Making America Grate Again – Early thoughts on a shock election

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Today I had to give the first lecture of my ‘elections and voting’ course since Donald Trump’s shock victory. To be honest, I’m glad it wasn’t yesterday. I found myself genuinely upset by the result, to the point where any sort of objective analysis was probably impossible.

Anyway, I had a good night’s sleep and spent the morning thinking about how to explain the result to my students and make sense of what it will mean. Here’s some of what I came up with…

In my opinion, there’s no single explanation that fully accounts for Trump’s victory. As human beings we crave narratives. But the reality is that millions of people, each with their own values, beliefs and motivations voted for both candidates. That doesn’t mean that we can’t explore patterns in the vote – gender, race, education, income (and its more mysterious cousin, class), age and urban versus rural location can all be used to carve the electorate into very different-looking segments.

According to exit polls, Trump’s appeal was strongest among white males with no college education; estimates indicate that over 70% of this sub-group voted for Trump. In this sense, the data support the notion of a ‘whitelash’, but the same data show that about a third of Hispanic voters also supported Trump, a higher portion than the relatively inoffensive Mitt Romney managed to achieve in 2012.

Some people voted on the basis of candidates’ personalities, others on their issue stances, others still stayed true to a deep-seated sense of partisan identification. Many Trump voters were taking an opportunity to put the boot into a despised political elite. Others were expressing rage at an economy and society that is leaving them behind. Still others were voting to further embed their existing economic advantages. And, let’s face it; some were simply outright racists. The bottom line is that there’s no single idea or theory that can entirely explain this election.

Another reason that we should avoid the temptation to divine a clear ‘will of the people’ from this complex election is that the result actually hinged on a relatively small margin. As Nate Silver points out, if 1 in 100 voters had gone for Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump, she would have come out with a comfortable 307 electoral votes. The unavoidable truth is that an archaic American electoral college system gave Donald Trump a decisive victory, despite a narrow win for Clinton in the popular vote.

Nonetheless, one of the horrible lessons of Brexit is that extremists of various deplorable stripes will see the result as a vindication for their world view. If you think I’m exaggerating, just look at all of the reports of bullying, nasty and aggressive behaviour that has been directed at minorities and women since Trump’s victory on the #TrumpsAmerica hashtag on Twitter. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has paid even moderate attention to Trump’s rhetoric or the behaviour of his supporters at rallies.

In his acceptance speech, Donald Trump sounded a more conciliatory, moderate note than at any point in the campaign. President-elect Trump didn’t mention locking up his opponent; instead he complimented her public service. He went further, saying that he’ll be a President for all Americans and that he’ll reach out to those who have opposed him to date and seek their guidance in his work to come. In order to do so, he’ll have to break most of the vows that he made in order to achieve office.

Finally, it’s becoming increasingly clear that all sorts of people who are paid to understand elections – including academics like myself – need to up our game. This is the third major election in the last couple of years that we’ve almost universally misread (the others were the Conservative majority in 2015 and, of course, the Brexit result). The degree on my wall says ‘Political Science’ and predictive power is the ultimate test of any claim to hold ‘scientific’ knowledge. At the moment, we’re failing that test.

4 thoughts on “Making America Grate Again – Early thoughts on a shock election

  1. Thank you, Matt, for this mix of useful insight and humility. I still reckon most commentators are missing some key points. When the political, admininstrative, commercial, corporate, professional and academic elites (and the armies of flunkies and functionaries they retain) over a long period and with sustained effort treat a large number of voters with contempt and abuse and exploit them, it is inevitable that enough of these voters will turn eventually against the mainstream politicians. It is unfortunate that Trump took such a low and brutal approach to shore up his support, but the Clinton camp had so cocooned itseslf in endless liberal sanctimony, in avoiding or self-servingly concealing the reasons for the economic reality being confronted by so many of these voters, excesssive suppression of free debate, faux and agressive expressions of equality and diversity and unfundable entitlements that he had little choice if he were to secure sufficient electoral college votes. It was just politics. The vote of gun-totin’ red-neck in the rutral midwest is a vote in the same as that of a metrosexual hipster on the upper East Side. Trump is a necessary purgative for the body politic and we can judge the extent of the blockage by the purgative he is providing.

    But that phase of the battle is now over. The hyperventilating liberals, lefties and luvvies are making thrmselves look really silly. They are taking Trump literally – and deducing a totally unjustified and confected serousness from this. Most of Trump’s supporters, quite sensibly, took him seriously, but not literally.

    The advanced economies are in a liquidity trap – and have been there since the end of the Great Recession. The deadweight of economic rent-seeking by those exercising power and influence in these economies are retarding efforts to escape this liquidity. The US economy on its own will not be able to free the global economy from this liquidity trap, but it can do the heavy lifting. That is what President-Elect Trump is proposing to do – and there is more than a hint of some badly necessary old-style Teddy Roosevelt trust-busting. Let’s wait and see if the GOP will do the right thing or split and force Pres. Trump to rely on support from across the aisle.

    The US system has a remarkable ability to renew itself. It will do so again.

    The reality of and the reasons for Brexit have not yet fully impacted on the greedy, stupid and powerful in Britain.

    Nor does it appear that Irish politicians fully understand the discipline a large number of voters have imposed on them. They should be grateful, because, compared to governing politicians in other countries, they have been treated very gently – particulalry when they deserved a more brutal electoral shoeing than they received. The voters who nromally would provide one or other of the main parties with sufficient seats to form a majority government have decided to provide neither main party with one. It is an efficient and elegant means of constraining the abuse of excessive executive dominance – because in the past it was unrestrained majority governments that did the most damage (and for which we are still paying). But it is even more elegant because it has locked the two main parties into a “government/opposition” dance, requires some sensible behaviour from some of the FF/FG gene-pool independents and the deluded lefties and pseudo-lefties have been left outside in the cold. The real test will occur after the next election if FF returns with more seats than FG, but with both well short of a majority.

    It is, of course, a quintessentially Irish solution to an Irish problem and does absolutely nothing to tackle the fundamental social and economic problems.

    • Thanks Paul. Well, there’s a lot here. The seriously/literally distinction is a useful one for understanding Trump, I think. In terms of the systemic crisis that’s undoubtedly a part of Trump’s success – I tend to agree. What’s worrying is that the politicians who are becoming empowered by this crisis appear more likely to exacerbate it than solve it. In my opinion they represent the wrong answer to some of the right questions. It’s the very suppression of these questions that has led to the explosive and unpredictable set of recent elections. Apart from being wrong in itself, blaming minorities/immigrants focuses on entirely the wrong targets. Bernie Sanders with his ‘left populism’ may not have all of the answers, but at least he would have avoided this particular trap.

      • The sanctimonious left (with people like Sanders and Corbyn) doesn’t have any answers either – its a busted flush. In fact it’s now a serious part of the problem in a number of developed economies and preventing the necessary realignments. A number of polities could benefit if they were able to sideline this sanctimonious left the same way as it has been in Ireland – or if these deluded crusties could be encouraged to wake up and small the coffee and make some useful contribution.

  2. I have to say the world is a lot safer today than it would be under Hillary her idea to provoke a confrontation with Russia by declaring a no fly zone in Syria was a continuation of her daft and utterly self destructive policies on Libya. Funding her campaign with Middle Eastern money did not go down well and Julian took full revenge from his prison cell in London. I went to the trouble of listening to hours of Donald Trump and found the man utterly practical. Trump is beginning 8 long years in the White House long may he reign.

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