The protests over the election of Donald Trump seem to have played out, as we knew they would, after the Electoral College had sealed the deal, by delivering an unassailable majority of its votes, after a few defections, to Mr. Trump on December 19. Those who protested after the election were, according to psychologists who work in the field of “heuristics,” in the grip of a kind of “believers” psychological condition—people who wanted to undo what they couldn’t accept as reality. Heuristic decisions or judgements, of course, are those made through intuition, educated guesses, or “common sense”, all of which can include stereotyping and/or profiling.
According to the heuristic psychologists, some of the protestors will migrate to the camp that views Trump’s victory as inevitable; they saw it coming, they will say. They will cite the Hillary Clinton email scandal and the FBI director’s public announcement in the late stages of the campaign, that the case was being reopened, or the discernible (to them) misogyny of a white male segment of the electorate, or that she “dissed” the white voters in the industrial heartland of the United States, or that the constant attacks on her ethics and trustworthiness cut deeply into her support among women, or that the serious voter suppression nullified the expected surge among minorities that would have offset the white flight from Ms. Clinton in important heartland states, which had been in recent years in the Democratic column.
Trump pulled voters his way because-by all accounts a heuristic thinker himself-he instinctively grasps how people think heuristically in much of their decision making, and how to incite that kind of thinking, in his business dealings as well as in politics. Hillary Clinton failed in strategic vision to pull voters her way, and instead pushed them Trump’s way
All these factors, and more, certainly played into Ms. Clinton’s defeat. But did they make that defeat inevitable? Or are there psychological and strategic reasons for her defeat, reasons that can be attributed not to inevitability but just to human nature and human error? After all, she ended the election vote count with almost 2.9 million more votes than Mr. Trump. But perhaps that anomaly can be looked at another way, one which the US media seems to have missed. Her margin in California was over 4 million, and without that Mr. Trump would have won the popular vote by about a million. So perhaps California is the anomaly, “the great exception” as a prescient California writer put it in 1949. (Alas, my home state, always outside and looking in, although there are some of us who look at that as a source of pride.)
This is probably one reason why our founding fathers put the Electoral College in the US constitution. They did not believe in real democracy, in fact were afraid of it; the Electoral College is one of the checks and balances we brag about as a foundation stone of the democracy we prize. Why should one state, because it happens to the most populous, with a population that does not reflect the social and demographic makeup of the rest of the country, have the power to overturn the will of a majority of the rest of the states? On the other hand, California reflects the social and demographic makeup of the urban landscape across the country. And it is the urban areas that are the growing and dynamic sector of American society. California represents the future, but a future that a broad swath of Americans would reject, in fact have rejected on November 8.
But, to return to the heuristic psychologists, there were a great many things at play in the election of Mr. Trump that lead me to wonder if the presumption of rationality that underlies our political, economic, and social systems is not the ultimate problem. It is not rationality itself that is the issue, but whether people can make rational decisions when they are almost always made heuristically. That is, people tend to make decisions by taking mental shortcuts. And some politicians seem to have a gift for eliciting heuristic thinking.
The leading figures of the heuristic psychology school have convincingly demonstrated that, when all of us are trying to process lots of information quickly, these shortcuts often steer us in wrong directions. They have been described as “the cognitive equivalents of optical illusions—tricks played by the mind rather than by the eye,” and they seem to run generally through most, if not all, people. There is, for example, “anchoring.” Tests have shown that this tendency for thinking to skew toward the initial images of an issue or a question often leads to irrational conclusions. As one observer noted, “Trump dropped anchors like a battleship commander,” always starting his accusations with shocking facts (like the enormous number of jobs lost to Chinese trading practices) that would stick in people’s’ minds, although almost none of them were true. His use of violent imagery stimulated what is called “availability” thinking. The more vivid the information given on an issue, the more quickly it comes to mind, and the more weight it has, when making a decision. Trump’s vivid descriptions of Mexican immigrants are an example. There is in the heuristic psychology lexicon “representativeness” thinking. Trump benefited from the inclination of people to stereotype, to decide something based on a model one has in mind. Some voters clearly had in mind the image of a tall white man as President (implicit racism) or just a tall man (implicit misogyny).
But the above paragraphs describe what I call the pull of the Trump victory, how he pulled voters his way because—by all accounts a heuristic thinker himself—he instinctively grasps how people think heuristically in much of their decision making, and how to incite that kind of thinking, in his business dealings as well as in politics. His campaign could be a guide book to similar elections in the future by other candidates similarly gifted in exploiting our inborn heuristic tendencies.
The other half of the story is what I call the push factors of the election. These relate to the campaign of Hillary Clinton, how she conducted it and where she failed in strategic vision to pull voters her way, and instead pushed them Trump’s way. Ms. Clinton was a crippled candidate from the start. The list of the issues that dogged her heels from day one of her campaign is pretty much listed in the second paragraph above. Add to that list that these issues were already in her baggage when she started the primary campaign and Trump and his acolytes, as well as his Republican primary opponents, used them to attack her throughout the primary campaign as well as the general election. There was also the issue of foreign investments in the Clinton Foundation to which she and husband Bill never created a good defense. She was suspect because, as one very astute political analyst observed, “ethics have not been the Clintons’ strong suit.”
More importantly, she was unable to counter Trump’s heuristic appeals to the core of the country. She came off as a technocrat, ready with position papers on every conceivable issue. But there was no spirited defense of democratic values. The economist, William Easterly, a technocrat himself, recently wrote, that technocrats do not know how to defend democracy as a concept and a way of life, but defend it instead on the basis of what works. Yet very little about democracy is working these days for the voters Trump appealed to. At the heart of democracy is the fundamental core value of individual freedom for all, the entire electorate, in fact the entire world. Surely a political leader committed to democracy, could make a spirited defense of democracy on the basis of this core value. Trump’s attack on the core values of democracy needed a universal moral response, one that was intended for all the voters, all Americans; instead Ms. Clinton, the technocratic political leader played only to her technocratic supporters and her coalition of minorities.
The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Chief of Mission in Liberia