One political event that I never really thought I would experience in my life was a surprise presidential election result. As I've been writing for the past few weeks, the anchor of partisanship seems so heavy, and the impact of campaigns so modest and steady, that I really thought being surprised by an election result was something left for generations of the past, like not being able to find out the sex of your unborn baby or eating a sandwich and not sharing it with 600 people on social media.
Not for the first time this year, I, along with lots of other people, was wrong. The social science lesson for the night, as far as I'm concerned, was about the sheer amount of uncertainty that is left in the social world.
Last Saturday, when the forecasting community got entangled in a massive #NerdFight, the pile-on seemed to be directed at Nate Silver, whose forecast identified several paths to victory for Donald Trump, while other forecasts had closed them off. (Disclosure: I also contribute at FiveThirtyEight.com, where Silver is the editor in chief.) I'm not a forecasting expert, but this uncertainty seemed consistent with what I've learned about politics, especially, but not only, this year.
Uncertainty is one thing in the social science sense. But living with it when the stakes are incredibly high, for people who are vulnerable because of their identities or their lack of resources or both, is a brutal proposition. In a way, this perhaps explains both why Trump won and the implications of that victory. There's been plenty of evidence that his supporters have authoritarian leanings — in other words, a desire for a strong leader to relieve them from the uncertainty that democracy provides. For those who fervently hoped for Trump's defeat, his election is a reminder that the uncertainty of election outcomes means a question mark surrounds our rights and our lives and the policies on which they depend.
The second big lesson is that resentment, which I still hypothesize for now is mainly racial, still plays a large role in our politics, and that attachment to inherited hierarchies — white, male supremacy — is not obsolete.
By early November, the left-leaning academic and journalistic elite (among whom I count myself) had gotten comfortable gloating about this hierarchy hangover as a Republican problem. That is a November 7, 2016, view. That is the electoral map so many political scientists I know predicted, with Trump's whimpering path through the old Confederacy petering out with an anemic showing in the Old West. That, as you probably know, is not the map with which we finally ended our evening around 3 am.
There's a lot we can take away from this, and people will analyze that data in the coming days, weeks, and months. But the red tint of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan is a reminder that resentment — racial, but most likely mixed with other kinds — is not a Republican problem or a Southern problem, and it's certainly not a diminishing problem. These legacies belong to us all, and we're going to have to face them.
Election Day began for many women, and men, as a time of celebration, anticipating the first woman president. Instead, Hillary Clinton, an imperfect but highly conventionally qualified candidate, lost to a man who has none of the experience — political, military, or bureaucratic — that previous presidents have had. Experience is not a predictor of election success or of success in office. But it, along with the conditions and context of Clinton's candidacy, paint a clear picture.
I still believe that a woman can become president, although I have no proof. But she, her candidacy, and the conditions need to be much closer to perfect. Clinton ran to succeed a two-term president, which is hard. Furthermore, she isn't a gifted retail politician, and she's dogged by scandal — even when investigations don't amount to much. We don't know how high the bar is set for a woman with these goals. But we learned a little bit more about it last night.
Finally, the implications of Trump's victory reach beyond the candidate himself. As in the primaries, the general election showed a division between elites and ordinary voters. Newspaper endorsements, warnings from foreign policy experts, a decidedly lukewarm reception from former presidents: None of this mattered in the end. Voters in state after state acted on their own and chose Trump. Divisions in a diverse society are inevitable. But clear, stark differences in worldviews between elites and the masses — that's exactly what democracy was designed to avoid.
It's not purely a partisan statement to say that something went wrong this year. Plenty of Republicans have said it, too. But it is a statement of allegiance to specific identities and worldviews — ones that may not be able to accommodate sharing power with those who hold the opposite views. Trump promised last night to unite the nation, and although I'm a believer in presidential rhetoric, I can't imagine it works that way.
These differences are big, and they are tense, and they are difficult to talk about. Processing this election result requires us to acknowledge that something went wrong this year, that many things have always been wrong with the United States and the world, and that many, many of our fellow citizens preferred and are happy with the outcome. And I'm just a political scientist who was surprised by an election. But I suspect we'll be thinking and talking about this election for a long time. At least, I hope we will.