As the Coronavirus pandemic takes up all available bandwidth for ourselves, and our communities, the US primary battle to find a challenger to Donald Trump seems like an irrelevance. It may well be, but I think there are important lessons to learn from the recent shifts in the race, and whether there are systematic flaws in our systems of making sense of the world.
This article is aimed at a specific audience, the communities that Rebel Wisdom is part of, sometimes loosely described as the ‘meta-web’, the ‘sensemaking web’ or similar. They are communities based around systems change, personal growth, human development in the US and Europe. This article was sparked by several conversations I had with different people in various communities and conversations I saw online.
I am pointing to a specific narrative breakdown, but the issues raised are more general and potentially systematic, and given the need for accurate, real time analysis with the growing pandemic crisis, I think they are crucial.
I take a definitive tone in this article, but I’m open to accepting that I’m missing important factors or mistaken on points. Given that part of my argument is that we’re not error correcting sufficiently, bring it on.
Two incompatible narratives
This is about a clash of two narratives about the Democratic Primaries, Joe Biden vs Bernie Sanders, and what it says about our ability to grasp the bigger pictures, the wider narrative at play, and ALSO the detailed picture of changing facts and figures. And the necessity to update our sensemaking frameworks in real time and not cling to outdated models.
None of the below is to argue that either Sanders or Bernie are stellar candidates in their own right, and it’s genuinely astonishing that, given Trump to focus the minds of the Democrat establishment, the best they can come up with is a choice between two fading Septuagenarians.
Narrative one: I was hearing from several people that only Bernie could have a chance against Trump, that he was the ‘anti-Trump’, while Biden would be sure to lose to Trump.
Many people I respected were holding to the narrative that goes something like this. Trump changed the game, showed definitively that people were tired of the status quo and wanted radical change, so given that, a centrist like Biden was a surefire loser against Trump, and only someone like Bernie would have a chance.
I’ve been covering American politics pretty closely as a journalist for many years, including some time based in Washington, and this narrative didn’t fit with what I was observing.
Narrative two: My perspective, as I’ll unpack below, was that Bernie was a weak candidate, and despite a passionate online army, would turn off as many people as he attracted, that it was a huge risk to run a “democratic socialist” in America, and that people were in danger of over-interpreting the 2016 election.
Recognising that there was a weight of opinion behind narrative one, I held both possibilities lightly and avoided taking a definitive position.
On Super-Tuesday, when Biden unexpectedly but roundly defeated Sanders in a string of primary races, several undeniable facts emerged that provided clarity, not only to the 2020 race, but also context to make more sense of 2016.
As I’ll unpack below, one of these potential narratives should have collapsed, but people didn’t update their models of reality.
Why is this?
Correct intuitions, poor analysis
My theory is that this is more complex than simply motivated reasoning or confirmation bias. Actually there was a correct intuition underneath the faulty sensemaking.
Most people in the communities I’m referring to have understood the deeper meaning of Trump. That he is the symptom of a badly dysfunctional system, not the disease. In a ‘Game A’ society optimised for game theoretical dynamics, zero-sum outcomes, low trust and narcissism, he is the peak predator, and the herald of the endgame of a system that is unsustainable and growing critical.
So tracking this deeper mythos, we have an aesthetic sense that whatever the problem Trump poses to the collective consciousness, the solution is not going to be a return to the status quo, such as a trusted Obama era Democrat like Biden. It just feels impossible, and we’re right to feel that. That isn’t how this story goes, the genie is out of the bottle, and there will have to be a reckoning.
But then many then look for a a narrative to fit that mythos, and confuse it with a conclusion that Biden couldn’t beat Trump. They further assume that the only possible political narrative is that a yet more radical candidate, Bernie Sanders, (the “anti-Trump”) must be the man that delivers us from Trump.
This simply doesn’t fit the facts, not after we have solid electoral data from multiple states voting on Super Tuesday. Because Biden DOES have the beating of Trump, and always did. Bernie is less likely to win in the US electoral system.
Trump, the peak predator himself, knows this, which is why he got himself impeached trying to scupper Biden’s chances.
I don’t believe Biden will become President, but not because he doesn’t have the beating of Trump electorally, but because Trump will not play by those rules, and will break them. Especially now with the growing pandemic, and the temptation that Trump could use it to his advantage, up to and including suspending the electoral process.
