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The 2016 US Presidential Elections — Impressions of a marginal academic

The 2016 US Presidential Elections — Impressions of a marginal academic

By S. Ravi Rajan

The template for the analysis of this year’s Presidential Election is building along expected lines. It is being argued, amongst other things, that the Democrats have lost their roots amongst the working classes. Some are claiming that Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate on account of the perceived connections with elite interest groups such as Wall Street. Some say the rhetoric of Donald Trump legitimated latent racist and misogynist prejudices. Many argue that this vote is part of a global trend against traditional establishments. There might be truth in some, or indeed all these contentions, and I will leave it to more astute and grounded commentators to elaborate upon these and other explanations. I will focus on three trends I see as an academic humanist, which, to me, frame the election and its outcome.

The inefficient art of polling


The polls as predicted by Princeton Electoral Consortium. | Source: Princeton Electoral Consortium

The first thing that struck me was how wrong the polls have been. Wired Magazine proclaimed that the Princeton Election Consortium was the Holy Grail in election forecasting. It had replaced the hero of the last election, Nate Silver, and his Five Thirty Eight forecast. After predicting a Clinton victory in excess of 320 electoral votes, their blog concluded that “if Hillary Clinton does not win on Tuesday it will be a giant surprise.” Giant surprise, indeed!

Despite attempts to acknowledge polling and sampling errors, it is apparent that the data these entities were drawing upon was very weak.

Their sources often lacked context and none of these statistical entities bothered to place informants on the ground. Furthermore, newspaper accounts pointing to the energy in the Trump rallies were dismissed or inadequately addressed in these models.

This is but one example of the trend in the academia to conflate statistical models for actual social explanation, and it reflects a broader trend to displace or diminish the humanities, and the methodologies for deep listening that their disciplines provide in order to help unpack the passions and interests of real human beings. Sadly, this trend of diminishing the worth of the humanities is biting us in other areas as well, notably in foreign affairs, where barring a few historians and anthropologists on the margins, there are few Americans with a real ear for the granularities on the ground.

The failures of the economic policy establishment

A second, related trend is that the discipline of economics has slowly lost its pragmatic approach. It has also lost humility as an inquiry into one of the most complex systems known to humanity — human behaviour. It has arrogantly dismissed analyses of culture and history. Its practitioners rarely do fieldwork, other than to collect data in the form of survey instruments. They fail to equip themselves with contextual understanding or challenge themselves in normative frameworks, from the outside. The result is the failure not only to predict Wall Street crashes but to empathise with the plight of common people who have seen their jobs disappear underneath the garb of slogans like free trade.

At the end of the day, his colloquial rhetoric acknowledged the inequalities faced by the working class.

It is a paradox indeed that a billionaire with no record for such empathy could come up with the rhetoric that mobilised such people; but that he could do so only serves to establish the disconnect between the economic policy establishment and common folk. At the end of the day, his colloquial rhetoric acknowledged the inequalities faced by the working class. Let us have no doubt: this vote, like Brexit, was a slap in the face of economic elites around the world. The fact that this global angst is marshalled by demagogues should be a wake-up call for the liberal establishment. However, thus far, this does not seem to be the case.

Rediscovering the humanistic vision

Last, but by no means least, academics, especially at the liberal end of the spectrum, have been smug about the purported victories of the recent past. With two Presidential victories in the bag, a number of people quietly proclaimed a post-racial era, just as some members of the neo-conservative establishment had pronounced the end of history a generation ago. Those advocating green solutions were giddy with excitement at the development of gizmos and happy tinkering with market-based solutions. Lost again was a humanistic vision, which once upon a time could articulate social choices in terms of norms and values.

Agreements have been signed by the executive without building consensus amongst normative coalition. | Source: The Inquistr

Big ticket reforms like the climate change agreements were signed with executive orders rather than attempts to build normative coalitions based on negotiations that would build consensus.

Critically, the so-called Red-Green coalition today has no conceptual answer to inequality, un-sustainability, or climate change.

It thrives on the fantasy that the current world order is but one tweak away from resolution and that all it takes is an electoral victory to put the “right” people in order.

This election, if anything, is proof that we live in a fool’s paradise. If the educated elite wish to be relevant, we need to reintegrate the humanities into our pedagogical systems, and then set about doing the hard work of building the conceptual foundations for a just and sustainable order. Otherwise, let us indeed brace ourselves for future shock.

S. Ravi Rajan is a Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Featured Image Credits: Daily Mail UK

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