Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Ruminations 65: Thoughts on the 2016 United States Presidential Election--Consequences and Tragedies

It is by now well known that contrary to the expectations of some, Mr. Trump was elected presumptive President Elect of the United States on November 8, 2016.  The results were close reactions are not unexpected ranging from jubilation to grief, from fear to expectation, as the ritual of cults of personality in the American president plays itself out on the national (here, here, and here) and  world stage. In what might be understood as institutionally humiliating in light of its past positions (here and here), the New York Times summed up the event this way.
The triumph for Mr. Trump, 70, a real estate developer-turned-reality television star with no government experience, was a powerful rejection of the establishment forces that had assembled against him, from the world of business to government, and the consensus they had forged on everything from trade to immigration. (Matt Flegenheimer and Michael Barbaro, Donald Trump Is Elected President in Stunning Repudiation of the Establishment, The New York Times (Nov. 9, 2016))
To some extent, perhaps, the New York Times was right.  The election of Mr. Trump as presumptive President Elect of the United States does feel like a revocation of the long held governance mandate (perhaps even prerogative) from an intellectual class of those who believed themselves the rightful directors of the social, economic, cultural, civil and political life of the nation in favor of "throngs of Americans who ascribe higher purpose to him than he has demonstrated in a freewheeling campaign marked by bursts of false and outrageous allegations, personal insults, xenophobic nationalism, unapologetic sexism and positions that shift according to his audience and his whims."(Opinion: Why Donald Trump Should Not Be President, The New York Times, Sept. 25, 2016; and here).

This post leaves those matters to those better qualified to speak to them.  I will briefly consider what might be some of the more interesting and less considered ramifications that this election illustrates. In doing this I appear to join the ranks of those Paul Krugman recently demonized as "Anyone who claims to be philosophical and detached after yesterday is either lying or has something very wrong with him (or her, but I doubt many women are in that camp.)" (Paul Krugman, Now What? Personal Thoughts, New York Times Nov. 9, 2016).  It is this pathetic hand wringing and name calling that is the greatest danger to Dr, Krugman and the leadership group of which he believes himself a part.

The post does not indulge in cults of personality (to beatify or demonize), nor in the obsessive essentializing data harvesting that can be used to manage, distract and distort as easily as it can aid in understanding the world in which we live.  It suggests the contours of tragedy (not for a particular candidate or political party, but for a leadership class and its disciplinary structures) as the potential for power slipping out of the hands of a once magnificent leadership community (with its own intellectual factions to be sure but bound together by  some rudimentary consensus) increases as it seeks blame for its predicament everywhere but within its own structures and behaviors. It suggests some of the institutional consequences that, though invisible today, may well affect events (or the way they are understood) in the future.  Several are no doubt well understood.  Together they paint a picture that suggests great caution for elites--either of the left or the right (there is no victory here for either) as they seek to learn from and understand the threats to their leadership in the United States.

 1. The role of the press. Not so long ago, Caroline Little, CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, Washington, D.C., proclaimed that "Our free press, protected by the first constitutional amendment, plays a critical role in ensuring that every American has constant access to important and trustworthy news." (Democracy Depends on a Free Press, The Miami Herald, Sept. 16, 2013). That is true enough in the West.  And it requires the press to remain mindful of its responsibility for which it receives substantial privilege. Those privileges include not insubstantially in the United States, great protection against liability for the follies of its reporting, no matter how destructive. I do not quibble with this bargain.  It has tended to work ell enough.  The press, especially the traditional print and other media, has played a substantial role in the management of discourse and in charting its direction--by choosing content, by determining where news placed, and the course of the life cycle of an event deemed newsworthy. But the press has been inching back from its role as a reporter of news, to the center of the news it reports. Perhaps it is the great shift in ownership--now more corporate and aggregated.  Perhaps it is the change in the character of reporting--which has returned again (for all the best of reasons no doubt) from reporting to analysis, and from analysis clearly labelled to analysis within the reportage itself. The charge that news media no create and manage as well as report the news has been a long time coming. And it is not the creature merely of fringe groups on the hate filled left or right. There are many who see in the way that news is identified and reported an increasing tendency to build into that reporting the inferences and judgments that were once left to the reader (or consumer of data--news).  But that is all the stuff of caveat emptor and people can be trained to be more astute consumers of news media with little ill effect to the reputation of news media or their role in the functioning of democratic republics like those of the United States. Indeed, for a good part of the history of this nation--and form a semiotic perspective--all news reporting was inextricably embedded in the ideological orientation of those who reported or controlled the institutions that produced reporting as a consumable.  