The battle for the soul of the failing American institutions and takeover by administration loyalists has been going on for three years, and we will see how resilient they are when the time comes. That is the authoritarian endgame that we have been intuiting, and we need to update our sensemaking to take account of the facts on the ground.
To summarise the facts that we now have on Biden vs Bernie after Super Tuesday.
– Bernie had more money, a better ground game than his rivals, passionate fans, huge name recognition and a compelling betrayal narrative from 2016.
– Despite this, he actually went BACKWARDS with nearly every voting group.
– Turnout was massively UP in the primaries from 2016, and most Democrats said the most important factor in their decision was voting for the man they thought could beat Trump.
– Biden won handsomely in states he didn’t even visit or spend money in.
What does Super Tuesday tell us, undeniably?
– That Hillary Clinton was an even worse candidate than we thought, she couldn’t put Bernie away until much later in the race.
– That far from being a mainstream (blue church) smear, the narrative of Bernie’s unelectability had some basis in truth when he was tested against an actual electorate.
The ENTIRE strategy of Sanders was that he could bring a new wave of young people and disengaged voters to the polls, and not only did that not happen, but millions of new people turned up (turnout up by around 30% in most areas on 2016) and supported BIDEN instead.
Another excellent article on how the Democratic party proved more resilient to takeover by an outsider than the Republicans were in 2016 is provided by the Bulwark: https://thebulwark.com/democrats-are-better-at-this.
But people kept trying to defend and maintain the collapsed frame. The narrative that I saw some people deploy to defend the previous frame was that the Super Tuesday results amounted to a huge conspiracy play by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), persuading/bribing other centrist candidates like Pete Buttegieg and Amy Klobochar to drop out in a corrupt ply to push Biden. I even saw one excitable sensemaker compare this to the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King as a similar destruction of hope by unseen forces.
If you are conspiracy minded then anything that looks at all like coordination takes on a sinister air. But this conspiracy theory doesn’t add up. Firstly both the other centrist candidates had no path to the nomination. Secondly, Biden had less money and a smaller ground operation than Bernie and won in states he didn’t even visit.
What it looks much more like, is hundreds of thousands of people all over the US, from multiple different backgrounds reckoning with the momentum that Sanders had going into super Tuesday and collectively deciding that he was a risk that wasn’t worth taking in the aim of unseating Trump. This is exactly what people told the exit pollsters, that beating Trump was the deciding factor for most people.
There is also an element of ‘Trump Derangement Syndrome’ here. We have to remember what actually happened in 2016 and not over-interpret the results now, or update our models in a faulty way.
Trump’s victory in 2016 was a kind of electoral miracle. But paradoxically one that in retrospect felt inevitable. Which is not to discount the serious intentionality behind it, as Jordan Hall outlined in his ‘Situational Assessment’, his supporters (including many of the 4chan online army) formed a kind of primitive ‘collective intelligence’ that was faster, smarter, funnier and better than anything on Hillary’s side. As a poster on Reddit joked on the night Trump won — “holy shit, we got a meme elected!”.
A small group of people organised an insurgency online and imposed their will on reality.
But it’s a category error to mistake that sense of retrospective inevitability of Trump’s victory in 2016 with an assumption that he’s a devastatingly powerful candidate. He isn’t. He exploited the weakness and internal incoherence of the Republican party to win their primary, and then was fortunate enough to be up against the weakest candidate of modern times in Hillary Clinton.
His supporters are getting more passionate, and loose movements like Q-Anon have emerged that will likely play a meaningful role, but Trump has not become MORE popular since 2016.
Trump is HUGELY unpopular for a sitting president, unprecedentedly so. As Jonathan Last of the Bulwark puts it: “I’ve long believed that this is a strange cycle because of the unique personal unpopularity of Donald Trump. The basic fact about the president is that people don’t like him. Forty percent of the country may think he’s the god-king, but close to 55 percent of the country think he’s an awful person. That distribution is so far outside the norm for incumbent presidents that there is no modern precedent for it — because even when incumbents have had low job approval ratings, they’ve never been as personally despised as Trump is.
As a matter of practical politics, this means that Trump is a turnout machine — both for his own voters and for the opposition. Which is a problem for him.
His best chance for reelection was always the chance that he would face a Democrat who either had views far outside the American mainstream, or was personally unlikable, or, in the best-case scenario both. (Which is why Elizabeth Warren was Trump’s dream candidate.)
