broader philosophical willingness to challenge American exceptionalism, which led to failed foreign policies that have been bedrocks of the Democratic Party for several decades (after inheriting them from the Republicans. Earlier post here).
The only thing I take issue with is the blind deference to the progressive movement for change, i.e., “advocates for labor, environmentalists, and civil rights of all stripes,” without acknowledging the need also for advocates who would revamp the business processes which are necessary to generate the added value that the former so easily take for granted. This is the continued expression of “Either/Or” thinking that helped create our current political situation. Straight outta Fundamental Principle 4c.
A further eye opener is the article by Alex MacGillis that appeared in ProPublica.
Revenge of the Forgotten Class (ProPublica)
MacGillis traveled extensively in Ohio (a Democratic Blue State) interviewing a multitude of voters leading up to the election. Rather than just listening to the questions pollsters asked, he would later privately interview voters and came away with a deeper understanding of the anger and frustration that was missed by so many polls and campaigns.
The number of first time voters was palpable. Some said, “I didn’t want to make an unintelligent decision” concerning not voting before (more on this factor in another article below).
What the election results showed was that, unbeknownst to campaigns, media, and pollsters, there were many people across the entire country who had not voted before but would vote this election – “people who were so disconnected from the political system that they were literally unaccounted for in the pollsters’ modeling, which relies on past voting behavior.” The forgotten electorate.
Also being verbalized by voters was the recognition and resentment of the “growing dependency around them.” They also expressed a “profound contempt for a dysfunctional, hyper-prosperous Washington that they saw as utterly removed from their lives.” Union members disappointed in Obama after voting for him, stated, “People don’t realize there’s nothing without a blue-collar worker.”
Distrust of Clinton again surfaced often, “There’s too much sidestepping on her. I don’t trust her.”
Concerns about declining support among white working-class voters goes back a long time, to Lyndon Johnson. … By this year, many liberals had gotten so fed up with hearing about these woebegone voters and all their political needs that they were openly declaring them a lost cause, motivated more by racial issues than economic anxiety, and declaring that the expanding Democratic coalition of racial and ethnic minorities and college-educated white voters obviated the need to cater to the white working class.
It seems the picture was not just one of a Forgotten Class, but more of a Dismissed or Disregarded Class, even if the pollsters didn’t have a working definition of exactly who this ‘Class’ was, and therefore didn’t or couldn’t seek them out.
The comment “I didn’t want to make an unintelligent decision” was reinforced by other interviewees: “No one that’s voting knows all the facts.” Fundamental Principle 6 again: There will always be Missing Information. These comments lead into the following more interesting and rather enlightening article.
Trump Won Because Voters Are Ignorant, Literally (Jason Brennan, Foreign Policy)
This is an inadvertent anthem to a number of Fundamental Principles, so I’ll quote some thoughts directly and put my thoughts in italics.
Democracy is supposed to enact the will of the people. But what if the people have no clue what they’re doing? … Never have educated voters so uniformly rejected a candidate. But never before have the lesser educated so uniformly supported a candidate.
Right up front there’s FP 7c,
Trump owes his victory to the uninformed. But it’s not just Trump and this election. Political scientists have been studying what voters know (and don’t know) and how they think for well over 65 years. The results are frightening. … Just why voters know so little is well understood. It’s not that people are stupid. Rather, it’s that democracy creates bad incentives.
As consumers, before we make a big purchase we do our research (or, at least some). Buy smart, reap the rewards; make a bad decision, suffer the consequences.
And then FP 14: There are always Consequences to Behaviors,
Not so with politics. How all of us vote, collectively, matters a great deal. But how any one of us votes does not.
That, in a nutshell, is how democracy works. Most voters are ignorant or misinformed because the costs to them of acquiring political information greatly exceed the potential benefits. They can afford to indulge silly, false, delusional beliefs – precisely because such beliefs cost them nothing.
But it’s not all our fault. Politicians craft self-serving messages, and a willing media repeats them. If the messages confirm what we already feel, and they are overwhelmingly available, how many of us know how to sift through the noise? All this intentionally plays on the reality of the Availability Heuristic (the dominant messages we are surrounded with) and our Confirmation Bias (seeking to confirm what we already assume we know),
Voting is more like doing the wave at a sports game than it is like choosing policy. (More thoughts on “policy” will appear below).
Philip Converse once said: ‘The two simplest truths I know about the distribution of political information in moderate electorates are that the mean is low and the variance is high.’ In other words, most people know nothing, some know less than nothing (that is, they are systematically mistaken rather than just ignorant), and some know a great deal. (The latter are referred to as High-Information Voters).
And, déjà vu, FP 7c (sigh, this is getting old),
Schools teach them most of what they need to know to vote well. But they forget it because the information is not useful. And the reason it is not useful is because their individual votes make no difference. (Hold onto that thought for later, also).
Others say the problem could be fixed by encouraging citizens to deliberate together. … Even though the researchers in question almost always want deliberation to “fix” democracy, in general they tend to find that it makes things worse, not better.