But this election cycle saw an increasing change in character and effect of news media.  Where once these preferences were deeply embedded int he forms of writing and in the freedom to raw inferences in the name of reporting "news", this election cycle saw news media, and especially the press deliberately and quite enthusiastically, throw themselves into the political contest as advocates for one of the candidates (not wholly unusual given the tradition of press endorsement) but also against another (and sadly for the press against the man who actually won). Having publicly and expressly trumpeted their own political choices, it was no wonder that people--and not just fringe elements (and this is hard to hear for many in our conventional elites still smarting from their rejection by a populace from which they now feel particularly alienated) might begin to read their "news" reporting as advocacy rather than as news reporting of the sort celebrated by Ms. Little.  But a constraint intimated by Ms. Little is also true and well evidenced in this election--where news media squander their authority, when they cease to serve their role and assume the character of mere advocates and participant in electoral politics, then it will follow that their reporting may be viewed with suspicion and their role as the principal means of informing voters will be threatened. The news establishment has appeared to squander their leadership role. They chose to abandon their role--and their influence has suffered. They are now more easily attacked as hypocrites especially when they seek to detach the news media of other states from the control of their leadership organs. 

Worse, the press may well have lost trust for reporting even in those areas where continues to perform its essential role. The misuse of history (the analogies to Germany of the 1933-45 period were particularly manipulative and destructive when asserted against those who quite rightly noted concern with partisan behaviors) to demonize those with perfectly reasonable concerns, just made the problem worse.  It was worse because all it did was silence opinion, not change it (more on that below). The distrust generated by their foolish decision to participate actively in the election may produce repercussions in everything from the reporting of corruption, to the revelations of abuses of multinational enterprises and the reporting of other newsworthy events that inform an involved citizenry. And these are merely the areas I understand at least a little. This for me is a particularly important tragedy of this election.  It is not clear to me how, or whether, the press may be able to regain the trust of the masses and assume a role of something other than a shill for whatever faction or agenda they appear to back.  

2. Polling as a symptom of a greater social ill. There was likely any number of very good and sophisticated reasons to explain the large margins of error of polling throughout the election cycle.  Pollsters and their backers appeared to continue to get things wrong, and they appeared to increase their error the larger and more sophisticated their data extraction techniques. My sense is that those errors were magnified by three social phenomena that will not doubt continue to be marginalized as of any value to analysis going forward.  

The first is that over the course of the last generation most common people have been taught to lie when asked questions that will be reviewed by their leaders.  People have been taught to tell the ruling cliques exactly what they want to hear.  And the ruling cliques in this election cycle made it very clear that they wanted to hear support for the Democratic candidate (and not just the Democratic candidate but a very specific one).  
Several pollsters rejected the idea that Trump voters were too shy to tells pollsters whom they were supporting. But James Lee of Susquehanna Polling & Research Inc. said his firm combined live-interview and automated-dialer calls, and Trump did better when voters were sharing their voting intention with a recorded voice rather than a live one.

Women who voted for Trump might have been especially reluctant to tell pollsters, said David Paleologos of Suffolk University. The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll corroborated that: “Women who said they backed Trump were particularly less likely to say they would be comfortable talking to a pollster about their vote.” (here)
I would not surprise to know that the usual levels of lying to pollsters and others has not decreased. Here the intersection with press partisanship augments perverse effects.  If established press outlets already suggested a preferred outcome, and if one's "betters" made it clear about their preferences, then it would be odd indeed for social, intellectual and economic inferiors to announce opposition. As a result, polls exaggerated the extent to which the Trump campaign may have been captured by fringe elements.  No judgment here other than for those seeking to manage mass democracy, the result was an inability to accurately understand the realities against which they were working for their own ends through mass mobilization and voting campaigns.  This is not a Democratic Party problem, but a problem for both factions of the established elite. Indeed the primaries suggested how out of touch the right was of the threat posed by Mr. Trump's appeal. 

The second was that data is only as good as the assumptions and premises  used to assemble and interpret them.  But increasingly  people tend to appear unconscious of the manipulative effect of their unstated and un-reflexive deployment of particular assumptions int he ordering of the reality extracted form data.   If one presumes that Mr. Trump's supporters are "deplorables" and that people will tend to do as they are told by influential public intellectuals and societal leaders in business, culture, sport and politics, then it makes perfect sense to develop model that give effect to these notions. But what one produces is the reproduction of the mind set of the analysts rather than any reality that the information harvested might--might--reveal. The point here is not that one candidate or another was better, but rather, having decided that one candidate was unacceptable, the data was managed ina way to ensure that this was mirrored int he evidence.  That did a great disservice to Mrs. Clinton who might have profited (though she may not have liked what it suggested) from knowing better the political landscape in which she competed for office. 

