Distrust in the Hinterlands: Bozo the Clown Promotes Fear and Hate, and It Ain’t Funny.

Distrust in the Hinterlands:

Bozo the Clown Promotes Fear and Hate, and It Ain’t Funny.

Burton Weltman

“I won’t close my eyes, I can’t close my eyes, I never close my eyes.

See, they’re always there, with that funny hair.  Oh, I’m so scared.”

Can’t Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me.

Alice Cooper.

Prologue:  Here’s Johnny!

“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters”

Albert Einstein.

“You can always tell when Donald Trump is lying.  He says ‘Believe me'”

Jon Stewart

“Who Do You Trust” was an ungrammatically named television game show emceed by Johnny Carson and announced by Ed McMahon during the 1950’s, before they went on to “Tonight Show” fame.  The show tested the trust in each other of husbands and wives.  In focusing on trust, the game exemplified a key theme in modern American culture.  Although we live in a culture based on an individualistic ideology, and we are bombarded with the mantra that each of us should think for him or herself, no one, not even Einstein, could know everything and think about everything for him or herself.  It is a fact of life that we inevitably must depend on others for most things, including our ideas.  Most of our ideas, judgments, and decisions are derived from others.  In this context, “Whom do you trust?” is probably the most important question that people must answer in their lives.

Each of us resides psychologically in what could be called a community of trust, which includes those family members, friends and other significant others whose ideas we absorb, and upon whom we rely for guidance when we make judgments and decisions.  We live, however, in a society in which face-to-face relationships have been increasingly replaced by long-distance and electronic contacts.  Increasingly, we must rely on people we do not know and will never see.  Experts, reporters, government officials, manufacturers, scientists – the list of people in whose hands we routinely place our lives is almost endless.  That can be discomfiting for people raised on the idea of self-reliance, and it raises the stakes on the question of whom one can trust.

It is the importance of trust in our lives that makes the election of Donald Trump as President so perplexing to many people, including me.  Trump is a chronic and seemingly compulsive liar.  He has repeatedly cheated on his several wives, and repeatedly violated contracts with people working for him.  He is a narcissist who seemingly cares for nothing but massaging his own ego.  Trump is also a vulgar person, who regularly behaves in repulsive ways, insulting anyone who disagrees with him, including the Pope, and sexually abusing women and then bragging about it.

With his ever-present smirk and phony orange hair, Trump was widely the butt of late night jokes long before “Saturday Night Live” recently got on his case.  In a monologue in 1992, for example, Johnny Carson deadpanned on “The Tonight Show” that Jennifer Flowers, who claimed to have been Bill Clinton’s mistress and had recently been fired as a receptionist, had just been hired by Trump as his backup mistress in case his current mistress was unavailable.

Donald Trump is a man who has clearly shown that he cannot be trusted in matters either small or great.  That this clownish character is now the President is keeping a lot of people up at night, scared and unable to sleep.  Nonetheless, enough Americans decided he could be relied upon to be their President so that he was elected.  How can that be?

Bozo the Clown becomes President: Trump trumps trust with fear.

“Bozo the Clown.  Do we really need ‘the Clown?’  Are we going to confuse him with Bozo the Tax Attorney?  Bozo the Pope?”

Jerry Seinfeld.

“How about Bozo the President of the United States?”

Anonymous.

It has been said that the Republican Party could run Bozo the Clown as its candidate for President and still get the support of the 33% of the voters who make up the hard core Republican base.  Bozo would get the troglodytes who fantasize about returning to the laissez-faire ways they think prevailed in the United States during the nineteenth century, but really didn’t, and to whom Republicans have historically appealed with a mantra of free enterprise.

Bozo would also get the racists who still cannot accept the end of segregation, let alone that we have had a black President, and to whom Republicans have been appealing through coded racist messages since the mid-1960’s.  And he would get opponents of abortion who think abortion is mass murder, and therefore have no moral choice but to vote for an anti-abortion Republican, no matter how offensive he or she might otherwise be.  So, even Bozo would have a base vote of some 33%.

The problem for Democrats is that the Republicans actually did run Bozo the Clown in the recent Presidential election, and he got 46% of the popular vote.  His total was significantly less than the percentage of the popular vote received by his opponent, but still enough to gain a victory in the Electoral College, thereby defying almost everyone’s expectations, seemingly including those of Bozo himself.

