Monday, November 14, 2016

A few quick observations about the recent US election

As of this writing, not yet a week has passed since Tuesday's election. Trump has won the electoral votes, based on how the US system is set up, but appears to be losing the popular vote. If trends continue as remaining overseas and absentee ballots are counted, this will mark the second time in 16 years that a President-Elect will have won the Electoral College, but not the popular vote.

I am no political scientist, nor shall I pretend to be, and my remarks that follow should be considered strictly off the cuff. I will be awaiting more detailed and sober analyses in the months to follow, just as you will. However I think I can offer some sober off the cuff remarks as a starting point.

1. Our nation is still very divided. The popular vote itself is a good indication of what I am talking about. There are also rural-urban divisions, socioeconomic class divisions, and so on that are very present and made themselves felt during the electoral season.

2. Many of the polls and the polling aggregators got it wrong. I periodically follow their Twitter feeds and at the moment there are efforts to rationalize the failures to make a correct prediction. Perhaps one of the few to suggest that Clinton's electoral "firewall" was vulnerable was Nate Silver on his Five Thirty Eight blog. Regrettably, his concerns were largely dismissed.

3. Why the polls were wrong will be the subject of analysis over the months and years to come. There have been other instances in recent years across the globe of mismatches between the polls and the final outcomes, such as the recent UK referendum to leave the EU, SYRIZA's victories in Greece, the Scottish referendum to split from the UK, as well as the 2014 US midterm elections. Some have been written off as the results being within the margin of error. Other analysts are suggesting that either actual voters are being missed by the polls or that some form of social desirability effect is occurring. It is possible in the current election that once pollsters switched to likely voter screens, they missed infrequent voters who did come out to vote either in early voting or on Election Day. It is also possible that a "shy Trump effect" was at least somewhat real. In other words, individuals may have told pollsters one thing and then done something quite different when they voted. Some evidence to support this sort of social desirability effects might be gleaned from examining discrepancies between web-based polling and phone interviews. Regardless, a serious analysis of which polling methods work better and why polling went poorly is necessary under the circumstances.

4. To the extent that the polls are to be believed, neither of the two major party candidates was particularly popular. Some evidence for that assertion can be found from the decline in the number of votes for both Clinton and Trump this year relative to the number of votes their respective counterparts (Obama and Romney) received in 2012. Third party candidates and write-ins perhaps were beneficiaries, given that overall there appears to be no evidence that the percentage of eligible voters went down. But clearly there appeared to be less enthusiasm for this year's candidates than in recent memory.

5. From what I read periodically as time permitted, this was a very stressful election for many US citizens. No doubt some of that comes from choosing between candidates who offered stark contrasts, but were not particularly well liked by the electorate. Partially, the tendency for mass media to sensationalize and offer fear-based headlines and stories contributed. The outcome appears to be equally stressful. I suspect clinical and counseling psychologists will have their hands full.

6. Again keeping in mind that I am not a political scientist, but merely an interested observer, and as such I will note that the US is arguably not immune to trends affecting other nations. The 2016 election here has been compared to Brexit, and a case can be made for that, I suspect.

7. I am not aware of any evidence that the US has suddenly become a more racist, sexist, or homophobic nation than before the electoral outcome, but as numerous observers have noted, the election appears to have empowered those holding such views to engage in aggressive and violent behaviors at a rate they might not have done otherwise. This is a trend that I as both a scholar and a citizen find disturbing, and one where the expertise of behavioral and social scientists may offer some needed insights into reducing these incidents.

8. We are now a nation of media echo chambers. The amount of confirmation bias that we are witnessing is surely not healthy for a democratic republic.

9. I am influenced by George Gerbner's work on media violence, and one quick take-away observation is that the constant news cycle coverage of violent crimes (whether mass shooting events, police shootings, and so on) have contributed to a culture of fear. A population that is scared is more vulnerable to manipulation by any of a number of powerful people and organizations eager to exploit them, and is more vulnerable to accepting government sanctioned human rights abuses. We need to be very concerned with the amount of mass media exposure we allow ourselves, especially that with violent content (and most especially that content which is realistic). The rise of various emerging media such as social media and its contribution to the increased exposure to media violence should concern us all.

10. The legitimate economic concerns of those who have been left behind not only during the long recovery from the last recession, but from the changes to the economy over the last two or three decades are unlikely to be satisfied, and I would wager that many who could be considered working class or lower middle class are likely to continue to be frustrated in their efforts to get by, let alone find upward mobility. The research on frustration and anger, and frustration and aggression suggest that we are in for some very turbulent times ahead.

11. Given the lack of a popular vote win to match the electoral vote win, given the narrow lead the Preident-Elect's party holds in the Senate, and given that the President-Elect's party in the House owes much of its majority to gerrymandering, the optics for claims of a mandate to lead are not particularly favorable. Those biased to believe in a mandate may go along, but those who are either general evidence-based skeptics (as I am) and/or opposition partisans are not likely to accept the results as a mandate. I would suggest by way of repetition that the best the outcome tells us would be that our nation's electorate is very nearly evenly divided and highly polarized. How long those trends hold going forward goes beyond my particular expertise.

12. I suspect that more and more calls to reform or abolish the Electoral College will emerge in the aftermath of this election. As a personal comment, I'll add my voice to that call. As a matter of principle, I have questioned the wisdom in retaining the Electoral College, rather than simply relying on the popular vote for over three decades - essentially since I started voting. Although there are some legitimate concerns among those living in states that safely vote for one party or another, the truth is that most voters in most of the US are ignored by the candidates unless those voters happen to live in either one off a handful of swing states or in their respective candidates' firewall states. The rest of us never see the candidates visit with us. A case can be made that in the absence of the Electoral College, candidates would be required to go beyond their own bubbles and actually face more of their potential voters, which could lead to improved competition for votes - an outcome that might be healthier for our particular democratic republic going forward. It is certainly worth consideration.

13. Finally, those who have legitimate fears in the aftermath of this election deserve to be heard and they deserve empathy. Their concerns should not be dismissed, especially after the rash of hate crimes that have occurred since the election. In addition, the genuine concerns of those who have been left behind economically are ones that deserve to be heard and deserve empathy. My main concern is that empathy is in very short supply. For the health of our society, we need to make the effort to be understanding to one another. 

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