Making Sense of November 8th, 2016

Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States on November 8th, 2016 in an upstart victory that, frankly, no one thought possible. As Daniel Estrada describes his feelings prior to November 8th, "I was convinced that Clinton would win not just because all the sources in the media said she would, but because I though [politics as usual] was the dominant position." My assessment that Clinton would win the election was not as thoughtful as Daniel's, but it was just as strong:  Clinton was all-but guaranteed the victory.

538 predicts a strong Clinton victory 12 hours before the election

538 predicts a strong Clinton victory 12 hours before the election

The media, after all, had all but promised a Clinton victory, with election predictions giving Donald Trump a 1 to 28.6% chance of securing the necessary electoral votes to win the White House.  So, what in the world happened, and how does it affect life as we know it?

In order to understand the ramifications of the 2016 election we need to examine three key factors: 

  1. Political Polarization
  2. Historical Context
  3. Words, the best words

Political Polarization


The most important aspect of this election cycle was, undoubtedly, the polarization that occurred throughout the country.  Polarization, and the extremism that accompanies it, helps incite people to action; or, in this case, to vote.  As a result, of the three phenomenon's at play here, it was the most significant.

For example, not only did The Halo Effect play a significant role in demonizing Hilary Clinton over a trumped up e-mail scandal, conveniently released (and then reneged) at tactical times to influence the election, with significant impacts to Hillary Clinton's approval rating. The underlying phenomenon at play here is simple: Hillary Clinton is accused of mishandling classified information and endangering national security; therefore, Hillary Clinton is unable to keep the nation secure and is unfit to be president.  At that point, repetition is indistinguishable from reality, and the lack of indictment from the FBI on either case matters little to the election process.

However, this effect - by itself - would be incapable enabling Donald Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton. For this to happen, something dramatic would have to take place:  The Recession of 2008.  In his book, The Revolt of the Public, Martin Gurri attributes the worldwide riots of the early 2000s to the growing wealth disparity being seen throughout the world.  He says, plainly:  "It's hard to avoid the suspicion that the zeal among [rioters] was directly proportional to their loss of earning power." After the Recession of 2008, the scope and veracity of these protests throughout the world grew exponentially, and that angst never truly faded nor was it successfully captured by the incredibly tone-deaf Mitt Romney in 2012.

Donald Trump, however, capitalized on this angst fairly well and has led us to our current state of affairs.  Unfortunately, as we unpack the next two sections we'll see the damage that his campaign, and Hillary Clinton's portrayal of his campaign, may have caused on his ascent to the White House. This damage, and this polarization has led us beyond the typical political polarization that I've written about before into something far more dramatic; an area that Daniel Estrada cynically defines as "a pit of despair."

Politicians like Hillary Clinton try to keep us operating within "Politics as usual" while making incremental changes; whereas politicians like Donald Trump and Barack Obama try to bring us to an idealized version of their America.  The result requires traversing a time of growing pains categorized by Daniel Estrada as a "pit of despair." The sad reality of this isn't that we entered one in 2016, it's that we'll likely continue entering them until America reunifies.

Politicians like Hillary Clinton try to keep us operating within "Politics as usual" while making incremental changes; whereas politicians like Donald Trump and Barack Obama try to bring us to an idealized version of their America.  The result requires traversing a time of growing pains categorized by Daniel Estrada as a "pit of despair." The sad reality of this isn't that we entered one in 2016, it's that we'll likely continue entering them until America reunifies.

Individuals are captivated by politicians with radical ideas, like the Affordable Care Act - or deporting all illegal immigrants - and are swayed to one side or the other.  The complex disinformation campaigns that those against the radical ideas use (e.g. the GOP against the ACA) confuse the situation, diluting the number of informed voters, leaving only extremists for/against the idea who have little tolerance for compromise.

Individuals are captivated by politicians with radical ideas, like the Affordable Care Act - or deporting all illegal immigrants - and are swayed to one side or the other.  The complex disinformation campaigns that those against the radical ideas use (e.g. the GOP against the ACA) confuse the situation, diluting the number of informed voters, leaving only extremists for/against the idea who have little tolerance for compromise.


Historical Context


If we look at the history of presidential elections, and the trends of the campaigns of those we elect to lead us, we'll notice a sobering (and very pedestrian) trend reaching back all the way to the 1800s: A desire for Economic Security or a desire for social progress.  With only a few exceptions, the foundation upon which nearly every campaign for presidency is built can be traced to these two ideologies.

While it's rare for America to unify completely behind one or the other, it's equally rare that America splits nearly evenly between them, and when America does, we have extremely contentious elections. I've already written at great length about the specifics of choosing between Economic Security and social progress, but the reader's digest version is: Economic Security is our white whale; our Moby Dick.  A large amount of the population places it above the desire for social progress, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're enemies of social progress; they just place it a lower priority than Economic Security, and this difference of opinion in foundation ideologies leads to polarization, and violence.

The other historic context that should be examined is presidential power and super majorities. There are a lot of people extremely concerned about a Trump presidency, but a primer on executive power written by the LA Times puts many of these fears to rest. For example, when asked if President Trump could overturn Roe Vs Wade, their response is a levelheaded not on his own. Overturning a court case would fall to the Supreme Court, which has had a majority of conservative appointees since Roe Vs Wade was enacted. When asked about stop-and-frisk techniques, the LA times correctly responded that local and state police precincts do not answer to the federal government.