In past elections, victorious Republican candidates have succeeded by tacking toward the ideological middle after they are nominated, and making a rational and hopeful appeal to the broader electorate beyond the Republican base. In the recent election, the Republican candidate did no such thing.  His campaign was extremist, ridiculous and scandalous from beginning to end.  A truly Bozo production.  Yet, to the astonishment of many, and the dismay of most, he won.  So, how did Bozo pick up that extra 13% of the vote that he needed to win?  More particularly, how did he sway voters in the so-called swing states in the American hinterlands (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin) that he needed to take an Electoral College victory?

To be clear, this was a very close election in which any number of things could have been the proximate cause that tipped it toward Trump.  Putin’s enmity, Comey’s infamy, Clinton’s overconfidence, and voters’ apathy at what was supposed to be a Clinton landslide, are just a few of the things.  We should not jump to broad conclusions from this election about the irrationality of American voters, or about some sort of growing fascist sentiment in the country.

Some ninety years ago, the great American cynic H.L. Mencken predicted that “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.  On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”  Many disgruntled liberals have resurrected that prediction as an epitaph for Trump’s election victory, along with various dystopian literary fantasies about the demise of democracy and the rise of fascism in America that have been published over the last century.

But that response seems a gross overreaction.  After all, Clinton got more votes than Trump.  And she won virtually all the major cities and the most productive states.  Likewise, as of this writing in mid-February, Trump’s post-election approval ratings have been the lowest for any President in history, and dropping, with a majority of Americans disapproving of him and a majority wishing Obama was still President.  The reaction of most Americans to most of Trump’s early actions as President have also been generally negative.

Trump’s electoral success cannot, however, be dismissed as a fluke.  Trump seems to have triumphed through an appeal to the fears of a great swath of so-called middle Americans who are afraid they are being left out and left behind by forces beyond their control.  And his election seems to reflect a longstanding cultural gap in American society between those who are willing to entertain new theories and practices in the arts, religion, science, and public policies, and are willing to embrace diversity in our population, and those who want to maintain what they see as tried and true traditional practices, and white European homogeneity in our population.  It is a split that could be described as between progressives and traditionalists.  Trump’s extra 13% of the electorate seems to have come from traditionalists who voted to protect their entrenched vision of the world, fearing for its demise, along with what they saw as their self-interests.

Many Americans, especially those in the so-called rust belt, coal belt, Bible belt, and farm belt, are afraid of the wider world and what they do not know about it.  Most importantly, they do not trust scientists, experts, intellectuals, government officials, and immigrants whose ideas derive from involvement in the wider world, and whom they never see or see only occasionally on national news programs.  This is, I think, a key to our political situation.  Many Americans do not trust the messengers of modern science and progressive government and, so, they reject the message.

They do not trust scientists, so they refuse to believe in climate change, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that it is real and that it would hurt people like them most.  Likewise, they do not trust foreigners, so they reject international trade agreements, despite the evidence that these agreements work to most of their advantage. For the same reason, they do not trust international organizations, such as NATO and the UN, even though these organizations have overwhelmingly supported American initiatives over the years.  And they don’t speak Spanish or any language other than English, so they fear and reject immigrants, even though immigrants are a key component of our country’s success and their own well-being.

They do not trust faceless bureaucrats in Washington DC, so they hate the federal government and government programs, despite the fact most of them depend on all sorts of federal government programs to survive.  “Keep the government’s hands off of my Medicare” is a common demand among people who regularly proclaim their fear and hatred of the federal government.  I have heard it from people I know.  Similarly, there are many people from these areas who want to get rid of Obamacare but not the Affordable Care Act.

Fear rather than facts seems to drive this group of people.  The reality is that Red states receive more money in aid from the federal government than they pay in taxes.  If the Republicans follow through on their proclaimed goals of cutting back on federal programs and cutting down on economic and environmental regulations, it will be Red states and Republican voters that are hurt the most.  Many red states also depend heavily on immigrant labor, so that Trump’s promised crackdown on immigrants will harm the very people who voted for him.  Distrust was, however, Trump’s trump card, and much to the amazement of most Democrats, many middle American voters distrusted Hillary Clinton more than Trump.

