Thursday, 17 November 2016

Why were Americans surprised by Trump’s victory?

The partial explanation of Donald Trump’s win is simple. The Clinton campaign made mincemeat of the reality, but Mr Trump is actually a progressive. He might not sound like a progressive, but that’s because, as per the name, the movement has “progressed” and look very different in 2016 than it did when Mr Trump was 20 years old.

When his ideas are dissected, it’s clear they are drawn from the standard progressive beliefs around the American of the 1970s – when he was 20 years old. At that age, not only is everyone incredibly impressionable, but all the “cool” people are believing the same thing and universities are adamant their views are correct. How many of us change our beliefs as we grow up?

Simply put, Mr Trump is a progressive from the 1970s. There’s an old joke that asks: what does it take to change a liberal into a conservative? Twenty years. In other words, beliefs considered radical today will be centrist and mainstream in about a generation because young Americans eventually become leaders, and those young people believe more progressive things than their parents.

This is how Mr Trump won. Firstly, his message resonated with people frustrated by the culture of boundary-pushing by the newest crop of progressives. But the key was Mr Trump’s connection with voters who came to maturity in the 70s, 80s and 90s. And there are far more of them than the 2000s progressives. That’s the partial explanation anyway, I’m sure there’s much more to the story.

What bothers me is the amount of high-level geopolitical commentators saying they are "surprised" by the result. For a start, it’s not fair to choose to comment on the US election in detail, only to miss the obvious, not only of the falsity of the polling method, but also the frustration of vast numbers of your countryfolk, only to retreat behind an excuse that the reason they missed the prediction is they’re actual job is geopolitical forecasting, not political forecasting. That’s disingenuous.

American forecasting companies such as Geopolitical Futures, Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting), and others are often perfectly accurate on the big stuff, the large cogs moving in the global system. But what happens if the small and medium stuff aren't well understood? How long until the weight of all those missed factors begin to affect predictions of the big stuff? I think this has been happening all year.

It was always suspicious that they could analyse other country's politics or national dynamics so well but spent such little time on analysing the United States. There seemed to be an inability of analysts to distance themselves from the US sufficiently to see what's really going on in their own country. Non-American analysts rationally predicted Mr Trump’s victory, yet very few American analysts did.

An article appeared a few years ago in the US online newspaper Vox in which American reporters attempted to report on riots in the US using the same processes they would normally use to report on demonstrations in China. The article is interesting not for its content, but because the reporters had no idea how to do this. It read like a fictional world. All the buzzwords and analyst-speak were there, but those phrases were often presaged by the politicised language used daily about US society. The reporters couldn't help themselves.

That was strange to read, and it wasn’t immediately clear why they couldn't analyse their own country in a detached way. Then I realised American reporters have never seen the US from outside. Not only do foreign reporters only comment on other countries (that is their job, after all), they have an inbuilt assumption that the American way of life is the default for the entire world system. To them, all other countries are either already full-blown American-style democracies or on their way to becoming full-blown American-style democracies. There is no third or way, no outside.

So everything becomes a commentary on that spectrum. And like a self-fulfilling prophecy, countries that consume this American media read about themselves and begin to subconsciously conform to the default assumption about America as the model of good society. That’s the strength of soft power.

To American analysts, Iran is seen correctly as a theocracy in the middle of a clashing dynamic between the two major forms of Islam – the Centre Party of Shiite theocrats and the Outer Party of Sunnis or other weak factions. China is seen as a partial communist state with Maoist/market-based Centre Party ideas clashing with Outer Party power factions for control.

But in the US, those same analysts stick to a strange narrative of two equal political parties they believe oscillate over ideological control of Washington. Everybody else on the planet knows this is false. There is only the Centre Party and the Outer Party. The Centre Party represents progressivism – the ideology of the civil service – forming the backbone of good government, and it hopes to export that idea to every other country. We can all see this, why can’t they?

Americans can comment on other countries using robust models, but to spin those same models back on the US somehow results in exclamations of "surprise." The one country which Americans understand the least appears to be their own. What is it about the American narrative that keeps them from seeing their country for how it really is?

I don't know. None of this is to say Stratfor’s model is inadequate for understanding broad geopolitics. Only to point out how a claim of "surprise" at their own election result suggests a disconnect between the way the world is and the way it is portrayed. The remedy must start inside the minds of analysts working within the US. But it is still a warning sign for readers.

Perhaps painting a self-portrait will never entirely cancel the narcissism of unconscious brush movements. But when someone from another culture paints what they see about the subject – not what the subject wishes to be seen – the portrait often comes out surprisingly differently. The key is to learn something from that experience.

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