Words, the best words


There is one important way that a Trump presidency could affect the lives of millions directly, and that's through changing the dialogue of America.  Before I continue though, it's worth noting that this change in dialogue is not solely attributable to Trump's campaign; in fact, the way in which Hillary Clinton's campaign portrayed Trump, and his constituents, likely caused as much damage to the national dialogue as many of Trump's own remarks. With whom you choose to place the majority of the blame will likely be something of an internal debate, so for our purposes we'll just look at "the election."

During the election we had comments that, had they been directed at someone, would have been sexual harassment. In fact, the sheer number of comments that could have been defined as sexual harassment under different circumstances is not only staggering but frightening; this isn't just "words" that we're talking about, but the normalization of behavior.  Numerous studies of U.S. colleges and the U.S. military have shown a substantial (around 30 percent) link between those who sexually assault their victims having first sexually harassed them.

According to a 2012 DOD survey on workplace and gender relations, nearly 30 percent of women and 19 percent of men who reported being sexually assaulted said their attackers had also sexually harassed them.
— Chris Carroll
Sexual Harassment is unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and include offensive remarks about a person’s sex (i.e. it’s illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general).
— Equal Employment Opportunity Center

When the researchers step back and look at more than just the history of sexual harassment between the attacker and the victim, and instead look at the environment as a whole, the number jumps up to 80%.  Meaning, that when we look at a case of sexual assault, there's an 80% chance that it originated in an environment where sexual harassment is prominent and not actively discouraged.

The research into why this phenomenon happens is still fairly new, but most trends point to normalization of behavior.  Whenever an environment does not actively discourage discriminatory behavior (i.e. sexism, racism, homophobia) by its vocal minority, then the violent minority feels empowered to act according to their sadistic desires.  Even though this violent minority is such an extreme minority, their presence within this environment will be disproportionately higher than in environments that actively discourage this dialogue.

Consider that the number of sexual offenders in the population is extremely low, probably three standard deviations from the bulk of the population (or 0.1%).  Individuals who actively engage in sexual harassment is also low, let's say around 2% of the population, whereas those who passively engage (e.g. laughing at inappropriate jokes) is significantly higher at 13.6% of the population.  The silent majority accounts for 64% of the population, but is split between those who see a problem and do nothing, and those who believe no problem exists.

Consider that the number of sexual offenders in the population is extremely low, probably three standard deviations from the bulk of the population (or 0.1%).  Individuals who actively engage in sexual harassment is also low, let's say around 2% of the population, whereas those who passively engage (e.g. laughing at inappropriate jokes) is significantly higher at 13.6% of the population.  The silent majority accounts for 64% of the population, but is split between those who see a problem and do nothing, and those who believe no problem exists.

This behavioral model is well documented in sexual assault and less so in racism and homophobia, but the underlying phenomenon are fairly transferable; which makes its relevance to the election fairly self-evident.  As I mentioned, the election had several comments that, under different circumstances, could have been sexual harassment, but it also had comments that were, at best, politically insensitive and, at worst, racist. While this commentary did not call for or encourage violence against minorities, it did embolden those fringe radicals to act out.

A trans woman in Tennessee returns to her car to find it burned with "TRUMP" painted on the hood.  Text reads "being openly Trans in Tennessee is starting to become a problem."

A trans woman in Tennessee returns to her car to find it burned with "TRUMP" painted on the hood.  Text reads "being openly Trans in Tennessee is starting to become a problem."

Protesters throughout the country turn violent as radicals within the mostly peaceful groups use the anti-Trump sentiment to justify vandalism.  Image of Portland protests, from Yahoo.com

Protesters throughout the country turn violent as radicals within the mostly peaceful groups use the anti-Trump sentiment to justify vandalism.  Image of Portland protests, from Yahoo.com

It's worth noting that along with that violent fringe group - on both sides - engaging in violence, a larger group (probably within that 2% range) is engaging in deliberate disinformation. The first viral story of violence was of a Muslim female student at the University of Louisiana who claimed to have had her hijab ripped off; on Thursday, the local police announced that the young woman had admitted she fabricated the story. Similarly, an alleged attack of a gay man, named Chris Ball, may not have happened as described either. The Santa Monica Police Department posted a message to Facebook Thursday saying that neither the department nor city officials had "received any information indicating this crime occurred in the City of Santa Monica" and "a check of local hospitals revealed there was no victim of any such incident admitted or treated."

However, regardless of the disinformation campaign, the polarizing and inflammatory rhetoric of the election campaign has undoubtedly laid bare many wounds within our country. Unfortunately, the way in which both candidates addressed theses wounds seem to have emboldened, at least for the time being, the vocal and violent minorities within their voter base; to the detriment of many of us operating in the active and silent majorities.


moving forward


In order to understand the ramifications of the 2016 election we needed to examine three key factors: 

  1. How political polarization occurs
  2. The historical context that leads to the political conflict 
  3. The effect that words have on the way people behave

In understanding these three factors, we'll be better able to understand the election beyond what our news agency of choice decides to tell us and better able to understand both sides of the aisle.  Understanding the way people become extreme in their political ideologies and how history tends to repeat itself can help us avoid contentious elections in the future; potentially avoiding those "pits of despair" if we're able to shift from our current winner-take-all political system.

However, in the mean time, it's important to remember that words affect the way people behave, and in this extremely contentious election it's important that we do not find ourselves inadvertently fueling the flames. Generalizing Trump supporters as racists or people who are fearing a Trump presidency as cry babies, is only increasing the polarization and likely to lead to more contention, violence, and repeats of the 2016 election cycle.