It would be hard to find another person in America who less represents what these people stand for than Trump.  He is a dissolute libertine, who has been married three times to trophy wives, conducted numerous extramarital affairs, routinely assaulted women sexually, and then bragged about it.  He is a draft dodger who inherited his wealth from his father, and used it to engage in financial manipulations and to build high end hotels, golf courses and other amenities for the very wealthy.  He has spent his life cavorting with the rich and famous.  But, as the saying goes, the enemy of my enemies is my friend, and Trump savagely disparaged the people whom many middle Americans most fear.  And they believed him in that.

Trump persistently appealed to the fears of these people by attacking scientists, bureaucrats and foreigners, who he contended were bent on destroying the traditionalists’ vision of America.  He persistently proclaimed that Clinton was untrustworthy, and that she represented the forces and the people that traditionalists believe are wrecking their world.  Clinton was unable to convince these traditionalists that scientists, bureaucrats and foreigners need not be feared, and that they and she could be trusted and included within their community of trust.

Instead of trying to counter the fears of traditionalists, Democrats emphasized their fears of Trump, and trumpeted the ways in which a Bozo presidency might harm the country.  Democrats, thereby, countered Trump’s fear mongering with their own fear mongering.  But fear mongering is a game that conservatives generally win.  And they did so once again in this election.  In the struggle between fear and trust, fear was the consensus winner, trust the loser.  But this is nothing new, and Democrats should have known better and done better.

The Public and Its Problems: Dewey and Lippmann Debate Democracy.

“The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses.  They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers.  But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

Carl Sagan.

“And what if Bozo thinks he is a genius, then what?”

Anonymous.

The election of Donald Trump is symptomatic of splits between cultural progressives and traditionalists, and between social progressives and conservatives, that almost all societies have faced since the rise of the first civilizations, and that have plagued the United States since the early twentieth century.  Progressives look to the wider world for ideas, and look forward to social and cultural change.  Traditionalists look inward to their local communities, and backward to their traditions.  They have usually occupied middle to lower-middle positions in society.  Conservatives look to maintain the position and power of the social elite.  While most progressives have historically been members of the social elite, they have generally sought social and cultural change at the risk of some loss of position and power.

A literacy gap between those who could and could not read and write was the foundation of cultural divisions in most societies for most of history which, in turn, mirrored social, economic and political differences.  Most societies were made up of literate city dwellers and illiterate rural peasants, with the city dwellers ruling over and looking down on their rural brethren.  Literacy provided a sharp and obvious dividing line between those in the know and in power, and those not.  Illiteracy and poverty were also obvious reasons why traditionalists could not reach out to the wider world, and may not even have known that a wider world existed.

In ancient Greece, for example, Athenian philosophers looked to Egypt and Sumeria for new ideas.  During the Renaissance, European intellectuals looked to India and the Ottoman Caliphate.  Even during the Middle Ages in Europe, which used to be called the Dark Ages because cultural conservatism was the order of the day, intellectuals in the Catholic Church looked to ancient Greece and Rome for ideas.  Meanwhile, peasants in most societies around the world inhabited cultures that changed so slowly that most people did not notice the changes at all.

With the rise of literacy in most parts of the world over the last century and a half, literacy was no longer a major dividing line in society or defining point in culture.  By the early twentieth century, literacy was almost universal in the United States, and almost all Americans had access to the wider world of culture, if they wanted it.  Nonetheless, a culture gap persisted between progressives who looked outward for cues and forward toward change, and traditionalists who looked inward and backward.  A new way of defining this culture gap was needed, especially by conservatives who resisted the egalitarian implications of universal literacy, and wanted to maintain their elite status.  They came up with a distinction between highbrows and lowbrows.

Highbrows were described as people involved in the fine arts and engaged in challenging intellectual pursuits.  Lowbrows were people involved in popular culture and parochial pursuits.  Highbrows were ostensibly highly intelligent, their thinking was complex, and they were connected to a wide world of culture.  Lowbrows were supposedly unintelligent, their thinking was simple and simplistic, and they were narrowly confined to their local culture.  Highbrows, who were almost invariably members of the upper classes in America, were ostensibly the natural leaders of the country.  Lowbrows were natural followers, if they only knew it.

