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from Chris Knopf
The political establishment, in which I include government officials, party apparatchiks, consultants, and commentators, is acting like a wounded elephant, after running headlong into a tree—dazed and confused, and lumbering around wondering what the heck just happened.
In the ad agency business, when the buying behavior of potential customers is directly counter to all the predictions of planning and research, we euphemistically call this a “disconnect”. Our clients tend to use other words, like “you’re fired.”
What we have in the political world is a disconnect of massive, historic proportions. I consider it a total, systemic intellectual failure.
By intellectuals, I don’t just mean PhD.s or other brainy sorts in various walks of life. I mean anyone who has an active mind, kept enlivened by lifetime learning and intelligent discourse. If you could find one of these folks who thought a year ago that Trump would be elected president, or Sanders would emerge as a tight second for the Democratic nomination, you’d call them intelligent, but sadly misguided.
And yet here we are.
Doubtless thousands if not millions of dollars were spent in recent years on pollsters and opinion researchers that should have revealed what we now know to be demonstrably true: a huge percentage of voters hate the political establishment, and are in such emotional pain, they’d vote for anyone who said the American system is rigged against them, no matter how it was said.
My experience with market research tells me two things: all that money was spent asking the wrong questions, or the researchers totally misunderstood the answers they got. A third possibility is that the people interviewed gave false testimony. This happens all the time, which brought us New Coke, and why even gifted pollsters like Nate Silver can get it terribly wrong. Only the deep heart of the respondents knows what they’ll actually do at the moment of decision. In this case, in the voting booth.
I think that’s part of the explanation, but I’m inclined to believe experts heard what people were saying, but didn’t truly understand what they were hearing. Any researcher will tell you that data means nothing unless properly interpreted.
This misunderstanding worked its way from the information gatherers to the information disseminators—journalists and other commentators—who stirred in their own biases and vested (intellectual) interests, resulting in a national frame of mind that was diametrically opposed to what was actually going on.
Confirmation bias is the scourge of the digital society. We have so much information flooding our brains, unreliably curated, that we naturally embrace those bits that conform to our view of the world. This extends to the media we gravitate to, which I’d include regular face-to-face conversations, as our social lives become more and more tribal—economically, ideologically, intellectually.
So it should come as no surprise that the information gatherers, who mostly come from one social class (relatively well off) would unconsciously process the agony of another social class (working people in both parties facing declining circumstances) through their personal filters, however earnestly they believe in their own objectivity.
I’m reminded of the scene in The Big Short when Steve Carell’s character went to Florida and met a stripper who had something like five sub-prime mortgages. It was a great Gestalt moment. Economic catastrophe was about to land on our heads and almost no one anywhere would see it coming.
I didn’t see it coming either. Neither did I think for a second that Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders would be realistic candidates (for the record, I hoped Bernie would prevail). Though I had one moment at the beginning of the campaign listening to an NPR talk show, where a caller from Kentucky wondered about the media fuss over Jeb Bush when everyone he knew was excited about Trump.
I wonder if there was a researcher moderating a focus group of middle-class people in Kentucky, or Michigan, or Connecticut, who heard everyone say that the American system had failed them, that they were frightened and angry, and fired up to do something about it.
And if the moderator said to herself, uh-oh, these people are going to vote their hearts. And nobody’s paying attention.