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If History Is Our Guide…

Was anything about this election really all that surprising?

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Desk/AFP/Getty Images)

I’ve been ruminating on something this morning:

There is nothing to say that has not already been said. Almost nothing.

Don’t bother looking that up. You won’t find it anywhere, because it was never published. I used to add that as a sort of default summary of my research when I was writing papers as a graduate student and (briefly) assistant professor. Such summaries—in the field, we call them abstracts—appear at the top of nearly all scientific papers, put there for the purpose of helping other researchers to quickly figure out the general argument you’re trying to make. Of course, before you write a paper, you’re not always entirely sure how to summarize it. So, inspired by my old advisor Scott Hughes, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I came up with a placeholder:

There is nothing to say that has not already been said. Almost nothing.

Partly, I found it to be a cute little phrase, in the same way the shrug emoji can be cute, but, as I think back on it, that saying reminds me of something strangely relevant to all of the handwringing going on with the 2016 presidential race.

We often hear that Donald Trump represents something entirely new, or is indicative of a fundamental change in a system that allowed him to come to power. Some popular—and by no means unreasonable—explanations center on our political parties’ eroding ability to control who gets nominated for president.

But a few months back, before the conventions, I talked to another old advisor, Jon Bendor, and a colleague of his, David Broockman, both political economists at Stanford University. Jon wanted me to meet Broockman because he’d been saying something even political scientists refused to believe: It was kind of obvious that Trump was going to win the Republican nomination, and that he would get a lot of support in the general election.

Certainly there is something new about Trump, something worthy of studying. But there is also a lot we already knew—or at least, that political scientists knew. Information that, in fact, makes it seem almost surprising a candidate like Trump hadn’t emerged sooner. Here’s where my old placeholder abstract comes in:

There is nothing to say that has not already been said.

One point that came out of our conversations at Stanford that day is that human beings are simply not that well informed about politics. In fact, we’ve known this since 1960, when the authors of the seminal study The American Voterquoted a woman who “became entranced” by the 1956 Republican convention on television, yet had this to say of vice presidential nominee Richard Nixon: “He’s a foreigner, isn’t he?”

That’s an extreme example, but, time and again, political scientists have found that most of us just don’t know too much about politics, and what we do know isn’t always the most essential—mostly, we know whatever point is repeated over and over again in the news, or what’s scary or simply entertaining.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Can you quote Shakespeare? What about Kesha? For many of us, Shakespeare is a mystery, and Kesha is the one who sang about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack Daniels. Why? Because not many of us read Shakespeare anymore, but Kesha is still on the radio.

Trump may be at odds with Republican elites on some things, but he’s not at odds with average-Joe Republicans, or average-Joe Americans for that matter.

Incidentally, there’s maybe good reason to pay attention to what’s attention-grabbing in the short term, as opposed to important in the long term: It may have helped our ancestors survive in the here and now. (Bendor gets credit for pointing this out to me.)

I’m usually somewhat skeptical of these evolutionary psychology arguments, but it’s worth pointing out that we probably couldn’t have survived an attack by a band of outsiders if we spent our time contemplating the motion of glaciers. As a result, we might be less equipped today to contemplate the slow retreat of those same glaciers in the face of global climate change. There’s a serial killer on the lose? Let’s pay attention to that, not the fact that our thermometers are going up a degree some time in the next century.

A second and actually more important point—for understanding Trump, at least—also comes from The American Voter. Along with a general ignorance of politics comes an ignorance of what the two major parties stand for, or indeed what it even means to be liberal or conservative. We Americans care about taking care of our own—what the study’s authors called “group benefits.”

This was a shock to political scientists, and it seems like it’s still confusing to some. One of the things pundits keep asking is this: How can Republicans support Trump when he’s so at odds with what Republicans care about?

Well, it’s simple: Trump may be at odds with Republican elites on some things, but he’s not at odds with average-Joe Republicans, or average-Joe Americans for that matter. Those Joes are worried, right or wrong, about their jobs, about terrorism, and about immigration—taking care of themselves and their families. The fact that Trump doesn’t toe the party line on gay marriage, for example, just isn’t a problem for most people. Even if Americans knew what the party line was—which, remember, they don’t—they wouldn’t care, at least not compared with how much they care about jobs, terrorism, and immigration.

(By the way, this goes for Democrats too. Maybe we’ll talk about what really happened in the 2008 election sometime, but here’s a hint: The economy tanked, and a Republican was in the White House.)

An aside: Even the idea that demagoguery could never happen here was in doubt decades ago. You may have heard of the Milgram experiment, in which psychologists convinced people to electrically shock others (who were actually actors that weren’t being harmed at all) to the point of extreme pain and heart attacks. The point was to understand what happened during the Holocaust, and the hypothesis was that people—Germans in particular—were generally quite ready, if not exactly happy, to obey evil dictators.

Almost nothing.

This is not to say that there’s precedent for a candidate as brash as Trump, or that politics has remain unchanged for the last 200 years. Notably, there’s an argument—made by Pacific Standard regular Seth Masket, political historian Julia Azari, and others—that the Democratic and Republican parties’ power to control elections is waning. And, as Azari points out, party power seems to be waning at the same time as partisanship is waxing, which could explain how someone like Trump rose to power.

Yet even this is not an entirely new argument. The first signs that political parties were in decline came in the 1970s, when a series of reforms opened up the political process. Among those reforms: binding primary elections, which some blame for the polarization of Congressional politics. (In a sure sign people have thought about that idea a lot, there are plenty of counterarguments. Also, there’s the best-titled political science paper ever: “Where’s the Party?” which suggested—in 1993—that political parties had little power over members of Congress, at least once they were elected.)

I have little doubt that there are new things to be learned from the 2016 election. But that doesn’t mean we should be entirely surprised by what happened this year. There were signs, and we already understood some of the mechanisms.

This is good to point out not just to understand the election, but also politics at any point in time. There’s a certain pressure to come up with new and different ideas, even when we don’t necessarily need new and different ideas to understand what’s going on—or at least some of what’s going on.

There is nothing to say that has not already been said. Almost nothing.