This distinction between highbrows and lowbrows had significant political implications.  Highbrows were supposedly capable of understanding and dealing with the complexities of modern twentieth century society, including the intellectual challenges of an ongoing technological revolution, the social problems of mass immigration and urbanization, and the managerial conundrums of large-scale industries and other organizations.  Lowbrows were supposedly stuck in the obsolete theories and practices of the small towns, the family farms, and the local businesses of the nineteenth century.  They looked for simplistic solutions to complex problems, and could not be trusted with the management of the country.

The question that faced political leaders in America in the early twentieth century was how to deal with what most saw as an ignorant majority of lowbrows in an ostensibly democratic society.  It is a question that persists to the present day.  Although the names have changed over time, the essence of the distinction between highbrows and lowbrows has remained the same.  The euphemism “high information voter” versus “low information voter” is widely used today.  But a lowbrow by any other name is still a person being demeaned and degraded, and a problem for those who think of themselves as at a higher intellectual and cultural level.  For both conservatives and progressives, the solution to the problem has lain in education and the mass media, but with very different approaches to both.

Conservatives have tended toward Mencken’s belief that “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”  They have complained that democracy inevitably panders to the lowest common denominator among people, and that left unchecked would produce idiotic leaders and moronic public policies.  Mitt Romney’s claim during the 2012 election that forty-nine percent of Americans essentially want to live on welfare benefits, and vote Democratic for that reason, is only a recent example of that sentiment.  So, conservatives developed during the 1920’s a scare tactic to appeal to erstwhile lowbrow traditionalists, and pander to their ignorance and fears.  This approach was designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator among the masses through scaring them into following the lead of their betters.  This approach would put a check on egalitarian policies and democratizing politics through melodramatizing the need for plutocratic policies and authoritarian politics

Demonizing ostensibly dangerous immigrants, violent blacks, anarchistic terrorists, traitorous Communists, arrogant liberals, effete intellectuals, and atheistic scientists became the stock-in-trade of most Republicans from that time to the present.  And they have worked.  Republican policies have invariably favored the rich and powerful, and have never been in the best interests of most of the people who have voted Republican.  The policies of Democrats have almost always been in their better interests.  Republican scare tactics have, nonetheless, historically worked with alienated groups of distrustful and fearful Americans, and this largely explains how it is that Republicans have been able to win elections.  Donald Trump merely represents an extreme version of the brand.

The effectiveness of Republican scare tactics is exemplified by the ability of even Trump to win with them.  He personally represents anything but the traditional theories and practices of the middle Americans who voted for him.  But many of those people seemed willing to suspend their disbelief in his villainy because they distrusted even more the people he disparaged.  In turn, the willingness of Trump to adopt Republican scare tactics also demonstrates the shallowness and hollowness of the distinction between so-called highbrows and lowbrows.

Trump was born and bred a New Yorker, and has spent his whole life consorting with so-called highbrows in that city.  But none of their supposed intellectualism or culturalism has seemed to rub off on him.  He thinks he is a genius, and constantly says so, but he is actually a cultural boor, and an extremely ignorant and inarticulate person.  He may have been in, but he was not of the highbrow class.  If anything, he fits the definition of a lowbrow, which is why he has been able to campaign so sincerely as an anti-intellectual who scorns science, facts, and truth.  With Trump, there is not much there, there.  What Trump has, however, is an amazing natural talent for promoting himself and fostering a cult of his person and personality.

Cultivating Trust in the Hinterlands: Policies versus Personalities.

“You’re gonna like this.”

Bozo the Clown.

“Naw, I don’t think so.”

Anonymous.

Trump’s success in this election, and his ability to foster a cult of his personality among middle Americans, who had every good reason to shun him, seems to demonstrate the need for progressives to develop a better strategy if they are going to consistently thwart Republican scare tactics in the future.  The middle Americans who put Trump over the top, the 13% who made the difference, did not vote for Trump because they were enamored of him.  They voted for Trump because they were afraid of Clinton more than of him.  They did not trust her and the cast of characters she represented.  How then should progressives reach out to middle Americans?

This is a question that liberals have been debating since at least the 1920’s, when Walter Lippmann and John Dewey engaged in a famous debate on the future of democracy in a mass society.  It is a debate that pits those who could be called technocratic progressives against those who could be called participatory democratic progressives.

In Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925), Lippmann described what he saw as the implications for public opinion and politics of recent insights in behavioral psychology and psychoanalysis, and recent developments in the technology of the mass media, particularly radio and the motion pictures.  He claimed that modern psychology had demonstrated ways in which public opinion could easily be manipulated, and modern mass media provided the means for doing so.  He noted that these ways and means had already been successfully deployed by advertisers who used them to manipulate people into buying their clients’ products.  Lippmann applied these psychological insights and technological developments to politics.

Lippmann was a technocrat who derided the idea that public policy could be made by the public or in public.  He claimed that the public invariably wanted simple answers to complex questions, and inevitably chose leaders based on the personalities these leaders projected rather than the effectiveness of their policy proposals.  This desire of the masses for simplistic answers had been aggravated by the ever-increasing complexity of modern society.  Their focus on celebrities and personalities had been encouraged by the pervasive mass entertainment industry.  Lippmann concluded that the American public had been reduced to a “mass of absolutely illiterate, feeble-minded, grossly neurotic, undernourished and frustrated individuals.”[1]

Lippmann claimed that public policy must first be made by experts and technocrats, and then sold to the public through advertising techniques.  The public’s role in public policy should be merely plebiscitary.  That is, the people could reject leaders and policies through elections.  The way to gain support for liberal policies was, in turn, to cultivate the public’s trust in celebrity liberal leaders, who would then be able to sell their policies to the people the way advertisers sold their products through the endorsement of entertainment celebrities.  Lippmann warned, however, that public opinion would invariably be molded by whoever was in control of the media. The battle for the future would be fought over control of the mass media.

John Dewey was what we might call a participatory democratic progressive.  In The Public and Its Problems (1927) and in Individualism, Old and New (1929), he agreed with Lippmann that public opinion was often shallow and transitory, and that the complex problems of modern society required experts to solve them.  But while he acknowledged the problems that Lippmann described, Dewey claimed the solution was through more public participation, not less.

Dewey rejected the idea that ordinary people were feeble-minded or irrational lowbrows.  The underlying problem, he contended, was the isolation of local communities from each other, and from the broader national and international communities.  Isolation, he claimed, leads to distrust which leads to fear.  His idea was to cultivate local communities, and then connect them to each other and to the wider world through their consideration of common problems and solutions.[2]

The culture gap for participatory democrats such as Dewey is not a difference in intelligence, but a difference in whom people trust.  Most people, whether highbrow or lowbrow, make most of their choices based on who and what they trust.  No one understands everything he or she accepts as valid.  We all must accept the validity of things we do not understand, which is most things, on trust.  Most progressives reside intellectually within a community of trust that includes scientists, scholars, public officials, experts, politicians, and public institutions of various sorts.  This community is essentially a web of trust based on people personally trusting people who trust other people who trust other people and so on.  It is a web that expands to many degrees of separation between people, but all of whom reside within the realm of trust.  The question for progressives is how to gain the trust of people so that they choose to inhabit a community of trust that is similar to ours and that overlaps with ours.

The answer for Dewey was education.  Rather than selling liberal policies through a top-down advertising program, and gaining the public’s support for liberal policies by promoting liberal celebrities, Dewey wanted to use newly developed progressive educational methods to gain public support for policies which could then be transferred to support for liberal leaders.  His was a bottom-up method of political organizing.  “Democracy must begin at home,” Dewey claimed, “and its home is the neighborly community.” [3]

Dewey acknowledged the educational power of the mass media, but the fact that public opinion was susceptible of control by the rich and powerful people who own the mass media led him to reject a reliance on the media as a means of educating people.  He thought, instead, that public schools could be the primary vehicles for organizing people locally, and then connecting them to national and international institutions.  Public schools are run by local people, but they teach students about the wider world of social science, physical science and public policy.  School teachers are local people, but through their advanced educations, their professional organizations, and the subjects they teach, teachers are connected to the most advanced learning in the world.  Schools could help children, and maybe their parents as well, expand what I have called their community of trust to include the scientists and other thinkers who best understand the world.

