This week, Trump was elected president of the United States. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move, even by many of the people who voted for him. It was also a surprising result for many people, including me.
Faced with an outcome neither expected nor desired, the natural inclination is to ask “why?”. Many in the media confronting a Trump victory have been asking “why?” for months. Before the election we already knew there were legions of Trump supporters that would make Nov. 8th a close race, but now that it’s actually happened the efforts to explain his success have redoubled.
So why did Trump win? Tolstoy asks a similar question in War and Peace:
Why does an apple fall when it is ripe? Is it brought down by the force of gravity? Is it because its stalk withers? Because it is dried by the sun, because it grows too heavy, or because the boy standing under the tree wants to eat it?
In other words, complex phenomena like elections can best explained as a nexus of causes coming together at once. This is a non-obvious point because our minds easily make the mistake of attributing complicated outcomes to a one-shot explanatory variable.
We search and quickly stumble upon a single causal factor, secure in our knowledge of its importance because if our cause had changed, the outcome would’ve changed likewise. But we all to often make the mistake of thinking that after identifying one such aspect, our job is done- we ignore the host of other factors the event was also dependent on.
A beautiful illustration:
If anything had gone differently, Daisy would be fine. But a causal nexus came together just right for a bad outcome. We know the accident wouldn’t have happened if the man had remembered to set his alarm, but we know that’s far from the whole picture. While his action was irresponsible and part of the chain of causality that led to the bad outcome, we realize it would be a mistake stop our investigation, or force him to pay damages.
But if the man knew what his action had led to, chances are he’d probably be feeling a good share of guilt.
Why are we so quick to assign and take on blame, even for outcomes mostly outside our control? Why do we immediately rush to judge the character of a few and hoist the burden of causation solely on their shoulders, failing to consider the wider picture?
It’s a valuable heuristic. Our ancestors, when modeling events, needed to be able to hone in on the factor or couple of factors that were under the influence of conscious control, in order to punish bad decisions for better outcomes in the future. Thinking about decisions made by one or a few conscious minds is very different from contemplating a decision made my millions.
…Which brings us back to the election and Trump. If you see a media piece attributing Trump’s victory to any small event- the DNC Sabotage of Sanders’ campaign , James Comey’s email investigation , Hillary’s deplorables comment, realize that they may have all simultaneously have decided the election. Take every one of these incidents into account and you’ve still only done a small part of answering the question “why did Trump win?”
There are layers of cause and effect we can examine. Most proximal, Trump won because he won more electoral college votes. He won more electoral votes because he got more votes than Hillary in swing states. He got more votes in swing states because a disproportionately white, male, and rural population in said swing-states voted for him in larger numbers that Hillary’s coalition. Go beyond that, and you’re discussing broad narratives. But the same rules apply. Your favorite narrative (racism, Hillary, sexism, out-of-touch elites, globalism) might very well have decided the election, but it wasn’t making the decision alone.