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Clouds, clocks, and the unexpected rise of Donald Trump

Clocks and cloudy sky.
Clocks and cloudy sky.

In a 1965 lecture, the philosopher Karl Popper made a distinction between two types of phenomena: clocks and clouds. Clocks, he argued, are regular, orderly, and therefore predictable systems. Clouds, by contrast, are irregular, disorderly, and therefore unpredictable. Most real-world events, of course, exist on a continuum. And this was Popper's larger point: We should treat most phenomena as "intermediate in character ... between perfect clouds and perfect clocks."

I've been thinking a lot about this distinction in light of the 2016 election, which feels quite cloud-like.

For months, almost every sensible political scientist and pundit was sure that Donald Trump would fade. We understand how elections work, they wrote, and there's nothing in our models that supports the claim that Trump will win.

The arguments were straightforward, backed by experience and data. Elite endorsements matter, and Trump didn't have any of them and wasn't going to get any of them; Republican base voters may be highly ideological, but Trump was very far from a true conservative. At some point his bubble would burst, because most voters were, somewhere deep down, reasonable people who would see him for the buffoon that he was — especially once it came time to actually vote.

These were certainly reasonable and safe assumptions to make. After all, for the past several election cycles things had worked somewhat like this. Almost, one might say, like clockwork.

Obviously, 2016 has been different. Even if Trump eventually loses, he has already won enough to raise some serious questions. It's now time to start the introspection: Were the assumptions and theories that most of us took into this election too limited? Were they based on a set of conditions that held for a few election cycles but are now breaking down? Or is it just that every now and then, something unexpected happens — some perfect storm comes together, and what is normally clock-like occasionally takes on cloud-like properties?

Maybe 2016 is just weird

Maybe there's nothing wrong with our theories, but, like all theories, they have exceptions, because the world is more complex than any theory can ever be. And maybe 2016 was just a weird case because a bunch of unlikely things came together.

For one, the field of acceptable Republican "establishment" candidates was unusually crowded and competitive, making it much harder for the party elites to consolidate behind a single consensus candidate, as they had done in past elections. As a result, maybe it was easier for Trump to emerge as the frontrunner and then snowball the media coverage into continued frontrunner status, thus demanding more media coverage.

For another, maybe Donald Trump benefited from both his unique celebrity and his well-honed ability to generate conflict, which ensured the continued media coverage necessary for him to reach widespread support.

Moreover, anti-Washington sentiment is unusual high this year, giving outsider candidates a boost that they traditionally don't enjoy.

So, yes, a bunch of unusual contingencies came together in 2016. But that happens from time to time. Maybe it's not reason to throw a perfectly good theory and understanding overboard.

Or maybe 2016 is a transition election

Or maybe it is time to throw a perfectly good theory overboard. Maybe 2016 is the end of the current era and the beginning of a new one, and our existing understandings will need to change.

The Republican coalition, after all, has always been a spit, glue, and bubblegum coalition, as are all party coalitions in American politics.  But maybe that coalition is finally coming apart. The Christian conservatives are sick and tired of being taken for granted. The growing nationalist populists are really sick and tired of being taken for granted. And the Chamber of Commerce business establishment is losing sway, unable to subsist on tax cuts and Obama bashing alone.

Now that the first two factions (the Christian conservatives and the nationalist populists) have found their respective tribunes in Cruz and Trump, they have realized their own strength and are not going to give in to the third faction any longer. Maybe this is only the beginning of a long-term process in which the Republican Party becomes more internally fractious, perhaps even splitting apart. Republican Party elites, who are mostly in the business establishment group, are increasingly out of step with the voters in their party, and may have to either give in on some issues or bolt the party.

Democrats meanwhile, are experiencing their own internal fracture, between the idealistic and increasingly more radical younger generation backing Bernie Sanders and the more pragmatic, moderate, wealthier, older generation backing Hillary. As a younger generation takes over the Democratic Party, this internal conflict will only intensify, causing a similar fracture within the party between its establishment class and its voters, also making it harder for elites to decide anything.