The proposals and predictions of both Lippmann and Dewey have proved partially correct over time.  Since 1960, for example, with the rise of television as a principle means of campaigning, the mass media has become the major terrain on which political battles have been fought.  As a consequence, political parties, which had historically been a means of bringing together disparate communities in the country, have declined.  Television has trumped political organization.

In the recent election, Bernie Sanders, who was not a Democrat, ran in the Democratic primary and almost won.  Donald Trump, who was not a member of the Republican Party, essentially ran against the party in the Republican primary, yet won the party’s nomination.  He then ran in the general election with almost no support the from the party, and won.  With his Bozo the Clown act, Trump received an extraordinary amount of free publicity from the mass media.  Then, with his own money and money from wealthy donors, he was able to buy more media time.  A media star to begin with, Trump parlayed that status to the election.  Lippmann was correct in predicting this sort of thing.

But Dewey was also correct in predicting the progressive educational effect of public schools.  The fact is that most Americans trust modern science and scientists.  Most accept, for example, the fact of global climate change and the effect that human activities have on that change.  Most accept racial equality, gender equality, and gay rights.  We have, after all, twice elected a black intellectual as President, something that would have seemed impossible in Dewey’s day.  These enlightened developments in public opinion did not come from nowhere.

Science classes and social studies classes in the public schools were major factors in developing enlightened public opinion in recent years.  Schools are where children have learned how science works, how government works, and how people are people, no matter their race, religion, or gender.  From that knowledge, they have also learned that it is possible for scientists and government officials to be trustworthy, and how to know whether and when they are.  Local schools run by local school boards, and staffed by local teachers who are connected intellectually to scholars and scholarship worldwide, made the difference.  This is the bottom-up, participatory democratic change that Dewey promoted.

At the same time, while most Americans are connected to the wider world, there are pockets of isolated people who essentially constitute communities of distrust of the wider world.  In these communities, local control of schools and the media has worked to the disadvantage of progressive education and enlightened thinking.  There are, for example, many states and localities in which school boards openly forbid or subtly discourage teaching about climate change and social justice issues.

These communities are often caught within vicious cycles of self-reinforcing distrust of modern science, scientists, federal officials, and foreigners.  Modern technology reinforces this vicious cycle by enabling people in these communities to connect with television news channels and websites that reinforce their narrow opinions, without any contact with alternative views.  The ability of Republicans to control these states and to control Congress through gerrymandering depends on these communities of distrust.  As did Trump in his presidential campaign.

The debate between technocratic progressives and participatory democratic progressives on how best to counter conservatives has gone on for close to one hundred years.  In recent years, the debate has included Bill and Hillary Clinton on the technocratic side, with their famous focus on triangulating public policy and public opinion, and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the participatory democratic side.  The long-term goals of these two groups of progressives are not that different, but their short-term goals and methods are.  Should liberals focus on the cult of personality or the cultivation of policy?  Should liberals pursue a top-down media-driven political strategy, or a bottom-up grass roots organizing strategy?

The cult of personality is at best a fifty-fifty proposition.  For every magnetic liberal personality such as Bill Clinton, you get a non-magnetic liberal personality such as Hillary Clinton.  The cult of personality also leaves you liable to the libeling of personality, as with the ridiculing of Jimmy Carter in 1980, the Swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004, and the vilifying of Hillary Clinton in 2016, which saddled us respectively with Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump.

In this last election, the technocrat Hillary Clinton may have been the most qualified presidential candidate in American history.  The clownish Donald Trump may have been the most unqualified presidential candidate in American history.  Basing his campaign on appealing to communities of distrust in the United States, the clown raged his way to victory.  There are many things that Democrats could have done during this election that might have tipped things their way.  Trump’s election, nonetheless, highlights many things that are wrong in our system of elections.  These include the inordinate influence of private money on elections, the disproportionate attention from the mass media that a flamboyant candidate gets, and the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College.  These things ought to be fixed, but almost certainly won’t be.

But reaching out to disaffected groups who either voted for Trump or didn’t vote, especially those in the hinterlands, and bringing them into a progressive community of trust, is something that could be done.  That means developing a grass roots participatory democratic strategy for penetrating communities of distrust, and encouraging trust in progressive policies that can translate into electing progressive politicians.  Maybe we can reach the 13% of the electorate that put Trump over the top, and work on the Republican base of 33% as well.  That might help keep thoughts of the scary clown at bay, so that maybe we can all get some sleep at night.