Studies show that high-information voters don’t always favor the Democrats’ politics. In fact, high-information voters tend to have policy preferences that cut across party lines. For instance, high-information voters are pro-free trade, pro-immigration, in favor of criminal justice reform, wish to raise taxes to offset the deficit, anti-war, pro-gay rights, and skeptical that the welfare state can solve all our problems (yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep).
The real worry though, is that when we look at the policy platforms of the two major parties, we see that both the Republicans and Democrats push agendas that tend to appeal to the uninformed and disinterested. We can’t quite blame them for that. After all, politicians need to win elections (yep), and to do so they have to appeal to voters. In a modern democracy, the uninformed will always greatly outnumber the informed (yep, the Behavior Curve). The quality of our candidates reflects the quality of our electorate (yep!). But democracy encourages our electorate to be bad quality. (This, no doubt, is why good quality candidates lose in the primaries)
The article kicker is a classic that should be emblazoned in our psyches,
Trump’s victory is the victory of the uninformed. But, to be fair, Clinton’s victory would also have been.
Apparently being uninformed includes not realizing that the office of the president is bigger than the occupant, and governing functions at a higher level than campaigning. Even with Trump in the White House, the Constitution kicks in.
It also apparently does not include the understanding that there is give and take in a democracy. You don’t always get all that you want, in spite of the Diet Coke campaign ad trumpeting the pop song, “I want it all, and I want it now.”
A mantra for the uninformed (all of them).
Winning is what has validated politicians since history began. If Clinton had won by the same margin that Trump had won, the liberals would have been unpleasantly triumphant2 and claiming a “mandate,” as happened in 2012. I don’t hear much of any “mandate” talk at the moment, just the sighs of recognition of the tasks ahead.
The consensus to explain the election leans to inaccurate polling and modeling, an unprecedented surge of white voters for Trump, Clinton’s failure not only to ignite enough enthusiasm and excitement among women, blacks and Latinos, but failure to connect with the “working class,” 3 as if talk of a “white working class” indicated a actual monolithic and homogenous base of support. Indeed, it appears the most important word in the his catchphrase was not make or America or even great. It was again.4
In a confirmation of “Either/Or” (FP 4c) thinking, Democrat leaders in California emailed their constituency the following,
Today, we woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land, because yesterday Americans expressed their views on a pluralistic and democratic society that are clearly inconsistent with the values of the people of California.5
So, in other words, with voting split at nearly 50/50, if Democrats had won it would have been a mandate, validating their values which would therefore be the right ones, but since Republicans won now all the wrong values have suddenly come out of nowhere and threaten to ruin the entire country? This is “deeply, collapse-of-America” wrong thinking. This is surreal.
It seems California Democrats aren’t the only ones reacting this way as severe protests broke out in major cities. As further confirmation of the Principles, analysis of the 112 arrests in the protest in Portland, OR, showed that most of them didn’t vote in Oregon. In fact, 39 of them were registered in Oregon but didn’t vote at all, and 35 others weren’t registered in Oregon.6 This appears to validate the suggestion that protesters are being brought in from elsewhere and encouraged by outside agitators.
Another oddly surreal situation was when a crowd of wealthy, out-of-touch Manhattan liberals (who can afford $849 tickets to “Hamilton”) booed vice-president elect Mike Pence while the cast of the Broadway show lectured him on diversity.7
Also surreal on election eve was the NPR commentator who kept repeating over and over, “But what do they want?” as election results and analyses about the “working class” kept pouring in.
This was followed by the announcement that the Canadian immigration website had crashed from so many inquiries.
Finally, surreal enough to be irritating were the people who years ago boldly stated that Bill Clinton’s character in office didn’t matter, but now suddenly Trump’s character was everything (but Hillary’s wasn’t).
It seems we’ve fallen a long way from when S.G. Tallentyre (The Friends of Voltaire) wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Probably a more pertinent observation is that of Søren Kierkegaard, “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” Fundamental Principle 7c is not new.
What struck me about the polls was that there was only one, the L. A. Times/USC poll, which indicated a different outcome, primarily due to their methodology. Even more striking was that, after the election, the N. Y. Times indulged in a bit of soul-searching.8 What was frightening was the revelation that, contrary to reporting procedures of the bottom up and reporter driven L. A. Times where editors daily ask, ‘What are you hearing?’, the N. Y. Times has for decades been a far more editor-driven, top down, self-conscious publication. “We set the agenda for the country in that (editor’s) room,” an elitist editorial dynamic the exact reverse of what one would expect. Reminds me of Hollywood actors (and certain organizational leaders) who spend too much time reading their own PR releases.
