Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Clinton Landslide and other Pipe Dreams


Chidem Kurdas

All Governments lie but serious trouble comes when officials smoke the same hashish they give out. That was the maxim I.F. Stone arrived at after observing 20th century politics.

The election we just experienced was rich in puffs of hashish emanating from the political-media establishment. This is in effect a monolith, a body that coordinates its messages, as the WikiLeaks trove of emails documented. Apparently the members also share the same pipe dreams. Here are three of the most potent:

– “A Clinton landslide victory is likely.” On the day of the election, a Tweet from stat-pundit (to coin a needed term) Nate Silver listed three alternatives with seemingly equal chances:  Clinton wins overwhelmingly, she wins but not with a huge margin, Trump wins. This was a supposedly cautious take, putting the probability that Hillary would be the 45th President at a little less than 70%. Others predicted a Clinton landslide with 80% or 90% probability—close to a certainty.

Opposition to these claims was sparse but a notable critic, the mathematician-philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb of Black Swan fame, demolished Silver’s method for calculating probability. Poll results varied wildly, suggesting a lot of random noise; some showed the two candidates running neck to neck. Taleb discerned relatively robust probabilities at 50-50. He was not making a prediction but as it happens the national vote is close to 50-50. The electorate is divided down the middle—as it has been for a long time.

But even with a close national vote Clinton was widely expected to win because …..

– “The Democrats have an Electoral College advantage.” The media repeated this like a mantra. I never understood the reasoning, to the extent there was reasoning beyond simple generalization from past presidential elections. The Democrats won by state count in 2008 and 2012, therefore it was assumed they had an advantage in the Electoral College. In reality Trump had this advantage because he took previously Democratic states such as Pennsylvania.

In honor of Taleb, someone quipped that Trump’s win is an Orange Swan. But it was not really a rare “swan” event; it just seemed a remote possibility because a preponderance of voices said it was near impossible.

– “The Republicans are on their way to the trash bin of history.” The party is sick, the New York Times editorialized. Republican politicos opposed to Trump joined in this chorus. Possibly the millionth iteration of the notion, from the New York Review of Books: “the arthritic Grand Old Party was the empty shell of a political machine … it seems to be drifting passively toward oblivion…”

Well, it turns out the Grand Old Party will be running the federal government and many states. Oblivion will have to wait.

Perhaps it is the Democrats who teeter on the edge of history’s garbage dump. But both parties have changed repeatedly since they came into existence; they adapt to changing conditions. You’ll find part of this story in my new book, Seven Reasons to Love the Constitution: A History of American Political Achievement, on Amazon:

In 2016 the errors were not only due to problems in polling or data or probability calculation. This was massive and nearly unwavering groupthink, nationally disseminated in the guise of media. The opium den establishment determinately puffed away at its collective pipe, sending out prodigious quantities of smoke.  New corollary to the I.F. Stone adage: the more of their own hashish they smoke, the more effectively they shut off contrary views and the more shocking it is when reality shows up.


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2 Responses to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Clinton Landslide and other Pipe Dreams”

  1. massive and nearly unwavering groupthink, nationally disseminated in the guise of media. | Wednesday in the Age of Reason-Munchausen (1988) Says:

    […]… […]

  2. How to Forecast an Election – Oliver Obradovits Says:

    […]… […]

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