[1] Walter Lippmann. Public Opinion. New York: The Free Press, 1922. p..48.

[2] John Dewey. The Public and Its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1980. pp. 169, 178, 208-209.

[3] John Dewey. The Public and Its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1980. pp.213, 216.

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The Election of Donald Trump and the Law of Small Numbers: A Statistical Note on the Choice of Incompetent Presidents.

The Election of Donald Trump and the Law of Small Numbers:

A Statistical Note on the Choice of Incompetent Presidents.

Burton Weltman

Making too much out of too little.

Statisticians have long warned us not to violate what they call the Law of Small Numbers, which is the mistake of making too much out of too little, and drawing big conclusions from a small sample of evidence.  At the same time, psychologists have told us that we are hardwired to do just that, and are programmed to reach hasty conclusions that would not survive reasoned reflection.  Without someone or something to make us stop and think, we all too often make decisions that we later regret.  And all of this, they tell us, is a result of evolution.

The tendency to reach hasty conclusions was, in fact, an evolutionary advantage for our puny ancestors, little rat-like mammals scurrying around trying to avoid being eaten by large predators.  For them, for example, seeing a potential predator in a given place more than once was probably a good reason to avoid that place forever more.  Taking extra precautions such as this was a key to survival for them.  But, the fact of the matter was that the appearance and reappearance of that predator in that place was often more likely a matter of chance than a pattern of behavior.  There was probably nothing to fear, but better safe than sorry was the order of the day.  The extra precaution was wise, albeit it was not statistically necessary.

We humans today are still operating under that primitive imperative of better safe than sorry, and we almost inevitably jump to broad conclusions based on limited data.  But what was a wise thing for our ancestors to do may be unwise for us.  Concluding, for example, that since your buddy was able to pick five winners in five horse races, you should place your life’s savings on his sixth tip, is probably unwise.  The sample of five winners in five races is just too small to reach a reasonable conclusion that your buddy knows what he is doing.  Unless, of course, you know that he has inside information and that the fix is in for the sixth race.

Making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

So, what does that have to do with the presidential election of Donald Trump?  Just this.  If you look at our system of electing Presidents in the United States, and read what commentators have been saying about it since the adoption of our Constitution, it is hard not to conclude that it is an extremely inefficient process.  At its best, the process has not worked at least since the first quarter of the nineteenth century to select the best and most qualified people to be our Presidents.  And with the degeneration of our political parties in recent years, and their declining influence, and with the increasing influence of big money and the mass media in the election of our Presidents, the process has gotten even worse in recent decades.  It is, at best, a random process, giving us maybe a fifty-fifty chance of having a decent or a disastrous President.

Under these circumstances, we have actually been very lucky in this country that we have had so few disastrous Presidents in our history.  Yet, we are surprised when someone as disastrous as Donald Trump gets elected.  We should not be surprised.  Our surprise is a function of our being fooled by the Law of Small Numbers.  Since a good majority of our Presidents have been at least decent, with disastrous Presidents seemingly as exceptions rather than the rule, we think we have a system of elections that works reasonably well.  Well, we don’t.  And it has once again been proven to us in spades.

There are many specific reasons why Trump was elected.  It was seemingly a perfect storm of things that went wrong or went against Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and went right or in favor of Trump’s.  But there are also many things wrong with our system of electing Presidents which contributed to his victory, from the undemocratic Electoral College to the extraordinary length of our election campaigns.

Some of these things will likely never be fixed, including the Electoral College, but some things can.  In particular, we need strong political parties that are organized from the bottom on up, and a strong program of public financing of election campaigns.  For information and ideas about public campaign financing, you can consult the website of Democracy Matters, a grass roots organization dedicated to taking big money out of our politics.  With stronger political parties and public financing, we can minimize the influence of demagoguery through the mass media of the sort that Trump successfully engaged in during the last election, and we can minimize the undemocratic influence of billionaires and big corporations on our elections.

These things are doable.  And we should, at least, learn from this last election not to trust in the illusion of conclusions that violate the Law of Small Numbers.  Given the nature of our electoral system, and the odds of the game, something like Trump was to be expected.  We can do better.

1/31/17