IDEAS AND OPPORTUNITIES
Making Individual Votes Count
The suggestion that individuals do not invest effort in becoming informed enough to vote intelligently because there is insufficient benefit, leads me to suggest a suitable modification to our election process to establish benefit in the form of “my vote counts.” After some contemplation, what comes to mind is the following:
- Let the vote results in each precinct determine directives for a number of representatives, a number based upon the number of precinct voters. Imbue these representatives with the charge to vote according to the percentage results in their precinct (a clear case of ‘my vote counts, because I can see its effect’);
- Let the representatives from a state gather to cast their votes according to precinct results. The resultant vote of the precinct representatives would then determine how a smaller number of state representatives (determined by each state’s population) would subsequently vote;
- Let the various state representatives then cast their votes (it will be tough and costly to get all of them together, so they could do this electronically. Or by fax) to be tabulated at some central location;
- The outcome of this tally would be the final results, and each individual would know that their vote had an impact all the way up the process. Voila! Problem solved!
Sounds good. Other than the fact that with just a couple of tweaks, this is the Electoral College.
Apparently the Founding Fathers ‘got it.’
It has bothered me, and possibly others including the Founding Fathers, for a long while: Why can’t government operate better?
Then an idea struck me. Logistics. The critical process of getting stuff from here to there, effectively and efficiently. (No, we don’t need drones in government. Plenty already). In truth I mean the broader picture of logistics. The one that necessarily includes a feedback loop.
We eliminate ‘feedback’ in public address systems because what is fed back is (painfully) unusable interference.
We do seek feedback in military operations, in education (we call them ‘tests’ and ‘grades’), in business and other organizations (was the product or service delivered timely, intact, is it suitable for purpose and performing to expectations?), for plays, movies and TV shows (are they watching or buying tickets?), in dating, marriage, and personal relationships, and in just about every other endeavor.
Oh yes, politicians will tell you that political ‘feedback’ comes via the next election. That’s true, but that’s only feedback concerning the politicians and policies. That’s in effect what this last election produced.
What’s missing is feedback that causes adjustments and tuning of the laws and regulations that result from policies. The politicians in Congress come in and pass laws to reflect putting policies into action and then turn over the creation of actionable regulations to others (e.g., moving the Affordable Care Act into actual practice). Before the regulations are created, the politicians are chest beating and moving on to some other policy. Or, after the ‘feedback’ of a subsequent election, they pass another law to tweak an existing law. Thus we are blessed with ever expanding and overweight regulations like the IRS tax code and Social Security.
There needs to be an ongoing practice/process of monitoring the regulations in action and adjusting them to be effective and efficient at achieving their original objectives. This would be true governing, before the next pseudo-feedback election.
Achieving this will be problematic, however, because of the hidden but differing fundamental objectives (and values) of the spectrum of politicians.
Consider the generic categories of Liberal and Conservative. The common ‘labeling’ descriptions of the two are that Liberals recognize and want change to fix things that are broken, and Conservatives don’t want to change things but leave them broken as they are. This is an over simplistic repurposing of words.
On observing their behaviors, Liberals are very high on corrective policies. If one asks a progressive, “If you could wave a wand and fulfill your every political goal, what kind of world would you build?” The answers inevitably consist of more policy.9 The transformation of policy into effective and efficient laws and regulations is invariably missing or under appreciated.
On the other hand, Conservatives tend not to be against change per se but to be more focused on how do we create and put into effect laws and regulations that will be most efficient in effecting a desirable, productive, observable and measurable change.
Granted, at the extremes, it seems that the more progressive types are more interested in the change rather than the how (or the implementation), and the very conservative are more interested in just maintaining a comfort zone with no change.
What would be a more appropriate and productive position is in the middle, where constructive (And/And) discussion would take place to identify a common path to improvement coupled with an identified process/practice of continuously testing/validating that the laws and regulations are indeed succeeding in achieving the intended goals. Turning rhetoric into results, not just policies. Before a subsequent election. In spite of the research that generally indicates deliberation tends to make things worse rather than better, what other democratic options do we have? Make it work.
After all, Microsoft doesn’t just slap code together for an operating system and launch it without significant internal testing and beta release into real environments. And there are still bugs. Apps have constant updates (bugs too, and an environment that is constantly changing).
Laws are design plans; regulations are the product as services. If it’s broke, fix it.
1 President Obama suggests Hillary Clinton is to blame for stunning election loss (Nicole Rojas, International Business Times)
2 Liberals, chill out about Trump victory (CNN)
3 Democrats try to pick up the pieces (Maeve Reston, CNN)
4 What Trump Voters Want Now (Michael Kruse, Politico)
5 California’s Democrats Are Ready for Political War (James Nash, Esmé, Bloomberg Businessweek)
6 Election Violence 2016: Most Anti-Trump Protestors Arrested in Oregon Didn’t Vote (Juliana Pignataro, International Business Times)
7 ‘Hamilton’ and the Implosion of the American left (Marc Thiessen, Washington Post)
8 Stunned By Trump, The New York Times Finds Time For Some Soul-Searching (Michael Cieply, Yahoo News)
9 Explaining It All to You (Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs)