Saturday, 12 November 2016

Dissecting the US Election

So, I'm going to tell you the one thing that allowed Donald Trump to win the 2016 US Presidential election.
Image Credit: (c) Can Stock Photo / solarseven

Don't worry, I know how absurd that statement was. But in the last few days I've read and watched so many analysis pieces that try to make sense of what just happened by looking for a primary cause. And while they might find a cause that they personally like or believe, there isn't a primary cause. There are dozens of causes. Any attempt to distill the those causes down to even a small few is doomed to failure.
Furthermore, while it's possible to say certain specific groups of voters voted for a candidate because of X, that only deals with that specific group of voters. Other voters voted the the very same candidate for very different reasons. In some cases those reasons may actually have been diametrically opposed to the reasons that drove he first group.
(Note: when I say specific groups of voters, I do not mean ethnic groups or genders or even party members. Every one of those 'groups' is so broad as to be useless for any real analysis. I don't have a proper operational definition for my specific groups, but they are sub-sub-subsets, with many extra 'subs')
So having said that, what's the point of this article? Mostly it's my attempt to identify, explore, and perhaps categorize as many of those causes as I can. I don't plan to rank them, or to assign more than a broad level of impact to them (i.e. major vs minor). Basically, I'm writing this for me, and inflicting it on anyone unlucky enough to stumble across it.  However, I would say that, if things are to improve (and not just in US Elections) we can't try to fix one thing.  Any real progress will come from multiple vectors and will be more likely to involve incremental change (although I propose some dramatic change below).

Before we move on, I'm going to make a number of statements that should impact how you read and assess this article:

  1. I'm Canadian, and for all our similarities, Canadians don't approach government exactly the same way as Americans. We have different values and my values impact my thinking. 
  2. I'm a human being, so I'm horribly biased. My biases impact my thinking no matter how hard I try to be objective. 
  3. Key bias: I did not want Donald Trump to win the election. 
  4. While I do have a degree in Psychology, with a minor in Political Studies, I'm no expert in either field. I don't practice in either field. I'm just a layperson trying to figure things out. 
  5. This is a blog post. Despite its ridiculous length, there are 78520372341 things that occurred to me I didn't have time to mention, clarify, explore. 
  6. In a couple of places I have come up with a number by mashing the number pad. 
  7. I'm no genius, so there are also an order of magnitude more things I missed, misunderstood, or that I just didn't think of,

The Primary Point of Failure in Democracy
Surprisingly, I'm not going to mention the Electoral College here (but don't worry, I'll get to it).
Perhaps the biggest flaw in democracy is that it allows people to vote. In a representative democracy, the assumption is that people will vote for representatives who will enact laws and policies that benefit the voters. Underlying that assumption is another assumption that people will vote logically, or rationally. Unfortunately, people are rarely logical or rational; both in every day decisions, but even more so in the area of politics.

Emotional Voting
Child cowering in fear of a shadowy form
Image Credit: (c) Can Stock Photo / HaywireMedia

I think it's undeniable that emotions were one of the most major impacts to the election. Whether out of fear or anger or in hope and joy, people voted based on feelings. Sadly, I think fear and anger were the predominant feelings.

For years, both of the major parties have tried to instill fear in the US populace. They differ only in what the voter is supposed to fear. Fear short circuits most of our ability to think rationally. It activates much more primitive behaviour sets, driving us to either flee or fight. Neither reaction is generally driven by logic.

Anger appeared in this election in so many ways. Anger directed at the past and present actions of the candidates. Anger directed at the actions of the government. Anger drawn from the systemic problems that afflict groups and individuals. Anger at a world that isn't the world the voter wants.
Often the anger was directly stoked by the fear mongering of the parties. But I believe that just as much was endemic. It seem trite to talk about the impact of technological change, but I do truly believe the pace of change has accelerated.
Anger is a common reaction to change, because of the pain of the loss of what was, the fear of the new, and work involved to incorporate the new world. But when the change is constant, we are in a constant state of loss, and often have to start incorporating a new world before we could even come to terms with last new thing.
Regardless of the source, anger is just as bad at short-circuiting rationality. It can lead us to make choices that are not only bad, but actively self-destructive.

Okay, before my fellow geeks jump on me for allusions to the first trilogy, I honestly do have to talk about hate. Of course I'm not saying I didn't intentionally order the emotions to imply an ultimate result.
I think it's fair to say that I've actively observed nine presidential elections (I'm afraid it was only in my teens that I started to pay attention to politics.) It has only been in the last three that I truly got the sense that any sizable group truly hated a candidate. In the first two of those three, I blithely ascribed that hate to a particular motivation. While I'm still sure that my ascription was valid, I now believe it was woefully limited.
We increasingly demonize those who disagree with us. There is an innate human tendency to react negatively when someone believes something other than what we believe. Alternative viewpoints mean that we might be wrong. But lately, it seems that we react to that challenge far more negatively than is appropriate. My personal theory is that this is because being wrong has moved from being mildly embarrassing to a tragedy of epic proportions. We vilify people for errors that should not draw more than a wry grin.
Regardless of the reasons for the hate, it undeniably impacted this election. Once people start to hate something or someone, there is little likelihood of that changing, barring an event on the order of divine intervention.

As much play as the negative emotions played a part, emotions like hope also had an impact. Many people saw their own dreams realized in the platform and promises of a particular candidate. Hope for jobs, hope for progress, hope for a better tomorrow.Hope is a beautiful thing, but it can lead us astray.  Rather than go into that in detail, I'll direct you to Hannah Hart's (@harto) vlogbrother video on the topic: The Trouble with Wishful Thinking

Humans are Bad Decision Makers
Even outside of emotions (an absurd and impossible precondition), human beings are not great at making decisions.  We rarely make decisions by thinking through the options logically and choosing the best one.  There are a number of reasons for that.

Cognitive biases
I could probably write fifty articles on the different cognitive biases that skew our thinking in illogical ways.  Whether it's the Ambiguity Effect (which definitely impacts voting) to Apophenia (which I also believe impacts voting), or even the Availability Heuristic (which, given the media bubbles that I'll talk about below also impacted voting).  And I didn't even leave the "A's".
Regardless, these cognitive biases affect all of us.  We are not the logical and rational thinkers that Democracy requires.

One of the reasons we have the biases we do is that they help us make decisions quickly.  We couldn't function if we had to fully analyze every decision we make each day.  For those of us lucky enough to live in relative affluence, just deciding on breakfast would take until lunch if we thought through every option each time (although perhaps we'd be healthier).
Image Credit: (c) Can Stock Photo / kgtoh
When you look at what we are asking our politicians to do, the number of factors we need to consider are definitely on the second half of the chessboard.  To logically and rationally decide who will best represent us, we need to decide on questions in almost every sphere of human endeavor.  I like to think of myself as a reasonably well educated person, but honestly I don't feel remotely qualified to vote.  I don't have the time required to truly assess each candidate's position on every issue, much less the expertise.  Nor do I have the time to fully vet the experts that those candidates rely on.  The best I can do is guess at a specific set of issues and approaches that form my sine qua non and see which candidate comes closest.

Bubbles, Echo Chambers and Silos, Oh My!
I don't want to spend a lot of time on the Bubble/Echo Chamber phenomenon as it also is discussed more effectively elsewhere.  The problem is that I do believe it has been steadily increasing both polarization and demonization.
We all live in informational bubbles.  Truth is what is presented to us in that bubble.  Lately that has reached the point that we don't even experience the same realities.  Have ten random voters describe today's America, and I bet you'd find at least five very different pictures (and I fear it would be ten). I suspect, stripped of any place names, you might not recognize what country was being described.
The informational bubble has always existed to some extent, whether it was based on what church you attended, which newspapers or periodicals to which one subscribed, which news anchor one preferred, or even where you lived,  Similarly, we have always tended to surround ourselves with like minded people.  We like people who think like us, and who tell us we are right.  As much as we want to believe that opposites attract, it has always been truer that birds of a feather flock together.
People clustered into niche groups
Image Credit: (c) Can Stock Photo / iqoncept
However the problem has intensified.  The digital world, in offering us so much more access to information and so many more ways to connect, has actually driven us into silos. As a cable cutter, the information I receive and the feedback I get is especially filtered:
  • Algorithms feed me news based on what articles I've already read.
  • The people I follow are people who say things I agree with (and those that follow me likely agree with much of what I say).
    • Sadly, I have unfollowed people because they've said things I don't like.  I'm not saying that's always wrong, but I can't say I've always soberly considered whether what they're saying is truly objectionable or just something that I don't want to hear.
  • The videos I see are also generally based on the channels I've chosen to follow, and the videos I've watched.
    • Even worse, I can tell YouTube to stop recommending videos based on videos I disliked.
  • Most of my other online sources of information are also ones I've selected.
Unfortunately, I'm not sure that there is a good answer here.  I like to think I'm open minded.  I'm certainly always willing to admit I'm wrong (which, based on how often I'm wrong is a darn good thing.)  
I do know that we are not going to be challenged on what we believe if we don't get outside the echo chambers that just bounce our beliefs back at us.  But where do we go?  In the digital world, if we try to express our views in a different silo, the chances of meaningful discussion seem slim.  Even the process of simply trying to understand what that silo believes and why, can bury us under waves of scorn, vituperation and even threats.
I think one place that used to be a source of that sort of external input was the workplace.  However, most workplaces these days discourage political discussions (validly seeking to avoid the sort of invective and abuse described above). 
I believe, like most problems in our past, there is a solution.  I think people from a multitude of silos will begin to resent the walls that isolate them, and I look forward to the creative solutions that they come up with to help break down those walls. I wish I had that sort of creativity.

