I write this less than three days before the Nov. 8 2016 elections. Like most people I know, as the race tightens, I am in agony about the thought of a Trump Presidency. I find myself checking fivethirtyeight.com obsessively, desperately wanting someone to smartly assure me that Trump will not win. I think of my son, and the world he will inherit if Trump wins, and that makes me feel like a failed parent. It’s just so awful. And in the face of all that, I find myself craving some kind of data, some kind of smart analysis, that tells me the nightmare of a Trump presidency is only that, a nightmare, not a real possibility.
But the painful truth is that it is a possibility. Given how close the race is right now — a few percentage points in almost all the polls — the fact is that, even if Trump looses on Tuesday, he could have won. At this point, the facts about Trump and Clinton are widely available to the American public, and the majority of voters have made up their minds. What separates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at this point is random electoral noise: a journalistic feeding frenzy, a wikileaks dump, a video, a few unexpected GOTV successes or failures in Ohio or New Hampshire, or some unexpected behavior from some small hard-to-poll group, like nonvoters. Whatever happens on Tuesday, it’s already clear that we live in a country that could elect a Donald Trump. Two years ago, I never would have believed it, but I was wrong, everyone was wrong.
How do I, how do we, live with that fact? I don’t have a full answer, but here are a few things I’ve picked up during the a year and a half of writing this blog. One thing I’ve noticed is that I, as a professor, as an intellectual, have to get beyond the habit of filling the void of uncertainty with too-clever-by-half theories, analyses, and generalizations. For me, the obvious case here concerns the obsession with polls: my main beef with polls is that they shift people’s gaze away from voters and what citizens need to know towards insider baseball, where everything’s an effort to to second guess the electorate. We should just shut up and wait until folks vote. It’s not that polls are worthless, it’s that they are seductive, that in their crystalline numeric sheen they offer an image of certainty that offers false comfort to folks like me. What I and others like me (journalists, policy wonks, campaign professionals, etc.) should be doing is somehow engaging the hearts and minds of much wider swathes of our fellow citizens, in a way that is open to possibility, not locked into certainties.
It’s not just polls, though. The Democratic Party leadership was wrong to close ranks so early and so tightly around Hillary Clinton: all the early endorsements from sitting officials, the narrowing of the primary debate schedule, etc. This is not because Hillary Clinton is a bad candidate, but because it was all based on a kind of unjustified certainty, a certainty that in aggregate smells like a fear of small “d” democracy. The Democratic Party should always want more primary candidates, not less, more debate not less. In the lead up to the primaries, it traded openness for a false certainty, a false certainty about about how things would go, about how the world works. What would have happened if seven or eight Democrats of various leanings had thrown their hat in the ring early on, if elected Democrats had withheld endorsements in the name of democracy, if the DNC and the establishment had embraced and encouraged a diverse, wide ranging primary? I have no idea, and no one else does either. Except that I suspect we’d be in a stronger position now, whoever ended up candidate.
There are so many things to fix: technology as it’s used, technology as people fantasize about it, journalism and its many crises, money in politics, and more. But what I strive for is way to proceed intellectually and politically openly, without guarantees, as S. Hall put it, to acknowledge both the horror and hope of the moment. I won’t speculate on whether or not Bernie could have done better than Clinton against Trump — we just don’t know, can’t possibly know — but I will again quote Jedediah Purdy: “The unexpected, sometimes astonishing strength of the Sanders campaign is that it represents a call for a politics that takes both crisis and hope more seriously. In this way, the campaign is utterly realistic.” Embrace both the crisis and hope, with no guarantees: that’s the way forward, I think.