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"People like that are the only people here": political science and the new politics of shock

People gather for an anti-Donald Trump candlelight vigil in front of the White House November 9, 2016, in Washington, DC.
People gather for an anti-Donald Trump candlelight vigil in front of the White House November 9, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

As the world of political commentary puzzles over whether the polls were wrong or, as Sean Trende puts it, the pundits were, another question comes to mind: How would this moment be different if the conventional wisdom had not come up so decisively for a Hillary Clinton victory? Are we in a unique new politics of shock?

Immediately available examples of shocking politics are those that came after acts of violence — the Kennedy assassination, the 9/11 attacks. These kinds of events challenge how people think about their safety and place in the world, and rearrange priorities. But Donald Trump's election is different because it was a long, slow process that we observed unfolding, and yet it was also shocking.

As I've observed responses to the election, I keep thinking of Lorrie Moore's masterpiece short story, "People like that are the only people here," from her 1998 collection Birds of America. The story is about the children's cancer ward in a hospital, but a major theme of the story is the disbelief of parents who suddenly experience something that challenges everything they thought they knew about how life works.

They observe signs of their son's illness and initially find other causes to which to attribute them. They bargain with an seen interlocutor about how long their son's life will be, agreeing to lose him at 16 in a car crash if only they can keep him for that long. It's a story about sadness and about illness and healing and resilience. It's also a story about reordering not just priorities but fundamental assumptions about what you can expect from the world.

Just as the parents in Moore's story cannot initially take seriously the idea that their infant son has cancer, Trump's presidential bid struck many commentators as a joke. The joke was not so much that it was funny, but that it was absurd. The expectation — articulated many times by the writers on this blog and many other politics sites — was that the political world simply doesn't work that way. Something would protect our standards and values; something would ensure that the nominees for president would have conventional qualifications, respect rhetorical norms, and refrain from demeaning large groups of the population.

How can we — academics and other commentators who were taken aback by last week's result — make sense of it? How do we respond going forward? There are three ideas that I think inform where political scientists (and like-minded thinkers) can draw on our existing values, knowledge bases, and traditions to respond to a shocking, and major, political development.

Forecasts were right, but who cares?

There's good news and bad news here. Political science forecasting models based on the economy and the duration of party incumbency did a pretty good job telling us what the result would likely be, as Seth Masket describes here and as Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and Sarah Kliff explained in last week's The Weeds podcast. For all the talk about what the result meant, as Nate Silver points out, not very many votes would need to change for us to be telling a much different story.

So political science did its job, but who cares? The causes of last week's election result are likely not very profound: incumbency, partisanship, and an electorate with some reservations about the Democratic candidate. But the impact of this election is likely to be very profound, for both parties, for the presidency, for American democracy as whole — and, most importantly, for the lives of many individuals who will live with those consequences.

When we asked why this surprised political scientists despite our own models, the question contains the answer. On some level, I think many of us still believed, deep down, in the intuition that candidates and campaigns matter, despite our research that suggests otherwise. This intuition was not wrong; rather, it was misapplied. The candidate and the campaign may not have changed the election result much, but they have already affected politics and society. And that will continue to be the case once the new administration begins.

The regularity of what we observe can conceal the volatility of what we do not observe. Political scientists will need to make new choices about what to study. As University of Illinois Chicago political scientist Alexandra Filindra said on Facebook over the weekend, political science doesn't need coefficients right now; it needs bold ideas.

Democracy is not fast, cheap, or easy

Political scientists are longstanding defenders of political parties. As I wrote last spring, I think we may have lost the battle for elite-centric parties. I haven't changed my mind, but the battle for robust parties now seems more critical than ever.

One of the lessons of this election is that substantive democracy cannot be done on the cheap. The diffusion of ideas through media — social and otherwise — can sustain partisanship, but it cannot sustain parties. Here I want to turn to the ideas that some of my colleagues here at Mischiefs of Faction have carefully research and written, and suggest that we think differently about their implications.

First, no one needs to pile on The Party Decides right now. But I think we do need to think very carefully about the way the theory is constructed. The theory assumes that parties select nominees who are electable and who will pursue the party's policy goals. A tacit assumption of this theory is that candidates who are patently unqualified to govern will not be electable. We now know this is not true.

Much has been said, and will be said, about the limitations of parties in controlling their nominees. This is important. But even more important is what we now know about the gatekeeping role that parties play; they have a responsibility to nominate individuals who can govern and not devolve that choice onto primary or general election voters.

The revitalization of party organizations seems essential at this moment. There's lots of conversation about how we don't really talk to people outside of our bubbles — and this means that people need to start talking across party lines. But we probably don't have enough face-to-face conversations within party lines either.

Practicing party politics — not just partisan politics — would require us to have conversations with those who share our larger vision and values but interpret them differently, or bring different experiences to the discussion. Research on polarization and partisanship that shows new levels of correlation and consistency between different issue positions among partisans tell us that our parties are distinct. But this is more of a starting point than a conclusion; despite these consistencies, partisan politics with weak parties is still centrifugal, diffuse, and subject to collective action problems.

Practicing partisan politics — sharing ideas remotely — contributes to the idea that the main thing is maintaining the purity of ideas. Ideas are not adequate glue to hold parties together. This was most evident for Republicans in the 2016 nomination season. But as Democrats enter a political season that is likely to involve recriminations and divisions, they would also do well to consider collective action.

For those of us who adopt a partisan label, there is no more "they" in party politics. It's time to get involved. And if academics can find the humility to listen to those who have been doing this work, we have a skill set that will be very valuable. We know how to build a slow, long-term project, how to envision the big picture and sustain incremental work over a long period.

Political science is an activist discipline

Many comparable social science disciplines — anthropology, sociology, history — have lefty activist agendas. Such agendas are less central to the mainstream of our discipline. There are some leftists activists, but we are also a discipline of Republicans and Democrats.

More importantly, though, we are a discipline that understands that democracy is complicated and requires institutions and norms. We understand that democracy is about both substance and process, that civil rights and liberties are not negotiable, that respecting outcomes is a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy to survive. We don't consider ourselves an activist discipline because it has seemed that no activism was necessary to defend these values. We were wrong about many things, but this was perhaps the biggest one.

The title line of Moore's short story is a description of the people in the children's cancer ward — whose behavior seems bizarre to those outside this reluctant community, but who have adjusted to their shocking new reality. For those of us who thought Trump could never be elected, an adjustment is also in order. The source and nature of our shock is important and should inform how we think about politics from here. We need to alter our understanding of the world and our place in it.