Sadly, when it comes to politics, it seems everyone lies.  People who believe the lies choose to vote for the candidate who uttered them.
So these days, digital technology has given us better tools to detect lies.  Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to matter.  Independent groups provided evidence that both candidates had lied, the only upshot of which was arguments about who lied more.  I honestly (pun intended) have no idea what to say about that.

To try to shorten an already long post, and allow a bit of time to cover the system itself, I'm going to bullet out a bunch of the reasons people chose to vote for a candidate (hopefully further illustrating the problems with people choosing others to represent them.)
  • Racism
  • Sexism
    • Gender was used by both sides (having a hard time being objective on this one)
  • Homophobia
  • Religion/Atheism
    • I know, lumping them together seems odd.
  • Looks
    • Both candidates were mocked for their appearance
  • Grammar
  • Party affiliation
    • I know it's often true in Canada, but I truly don't understand the "My Party, right or wrong" thinking.
  • Protest voting
  • Some people just want to watch the world burn
    • Yes, I'm differentiating that from the protest voting.  I think there's a difference.
  • 90238547 other reasons

Evil Democracy
So democracy needs logical rational voters, and as illustrated above, people can't fill that role.  What's the solution?
Unfortunately, there isn't a solution.  All I can do is side with Churchill:
Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…

A Broken System
Don't worry.  While this could be ten times as long as what I've already written, I'm not going to go into significant detail on these points.  First, I'm sure you can find much more cogent discussions of them in other spaces, and secondly, I'm talking about another countries government, so my Canadian biases are really showing.

The Electoral College
I doubt anyone is surprised that I'm starting here.  While the system makes a bit more sense in the 'Division of Powers' environment, it's time to seriously revisit how it works.  Any system that makes only a few states important, and could result in a president that a significant majority voted against really needs to be reconsidered.  If you want more detail, check out CGP Grey's videos (you should really look him up on YouTube rather than watching in the frames below):

State Set Voting Rules
I really believe that the US needs to set Federal rules for voting in national elections.  The differences in each state create confusion, and require a ridiculous amount of effort to clarify.  They also lead to significant inequality.
I recognize that my Canadian biases are showing here.  They're going to show even more clearly in my next point.

The Two Party System
Yep.  A Canadian arguing for a multi-party system.  Next thing you know the sun will rise in the east, and water will be wet.
Humour aside, I do think the only way a viable third party could reasonably arise in the US would be a centrist party formed out of 'left' leaning Republicans and 'right' leaning Democrats, driven to such drastic measures by the polarization of the existing parties.  However, I don't believe that such a party would break the two party system.  Rather it would simply marginalize one of the other parties and replace it.  Without some more significant change in the structure of the US government, and the voting methodology, the two party system is likely to persist.  Yet it doesn't seem to be meeting the needs.  What are people to do when both candidates seem like a bad idea to them (and yes, I recognize that a majority of voters were able to decide which they thought was worse, but is that really the way to go?)

Election Funding Rules
I know everyone is going to talk about how the underfunded candidate won.  Regardless, they need to curb campaign spending.  Their elected officials spend more time raising money than anything else. Setting better limits on donations and spending would likely also increase trust in the officials themselves (and yes, I also believe in the Tooth Fairy and the Soul Cake Duck).

A Final Thought
The only thing I haven't mentioned here is one of the most speculative items.  I do see Donald Trumps election reflecting a more general trend in the world.  We have seen a few other 'extreme' political events.  The Brexit vote and the election of Rodrigo Duterte immediately come to mind. I leave this till the end, and even there hesitate to mention it, because it is likely just me falling victim to Apophenia. But are we possibly seeing some sort of global risky shift in politics?