Last week our class enjoyed had a particularly stimulating discussion over the election results and what affected the outcome. Before reading on, you should know that this is not a politically charged post. In the words of Evelyn Hall, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This post is not a political commentary; it is merely a psychological observation. I left our class uncomfortable with an unhealthy psychology that has permeated the minds of many voters this cycle (on both sides). While at times it may seem as though my critique will fall upon Hilary Clinton’s supporters, know that I myself voted for Clinton. Furthermore, I believe these psychological tendencies and factual assumptions were likely just as present in supporters of the Republican candidate.
There are two questions, seemingly exactly the same: “What went wrong?” they both read. It is after all a fair question to ask. There is the statistical question of what went wrong. Factually speaking, our election outcome defied the standardly accepted odds. Betting odds only a week before placed an 85% chance of a Clinton Victory. On the eve of the election those odds stood at 75% Clinton | 25% Trump. Almost instantaneously, those odds flipped: 25% Clinton | 75% Trump. Consider Brexit this summer; at the last moments before initial reports indicated the contrary, Vegas odds placed the chance of a “stay” vote at above 90% only to be proven wrong hours later. Clearly there has emerged some kind of polling error or sociological error in which we are unable to accurately predict these outcomes. To explore this statistical error is a perfectly healthy discussion. In terms of prediction, something did go severely wrong.
On the other hand, there is the question “What went wrong?” Now, this question might appear on the page before you as a carbon copy of the question I raised only a few lines ago. Rest assured however, that this is an entirely different question. Unlike it’s twin sibling, this question is not a quizzical inquiry into statistical error. No! This question is one based in political entitlement: a predetermined notion that (for both parties) not only should my candidate win, but my candidate is the only one that can possibly win – anything else would defy the laws of what is supposed to happen in our universe. Perhaps this election was so partisan and housed such extreme deviations in rhetoric that supporters believed it was no less than a given right that their candidate must win. For Republicans, there was the notion that it was their turn, and for Democrats winning elections and supreme court cases had become the norm – anything less than a sweeping victory would be unimaginable.
It is entirely possible that the filter bubble perpetuated these beliefs. Wether on accident or by our own volition, we surround ourselves with like minded individuals. Our social media platforms cater our newsfeed to our interests and the interests of our friends. We live in small circles that tend to involve people of similar backgrounds and education. It’s only natural that as our experiences shape our opinions, our peers undergoing comparable journeys might have similar opinions. The positive feedback in which our opinions are confirmed by their widespread acceptance in our personal communities contributed to the notion that those opinions may be ‘correct.’
Aired in the days after the election, South Park’s recent episode featured election viewers in a community center morning the loss of their candidate. One onlooker states, “This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen.” This fictional voter did not only support his candidate, he did not believe that any other outcome was even a possibility. Perhaps we all lost sight of the fact that with an 85% chance of one outcome there remains a 15% chance of an alternate outcome. South Park’s writers noticeably transferred and altered some scenes from their “Clinton Victory” script. It is not so unimaginable that the South Park writers might failed to prepare an alternate script in the event of a Trump Victory.
In class we spoke about the media “kicking themselves” after the election. In the wake of an ‘unfavorable outcome’ for many news outlets, it suddenly became clear that perhaps their participation in sensational news and even false news stories was inappropriate. Suddenly bloggers, news anchors, and anyone with access to the Internet looked for whom to blame – as if their candidate losing an election could only have occurred if something were to be systematically wrong with the election. Please understand, that it is okay and expected to be upset or surprised with an election outcome. For a moment, I myself was in disbelief. We can voice our opinions and share messages of hope. The real issue lies in the fact that in this election, supporters on both sides did not enter the voting booth to vote for a candidate. Voters exited the booth believing that because they had simply voted for THE president, and no other outcome could be valid.
It is not unlikely that this psychological phenomenon contributed to polling inaccuracies. In an environment in which binary opinions were considered ‘true or false,’ the sharing of opinions and who shares opinions may become distorted. Supporters of both candidates cast not only political judgments but moral judgments upon the other party’s supporters. Political parties were divided by a valley so wide and cavernous that an opposing opinion was considered categorically and unequivocally ‘wrong.’