The third was that the community of pollsters appears to discipline those polling voices that expressed disagreement with the political line expressed in mainstream analysis. Thsi is an extraordinarily open example of what transpires in the United States at its intellectual pinnacles with some regularity--thew way in which not politics but communal self discipline, tends to impose an orthodoxy that is vigorously defended. One sees it in academic writing (see here for a classic) but it infests all aspects of intellectual life in the country. Field discipline is useful of course, but here where it is deployed to political ends, the results (for Mrs. Clinton certainly) was disastrous. I am thinking specifically of a telling example--the quite visible attack on Nate Silver for his polling techniques that appeared to suggest that the community of pollsters, all of whom pointed to a great victory for Mrs. Clinton, might be wrong (here, here, here, and here). 

In effect, our societal leaders have been teaching the masses that it is prudent to lie, those very groups then lie to themselves, and then they discipline those among them who seek to rip the veil of social or intellectual class presumptions away for more clear headed (if unhappy) analysis.   This Ouroboros (the mythical snake that was self sufficient because it ate itself)) is sadly not uncommon among ruling elites, whatever the politician ideology or organization of a community. It was sadly very much in evidence here.

3.  Talking Past each other about uncomfortable subjects.  The polling issues point to a larger but more nebulous issue--the reluctance of people to speak their minds, especially when they think that their social, economic and political relations will suffer.  There is an irony here.  Safe spaces--the stuff of leftist and millennial agitation (and see e.g., here) actually has an equally important place among majority peoples though it appears in substantially politics distorting form.  That is, where societal leadership classes increasingly extract high penalties for interventions in national conversations that are judged as "wrong", there is a natural tendency not to engage but to hide in silence. As a result, those with privilege--academics, news commentators, public intellectuals, and other privileged speakers (irrespective of race, political view, ethnicity, religion, orientation, etc.) by their very speech acts provided clues about what was expected and what not to engage with--especially for those who might have had different views.  The result is not good especially for the project of socialization underlying much of the speaking at by the privileged classes. But it is disastrous when, in the context of elections, elites really need to know what the electorate is thinking, even that portion of the electorate despised precisely because of their (unreformed) views.  There is irony here--privilege is contextual and contingent.  But that is the point.  That context and contingency is embedded in all relationships.  And again, the failure to acknowledge this contingency and context, and the embrace the possibility of marginalization (even or especially among those who one has been taught are part of an essentialized abstract mass of privilege), made it inevitable that the elite would miscalculate both the strength of its influence and the extent to which the masses would be willing to be led.  Belittling views that require resocialization brought a silence that left only a lunatic fringe with access to news media.  That also amplified their voice and made it more likely that the opposition would be characterized as marginal and unlikely to matter. This is not to suggest the need for silence among those who devote their lives to the betterment of society and who with great courage seek to change custom, tradition, expectations and mores.  But that courageous battle does have consequences where, in mass democratic societies, the electorate includes those who are fodder for change.

4.  The Return of Party Discipline.   This election cycle was marked by a remarkable display of political party fracture.  Fracture is to be expected.  There is a lot of power and substantial egos routing around the center of organized public authority (though of course always to be attained for the benefit of others). In a sense, one might suppose both political parties are in crisis--if crisis can be discerned both by the extent of intra-party fracture and the inability of either party organization to effectively discipline their members.  Worse, evidence of systemic corruption, and of possible corruption of the intra-party electoral system itself, especially within the Democratic party, were probably substantially more damaging than the already partisan news media were willing to expose. It is true enough that much of that information, otherwise suppressed, was only revealed by the actions of foreigners and potential outlaws (e.g., here).  But for the unseemliness of the source (something that never bothered the press when the information suited their political ends in the past) there was enough there to tarnish the reputation of both the democratic party candidate and the party apparatus that appeared less than neutral in its mad effort to lock up a viable candidate. The Republican Party had fewer scandals of the corruption sort, but had a fundamental crisis of coherence that produced an extraordinary fracture--many of the leading members of the Party, its established leadership, broke with the very party they were leading to oppose the candidate that this party produced through its own invocation of mass politics (e.g., here). In one case it produced a threat to the authority and legitimacy of the Democratic party that will take some effort to repair.  On the other it produced a schism that leaves the current President elect unconstrained by the structures of the very Party that was meant to provide context and constraint. In both cases, party leadership has been diminished.

