Trump is President Elect. Yes, it did come as a shocker. But not as much. Democracy’s ability to shock me has gradually lost its power over the last couple of years. Slowly democratic shockers are becoming the norm; at least when the whole world is watching or when I am interested in it. I don’t want to discuss how good or bad a Trump presidency is for USA or for the world. Instead, I want to discuss why I think the data, statisticians and most people around the world – including me – got it wrong on the US election. Brexit was the first major democratic shock for most of us, especially those in my generation, who had come to view democracy as a norm in their countries.
But being a Sri Lankan, that first shocker came at the January 2015 Presidential elections, where Maithripala Sirisena won despite doubt even among his own supporters of his chances of victory. Since then, democracy has been a mystery I have liked to figure out. Compared to Sri Lanka’s presidential election, data was more widely available on US elections to make predictions and to study past trends in presenting the chances of victory. The technical capacity was also there to do national and statewide polls to predict the winning chances of the two candidates.
We had the likes of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, the New York Times and Huffington Post using all this data to present probabilities of each candidate’s chances of winning through aggregation. None of them predicted a Trump victory. FiveThirtyEight took the gutsy step of going against the trend to give Trump a 30% chance of winning. The others had Clinton winning at nearly a 90% possibility. It has proved that data is not going to explain the context in which voters decide. There are sociological factors at play that needs to be considered if proper predictions are to be made. We decided to stick with the illusion of the data and consider Trump a sideshow to a Clinton win.
Ben Casselmann, senior editor and the chief economics of FiveThirtyEight, presents Iowa as a means to understand why American voters in the MidWest voted for Trump in such unexpected numbers, turning Obama’s blue states red. He termed it a paradox because Iowa state, overall, has done so much better than the rest of America, with a low unemployment rate and higher than average median household income. Data proves the Obama tenure has improved things since the crash. But when Casselmann spoke to ordinary Iowans in late 2015, they seemed largely pessimistic about the economy, careers and finances. They claimed unemployment was still rampant and jobs available involve low wages or part time work.
Unemployment numbers can be deceptive and Trump has been telling that throughout his campaign. He has been pretty much telling the system regards anyone not looking for work, because they can’t find any work, to be employed. In fact, unemployment as a percentage of the labor force, by definition, does ignore those who are not part of the labour force, reflected in what Trump calls the lowest labour participation rate in American history. There are complex reasons for this, but the one former blue color workers in Iowa and other MidWest states find easy to understand is that free trade has taken their jobs away to China and Mexico. Trump has resonated that belief. He has blamed Washington politicians and Wall Street for benefitting from the manufacturing exodus that has taken away the dignity of the hard working people of America.
Yes, dignity. Many have found it easy to pin the label of racist, bigot, white supremacist, misogynist on supporters of Trump. There are vocal minorities who hold such ideas who supported Trump. But the majority who voted for him in the MidWest are former blue collar workers who feel forgotten by the Federal Government. “As an individual, you feel kind of disposable in this economy.” That was something an Iowan told Casselman and it speaks volumes of the security and dignity they feel to have lost. A person unsure of his or her own future might make irrational choices for a chance to gain some certainty.
“I don’t see much truth in opportunities in manufacturing.” Politicians have been saying employment opportunities are present but people are not taking them. In fact, labour data shows a tight labour market in the USA. But ordinary Iowans refuse to believe these claims. They refuse to believe the data that Washington is using to make policies. So, they elect Trump who also says the data is not true.
Obama the Populist
The persistent fact that voting data comparisons showed was the counties that Trump was winning in the MidWest were also won by Obama in 2008 and 2012. To me that makes Obama a populist too. If one rewinds to 2008, he campaigned on a simple theme of ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’. He promised radical changes to the way America was run and at times he did speak against free trade. And he was a relative outsider himself compared to Hillary Clinton and John McCain, who were his opponents in 2008. Obama also appealed to the people who were forgotten by the establishment in Washington.
“No matter what Wall Street’s doing, for the common man, things aren’t getting any better.” Another statement by an Iowan show that they think ‘true incomes might have gone up and the economy might have grown but that’s mainly for the rich, especially those in Wall Street’.
Under Obama the US economy survived and ensured demand for exports from Asia and elsewhere remained. But it didn’t mean common Americans got new jobs. A job at a fast food restaurant is no consolation for a job lost as a skilled worker at a factory producing machinery. The pay is not as good. The social status is not as much. Dignity is lost. So, when they feel like the populist in 2008 did not work out, they choose an even more vocal populist and extreme outsider to politics. The fact that their other option was Hillary Clinton – a symbol of the Washington establishment – meant they saw no option but Donald Trump.
A Sri Lankan Conclusion
Sri Lanka faces a similar situation with regards to its unemployed and marginally employed. Dr. Rohan Samarajiva made this evident in arguing as to why Sri Lanka needs a million new job opportunities. Those young men driving trishaws or chasing after politicians for minor government jobs, might cherish a better job if they are paid well and find dignity in it. Data is vital to analyse a country’s economy, but if we also go down the US path of only relying on data, we might get our economic future as wrong as the US election. Adding a human touch to the policies and avoiding the follies of America’s labour market might help us in the long run, especially to avoid a spike in populist politics. America might recover from its divisions, but our populist politics tend to cause ethnic and religious tensions that lead to civil war.
This article was first published on the Weekend Express newspaper on the 11th of November 2016. Republished here with permission from the Editor.