Instead, Trump is going to face off against the most politically unobjectionable figure in the Democratic party, a guy tied to a popular recent president, who has 50 years of good-will built up with the public and who is as personally likable as anyone in politics.
Joe Biden has all sorts of weaknesses as a candidate. There’s no other cycle in which he could have had a ghost of a chance of being elected president. But he is uniquely suited to this match-up.”
Pretty much any mainstream Democrat (who isn’t Hillary Clinton) would have the beating of him. Putting aside the recent concerns about Biden’s mental state, he is one of the most popular politicians from an administration that most Americans have very favourable memories of. He would most likely have won in 2016 had Hillary and the Democratic machine not persuaded him to step aside.
Sanders is not Jeremy Corbyn, the UK Labour leader. Corbyn is a far more extreme figure than Sanders, with a record of supporting every fringe cause and making excuses for extremists and terrorists of all kinds. But there are similarities in that they are old-school socialists, whose fixation and consistency of belief since the 1970s looks a lot like authenticity and principle to some, and dogmatic inflexibility to others.
With both they energised a passionate youth support that saw the potential for welcome disruption to the status quo and a positive vision for society.
The main difference between the two situations is in the nature of the electorate that chose them. Corbyn was chosen as leader of the Labour party by 250,000 people, many of whom joined the party from more extreme left wing groups in order to vote for him (and allegedly many rival Conservative supporters who joined in order to impose a candidate they thought was unelectable on Labour).
When put in front of actual voters Corbyn’s Labour lost, first in 2017, and then were absolutely hammered in 2019.
The advantage of the US system of primaries means that actual voters get to have their say well before election day, and in 2020, they roundly rejected Sanders.
I believe that this points to a wider issue with our sensemaking communities, and these systematic flaws are crucial weaknesses in solid sensemaking.
- Over-valuing heterodoxy and premature discounting of ‘mainstream opinion’.
- Proxying of sensemaking to a few ‘super-nodes’ in the network which can distort healthy disagreement and discussion, despite being well aware of the danger of this.
- Too much distance from, and suspicion of, the mainstream conversation, so the baby is thrown out with the bathwater.
- Readiness to dismiss consensus (eg: that Bernie is unelectable) as a mainstream false narrative.
- Underappreciation of the intelligence still held within the mainstream.
- Not enough communication, disagreement and challenge. Our sensemaking is not being stress tested enough so faulty models can be weeded out.
- Epistemic overreach. Assuming that because we can see some deeper patterns more clearly, that we can see most things better than others.
Journalists working in mainstream organs are not as bad as those sensemaking outside them think they are. For example, a couple of days before the election of 2016 I was working in the Channel 4 News newsroom alongside Matt Frei, the former BBC North America editor and then C4N anchorman, as ‘blue church’ as you could get. He’d been spending a lot of time in the US reporting the election. I asked him whether he thought Trump would win (as I did). He said that “my head says he can’t, but my gut says he will”.
Far from being completely blindsided, a lot of mainstream journalists I know felt the same way, a sense of foreboding and a suspicion that it might happen. But also a realisation that the victory would overturn everything we thought we knew about politics — how a candidate could behave, how many different groups he could offend, and still win.
In pure numbers, it was a miracle that Trump won. He lost the popular vote by 3m, and only triumphed via the electoral college while breaking all the rules in doing so.
It wasn’t necessarily a failure of the mainstream sensemaking organs not to understand that this was going to happen. It would be a failure not to update the models in the aftermath.
Right now as the Coronavirus pandemic hits, even the Super Tuesday votes of a few weeks ago feel like they belong to another world. We are starting to understand that the world on the other side of it will look very different. This crisis, and the response to it, may be the systemic event that we’ve all been intuiting was coming. My sense is that the US political system as it currently stands will not survive it. It wasn’t Bernie we were waiting for.
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David Fuller is the founder of Rebel Wisdom:
“When our existing assumptions and ways of thinking break down, it’s the rebels and the renegades, those who dare to think differently, who are needed to reboot the system.
Rebel Wisdom is founded on the conviction that we are seeing a civilisational-level crisis of ideas, as the old operating system breaks down. The new is struggling to emerge — and the most transformative ideas always show up first as rebellious.
In these times of change, we can no longer trust the traditional media to make sense of the world. The old gatekeepers are losing their power. A new counter culture is filling the void, driven by a great intellectual awakening. Facilitated by new technology, it’s made a new kind of conversation possible; more in-depth, more open and more democratic.”