5. Systemic corruption Party/Elite leadership. One must ask why did the exaggerated claims against the Democratic candidate resonate to such great effect during the course of the electoral campaign.  Most of the claim went to privilege (above the law, above the rules), or corruption (pay for play) or systemic corruption (the election rigging claims), or to personal corruption in economic or social relations.  Most states are founded in the conduct of election campaigns in which there are strong lines drawn between political and moral worthiness (discussed in the context of sexual moral here). And, indeed, none of these are worth much consideration in context except to the extent that they resonate beyond the specific context of this election and these candidates.  And that may well be the problem.  Factions of an elite (however fractious) that are willing to reach out to the masses in ways that destroy the fundamental belief in the worthiness of the institutions of leadership of which each faction forms a part engage in the sort of systemic self destruction that ultimately wears away at the authority of the group as a whole. Arrogance, a sense of superiority, privilege, and an increasing wiliness to see the masses as something inferior and in need of re-education emphasizes the sort of power hierarchies that are contradicted by the political theory on which the system itself is based.  All political factions have been increasingly willing to engage in this sort of self destructive behavior over the last twenty or so years with the result that the notion of systemic corruption--of the idea that all factions of the elite are part of a system that is corrupt and self serving has become better accepted--even plausible among the masses. One has gotten used to being talked at by elites--of the right or left leaning factions, and especially of its driving fringes. Of importance here is the perception that political institutions are increasingly colluding with the news media to project the appearance of reporting when in fact the stories are managed, planted or manipulated (see, e.g., here) or where they appear to have only the remotest connection with fact (e.g., here).

When a leadership institution creases to protect its own integrity, it runs the risk of alienating the masses on which it is ultimately dependent. It is true enough that this dissipation reflects the dissipation of social harmony that has only grown since the last third of the 20th century and against which social coherence remains elusive. Yet the move from a sense of incoherence and disharmony to one of systemic corruption is profound and profoundly destabilizing to the Republic. The idea of systemic political corruption--of the bending of the institutions of the republic and the ideals that it is the obligation of the elites to further--to the personal agendas and benefits of its members,  tends to shape the greatest tragedy of this election cycle. And that tragedy would have been realized whichever candidate prevailed. There is a lesson here for all leadership groups--where such groups lose their internal coherence, where they fail to comply with their governance obligations, where they seek to appeal outside their own groups to the masses on t e basis of the political corruption of themselves and each other, when they appear to use the political system and their own institutions of power for personal advantage, it will not be long before their legitimacy is questions, their authority rejected, and their institutional structures overturned. Clearly, the American Republic is not close to institutional collapse.  Nowhere near it.  But the foundations of its governing structures are being tested, and its elites are being found wanting. What then becomes plausible are the kinds of protests directed not toward injustice but to the rejection of the system itself, its elites and the reworking toward a different political settlement.  Within a day of the close of voting, thousands  of people have poured into the streets to demand that the presumptive President elect never is sworn into office (e.g., here, here).

6. Alienation.  For the last generation both the left and right wing fringes of the national elites have attacked the legitimacy, authority, and effectiveness of the state and its operations.  Each, for the advancement of their own ends, have suggested that the state and its apparatus is corrupt, captured by the forces of oppression and privilege, and deployed for the exploitation of marginalized groups.  Taken together, if the fringe groups are to be believed, there is not a soul in this state that is not the victim of systematized aggression, exploitation and marginalization at the hands of the state. Ironically, both fringes would, when in power, seek to use the very power of the discredited and illegitimate state to impose their own programs of social, economic, cultural and political change on the polity. These ideas--from both the left and the right--have acquired greater currency among mainstream groups and their representatives within the state apparatus. And these ideas--that the state and its government is illegitimate and that the capture of the control of the state and its apparatus is essential to the vindication of the political agendas of either group--has now begun to penetrate the common understanding of the state of the Republic among the masses.  Unconstrained by the sophisticated theory that underlies these extreme political tropes, the masses tend to interpret these agendas as a call to the capture and reform of the state itself.  Over the long run, the cultivation of these approaches undermines the fundamental agreement on the legitimacy of the state and its organization.  It questions the authority of political organs and the laws which they are tasked with enforcing.  It converts administrative failure into evidence of systemic failure beyond redemption. Alienation in this form appears to be a general problem across the globe.  It is the great tragedy of this election campaign that our own elites have also succumbed to its blandishments and have indulged the conceit that the rejection of the fundamental legitimacy of our political and normative order will somehow bring liberation (in its left or right meaning). It is not hard to move from irony to farce to inversion (e.g., here). Alienation opens the door to change, but not necessarily the sort of change that may be overseen by an elite which will likely be the first element to be swept away. They will have only themselves to blame; and will be the last to blame themselves.

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