The Prophets’ Poison

Who saw the US election result coming?

Not many before it happened. A great many once it had.

When I woke up and saw the result, I was angry, not simply at the result, not simply at the voters who elected Trump, but at the process that now sets in as Trump’s victory becomes part of history. This is a second attempt to explain what I meant by that.

There have always been, and there always will be prophets. Whatever the unlikely, outrageous course of history, the most obvious paths have their evangelists. Before 2008, there were voices shouting that there was something very wrong with subprime mortgages and collateralised debt obligations. Before the 2015 British general election, before the 2016 British EU referendum, before the 2016 US election, there were people who called the results correctly, all – to greater or lesser degrees – in the face of the opposite consensus.

Now these people say they were right.

But they were not necessarily right, and this is very important.

Of course they were right about one big important thing. To predict the 2008 crash, or elections that have produced surprising results, that looks impressive. Until you think about how the prophets predict.

Take Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, who predicted a Trump win. The problem is, he also predicted Trump would win the popular vote, and (to confuse matters) also undercut his own argument by saying that Trump would be penalised for, well, being Trump, so probably wouldn’t match the prediction after all.

Or think about the L.A. Times poll, the great outlier among the polls used by Nate Silver and the 538 team to predict the result. Even in their victory dance the L.A. Times had the good sense to point out that where their model succeeded this time was (partly) on inflating the importance of white, male voters, the kinds of people who voted Trump, and some of whom were unwilling to say so over the phone. Their poll depended on a certain turnout on election day. Turns out they were right, but they could have been wrong.

Or Trafalgar Group, who guessed some of the states Trump would flip, but screwed up a whole other load.

Show me the prediction where Trump won in the path he did. It may be ignorance, but I haven’t seen that yet.

We can say the same thing about every single upset on my list above. Even those who predicted the 2008 crash were unable to guess the exact timings, or how the collapse would come. The result makes these people look clever, but a minor shift in events would have made posterity see them as what outliers are most of the time: crackpots.

When it comes to voting, nobody, absolutely nobody, actually knows which factors dictate specific votes. How would you even begin to separate out implicit racism from economic uncertainty in the mind of an individual, let alone the aggregate vote?

This is very important for two reasons, one of which is – in a sense – historiographical, and the other of which has direct political consequences. I have a long-running argument with several different friends about the political value of historical research, and I think recent events are a good example where historical thinking does have much to offer contemporary political action.

  1. We always read a narrative back from the outcome. In our haste to do so, we place undue weight on signs of what was to come. The problem with this is that it does a disservice to the past, not simply by imposing an inevitability that was never there, but by simplifying causation.
  2. This matters to our political actions today, because we are at great risk of falling into empty dichotomies between ‘racists’ and ‘us’, between ‘white lash’ and ‘us’. Nobody knows why all of those voters voted Trump. (Never mind that their explanations sound like “I’m a turkey. I voted for Christmas.”) We would be laughing at the prophets of his presidency if there had been just a 1% swing in a few key states, and it is not clear to me that anyone can ever prove why it is that Hillary lost. We can talk about voter turnout, we can talk about Comey, we can talk about voter suppression (whose effects were felt most keenly in several states that swung to Trump), we can talk about Democrat complacency, we can talk about a white vote (which was not ‘working class’ FYI for anyone who has not paid attention) and we can talk about racism and misogyny. These were all factors. But the truth is that we will likely never know exactly how to explain the plurality of reasons that saw Clinton lose. Anyone who tells you they have the answer is as much of a crackpot as the poisonous prophets. And you can bet that most of these people weren’t shouting their explanation before the result came in.

Is America more racist, more sexist, more isolationist than a week ago? Yes. The discursive shift is an earthquake, as the establishment moves to accommodate Trumpism. But make no mistake: that is a result of the election, and not to be confused with its causes. Don’t worship false prophets: even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Historians have this to offer to contemporary political debates: uncertainty, contingency, and doubt. They might not sound positive, but what could be more optimistic when the nationalists and white supremacists are doing their victory march?

Just as the Brexit vote is not a straightforward endorsement of immigration control, let alone racism, Trump’s victory does not mean what those few outliers who saw it coming claim after the fact. They don’t own the narrative: it belongs to political action in the present, and the historians of the future.

4 thoughts on “The Prophets’ Poison

  1. Or to put this a slightly different way: think about that most annoying of popular aphorisms ‘Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’

    Now separate out the two meanings of history (all that has ever happened) and History (the study of the past). Clearly ‘those who don’t learn from all that has ever happened are doomed to repeat all that has ever happened’ poses the basic challenge of our busy lives: WHEN will I find the time?!?

    But if you mean ‘Those who don’t learn from the study of the past are doomed to repeat all that has ever happened’, well I think there we might be closer to something meaningful. I’d suggest that the study of the past teaches us that causation is not only difficult to assess, but offers temptations of teleology. That telos is what will damage political debate over the next four, ten, or 100 years, depending on how we act now.


  2. in otherwords
    “It is more complicated than that”
    “Many reasons why”
    [ i.e. standard historians response 🙂 ]
    “past results are not necessarily a guide to future performance”

    Don’t read into past events a thread that inevitably lead to the present. I think John Tosh said something about that 🙂


  3. I am so glad to hear you say that Brexit was not a straightforward reaction to immigration. I, and everyone I know, actually, voted for Brexit as a considered political opinion, not because we are racist, don’t like foreigners, want to build a wall between us and France, are badly-educated, or whatever. And we definitely don’t want to be thrown into the same basket as Donald Trump and all the people who inexplicably voted for him.


  4. I did not predict the Trump victory. That said, even I knew way back even before the conventions that there was something cockamamie about this election, in that the “conservative” party nominated a new type of politician, while the “progressive” party nominated a candidate who seemed stuck in the 1990s.

    The pundits of all stripes are coming in with their opinions on why it happened. Most are self-serving, some go the other way, and are self-flagellating! And that reinforces your point, William: we won’t know which of the changes that caused this victory are part of enduring historical trends . . . until the historical trends have time to endure!

    As a fruitful comparison, I note that every so often, the financial industry falls in love with some broker or other figure who correctly forecasts an unexpected turn of events. Typically, those individuals start making predictions on a regular basis to great fanfare, before people notice that many of them are turning out wrong. Psychics have a similar life cycle.

    Liked by 1 person

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