If the party coalitions are indeed breaking up, it becomes harder and harder for anybody to control the process. Elites are likely to split amongst themselves. Eventually, a new political order will settle in. But that new order may demand new theories. Or maybe not.

Or maybe 2016 is a feedback response to recent elections

Perhaps the anti-establishment sentiment boosting Trump and Sanders is exactly the backlash we should have expected, given the state of American political economy building over past years' elections.

For one, voters are sick and tired of what they feel view as a corrupt political system. The amount of money in the system has been increasing to absurd levels. Read the quotes from Trump and Sanders voters, and you'll notice a common theme: Voters like Trump and Sanders because they feel like these candidates can't be bought. And so, in this era of Super PACs, there's something appealing about a candidate like Trump or Sanders, who either doesn't need to or would just never in a million years accept $675,000 to give three speeches at Goldman Sachs.

Supporters wait for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to speak at a rally February 19, 2016 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Supporters wait for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to speak at a rally on February 19, 2016, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

For another, economic insecurity and downward mobility is a pressing issue for many voters. To the extent that stagnant middle-class wages and growing inequality are a consequence of public policy (which they almost certainly are), many voters are totally justified in feeling cheated by the current political system, and angry enough to hate any candidate who feels like part of it to them. While the current campaign finance system has provided an effective mechanism for establishment candidates to succeed by supporting the fiscal policies favored by wealthy donors, it may have always had a limited life span — you can stretch a rubber band only so far before it snaps back.

Or perhaps, as Daniel Drezner provocatively argues, the very success of political science in explaining elections and showing that party elites do decide elections made party elites more complacent than they should have been about the rise of Donald Trump, particularly since so many pundits echoed that conventional wisdom that Trump would fade. While this seems like a stretch to me, it does make the useful point that political actors learn and adjust based on what they learn, and that each election is in some way a reaction to the lessons of the previous election.

Or perhaps the Republican Party erred in compressing its primary schedule from 2012 to 2016. In trying to solve the problem of a primary that went on for too long, it may have had the unintended consequence of making it easier for Trump to accumulate too many delegates before the necessary winnowing was completed.

If so, maybe we need to update our understanding to a more dynamic process model of elections that takes account of political learning and changing economic conditions. Perhaps we can start by anticipating how the lessons of 2016 will affect the dynamics of 2020.

Either way, politics is not clockwork

All of these are certainly plausible theories, though perhaps some are more plausible than others. Probably, we won't know until 2024 or 2028. Or we may never know.

But what's beyond debate at this point is that theories that said Trump would fade missed this case.

This is not quite economists' collective failure to predict the financial collapse of 2008. But it is similar in that there was nothing in the existing models to at least contemplate it. The best I could find was Samuel Huntington's classic theory that every 60 or so years American politics goes through a period of upheaval, and we're about due for the next one. (The last period began in the 1960s and lasted through the early 1970s.) I'm a sucker for these kinds of endogenous cycle theories, but I admit it's a stretch.

Like Popper, I think there are limits in ascribing clock-like properties to phenomena that are more cloud-like. And it's important to acknowledge those limits. Politics is a complex adaptive system, not unlike the weather. There are some predictable regularities, yes, but there are also a whole lot of dynamics and feedback loops that lead to occasional periods of unexpected change.

And, frankly, this is probably a good thing.

For one, it gives political science a rich new research project in explaining what the heck happened in 2016.

But more significantly, it's an important reminder that nothing is ever settled in politics. All particular political arrangements have their limits. Individual actors can sometimes matter in politics, particularly if they come at the right moment in conjunction with the right set of underlying factors.

So for those who worry about seemingly intractable political problems like partisan polarization or the influence of money, this means those problems are not likely to be permanent. There are moments in politics when things are random and indeterminate. And that makes a whole lot of things potentially possible sometimes.