In the coming days and weeks there are going to be many words about ‘the meaning’ of this election. But in the spirit of the name of this blog, we should be cautious in believing any of them. The fact is that the margin in this election was so close that interpreting what was essentially a coin flip as portending a seismic shift in American politics is folly. Nate Silver makes the point here that if one in one hundred voters, just 2% of the voting electorate, had shifted to Clinton, we would be crafting an entirely different narrative.
Furthermore, political science models that were based on fundamentals, such as the state of the economy and length of incumbent party control, predicted a Trump victory (why people didn’t take such models seriously is a separate issue). As Larry Bartels argues, this should suggest to us that in many ways this election was entirely normal.
That being said, of course this election still raises many questions:
- How much do campaigns matter? There was much chatter about the fact that Trump had a ramshackle campaign and limited get out the vote effort, yet he still proved victorious. Was this because his media savvy effectively gave him free press, or does it suggest that conventional campaign wisdom is seriously flawed?
- How much do policies matter? If cyclicality (the tendency for parties to switch control of government) is indeed a major component of American electoral trends, then aren’t we deluding ourselves into thinking that voters respond to policy? And if voters aren’t responding to policy, what is the point of democracy?
- How strong are the institutions surrounding the presidency? President-elect Trump does not appear to be typical of the office along many dimensions; will he face/respond to the same incentives as previous Presidents?
- Is our representative democracy functioning as we want it to? For the second straight election, more people voted for Democrats in the House of Representatives than Republicans, yet Republicans maintained a majority of seats. In two of the last five presidential elections, the candidate that won the popular vote has lost the electoral college. What is the virtue of maintaining a system that was explicitly designed to give an edge to low population states?
Finally, if we *are* to interpret as meaningful the shift of traditionally Democratic Rust Belt states to the Republican party in 2016, liberals should look to themselves for part of the blame. I truly believe that one of the biggest problems the US faces is lack of housing in the most productive areas of the country: cities. Nominally ‘progressive’ cities like San Francisco refuse to reign in the NIMBYism and regulatory/zoning regimes that limit the housing supply. Workers from areas like the Rust Belt that have seen their local economies collapse do not leave, as research surrounding the China Shock shows. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine the connection between the two: the high price of housing in the city means that people stay put in poor areas, leading to increased division and polarization.