Making sense of last night’s nonsense


When the going gets tough… I get reading. That’s how I cope and it’s how I spent much of my day today. In fact, I think I read everything on the Internet about the election.

What follows is not my attempt to explain the outcome of last night’s election. It’s more my attempt to synthesize what I learned today. You might think of it as my key takeaways from my day of coping through reading. I hope it helps you as much as writing it has already helped me.

Racism (and sexism)

Cutting to the chase, this election was, first and foremost, about race. And, it was also about sex.

I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that after 8 years of our first African-American president, when the Dcmocratic party offered up the possibility of the first female president. a critical mass of folks who want us to get back to a white (Christian) patriarchy was awakened. Earlier this year, Michael Moore gave us a a glimpse into the mind of the “Endangered White Male”:

Our male-dominated, 240-year run of the USA is coming to an end. A woman is about to take over! How did this happen?! On our watch! There were warning signs, but we ignored them. Nixon, the gender traitor, imposing Title IX on us, the rule that said girls in school should get an equal chance at playing sports. Then they let them fly commercial jets. Before we knew it, Beyoncé stormed on the field at this year’s Super Bowl (our game!) with an army of Black Women, fists raised, declaring that our domination was hereby terminated! Oh, the humanity!

Here’s Jamelle Bouie making the same claim:

More than anything, Trump promises a restoration of white authority. After eight years of a black president—after eight years in which cosmopolitan America asserted its power and its influence, eight years in which women leaned in and blacks declared that their lives mattered—millions of white Americans said enough. They had their fill of this world and wanted the old one back.

Any of the white male candidates from the slew of hopefuls the RNC sent through primary season probably would have sufficed for these folks.

Trump, however, really emboldened the white nationalists.

Bouie again

With his jeremiads against Hispanics and Muslims—with his visions of dystopian cities and radicalized refugees—Trump told white Americans that their fears and anger were justified. And that this fear and anger should drive their politics. Trump forged a politics of white tribalism, and white people embraced it.

And, there were plenty of white people who embraced it, including and especially those hidden from plain sight. I joked (sort of) last night that the comments section showed up at the polls. If you’ve ever read the comments section on articles in mainstream media sites, you see the anger that’s out there. And, if you know much about the dark parts of the Internet, you know what’s out there.

Siyanda Mohutsiwa has apparently been observing some of the dark parts of the Internet for some time and shared her thoughts on Twitter:

Mohutsiwa’s observations of this population of young white men radicalized online feel important to me. And, I think one of her points is worth emphasizing. She writes, “That’s why I never got one strategy of Clinton’s campaign: highlighting Trump’s sexism. Trump supporters love him BECAUSE of his sexism.” I’d say the same about racism.

Filter bubbles and echo chambers

A filter bubble is a result of a personalized search in which a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user (such as location, past click behavior and search history)[1][2][3] and, as a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles.[4] (Source: Wikipedia)

Folks, we have GOT to be better about understanding how information is presented to us by Google, Facebook, etc. We can’t uncritically let search and/or news algorithms determine what information we see. Facebook is particularly odious in this regard. Joshua Benton, who formerly pushed back against the idea of filter bubbles, wrote a really good piece today that I encourage you to read. Here’s the kicker:

But I’ve come to think that the rise of fake news — and of the cheap-to-run, ideologically driven aggregator sites that are only a few steps up from fake — has weaponized those filter bubbles. There were just too many people voting in this election because they were infuriated by made-up things they read online.

Some say that Facebook’s filter bubble is getting worse, though Mark Zuckerberg denies it. LOL, of course he does.

These filter bubbles we live in online are augmented by the echo chambers we put ourselves in both online and offline. With respect to our face-to-face lives, Marco Rogers’ tweetstorm really resonated. I’ve included only select parts of it below:


We (white liberals) know exactly what Marco means. We know about our liberal enclaves in the suburbs (I’ll include myself as a suburbanite, though I don’t think my part of town is particularly liberal) and even within inner cities (see e.g. places like Park Slope in Brooklyn). From my perspective, liberals don’t like to admit it, but homophily is alive and well in the way we domicile ourselves. As a result, says, Marco, “[w]hite liberals have walled themselves off from the reality of the racism in their community.”

In sum, then, we have walled ourselves off from the realities of racism and when we go online, filter bubbles reinforce our biases. We deny this and then we’re “shocked” at the results of the election.

Big country

I have vivid memories of my days doing field work as an educational researcher. I spent the better part of a year driving up and down, in and out of the hollows of West Virginia. I remember clearly driving through rural Ohio to find a middle school in Gnadenhutten, Ohio. And I’ll never forget driving from one school to another within the Houston Independent School District (HISD) in Texas. Everything really is bigger in Texas and it would sometimes take me over an hour to get from one school to another within the same school district. And, for much of my time in rental cars driving through different parts of the country, I was thinking about the vastness of our nation and passing random homes or trailers and wondering about the story of the people in those homes. So many homes, so many people. And, I was barely seeing the tip of the iceberg.

I share this to say that I’ve also been telling people that I was worried about the election because our country is so much bigger, so much more vast than most of us know or care to know. And, those vast parts of our country contain lots of people who were disengaged and, who had become increasingly disenfranchised and depressed. In predicting Trump’s victory this summer, Michael Moore wrote about what he called our Rust Belt Brexit:

From Green Bay to Pittsburgh, this, my friends, is the middle of England – broken, depressed, struggling, the smokestacks strewn across the countryside with the carcass of what we use to call the Middle Class. Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats who still try to talk a good line but are really just looking forward to rub one out with a lobbyist from Goldman Sachs who’ll write them nice big check before leaving the room. What happened in the UK with Brexit is going to happen here.

False positivism

Speaking of Brexit…

I don’t know why we didn’t take to heart the failures of polling around that event. For me, those polling failures came on the heels of a more local polling failure. When Eric Cantor lost his House seat to Dave Brat, the people of the greater Richmond area were completely shocked. The polls gave Brat practically no chance, and, yet, he unseated Cantor.

So, I should be ashamed that I got sucked in by the Nate Silver’s of the world who had me believing that Hillary Clinton was going to win the election. Silver’s estimates were more conservative than others, but even on the day of the election, he was still giving Clinton at least a 70% chance of winning. Alas…

Nathan Jurgenson wrote a great post about “factiness”:

Factiness is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of “facts,” often at the expense of missing the truth. From silly self-help-y TED talks to bad NPR-style neuroscience science updates to wrapping ourselves in the misleading scientisim of Fivethirtyeight statistics, factiness is obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.

I believe it was on Twitter than Jurgenson was lamenting Nate Silver’s work which he suggested was creating a feeling of “faux precision.” To me, this is part of a larger problem of false positivism. Dave Cormier and Lawrie Phipps co-authored a post about this in which they wrote:

2016 has taught us that we cannot rely on analytics, and in fact analytics may have had a negative impact. The most correct predictions of #Brexit and #Trump came from commentators who were not relying on the polling data but were paying attention to the narratives that were created.

Later in the day, I read a tremendous piece by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford in the UK. In the piece, Nielsen calls for more of a mixed-methods approach to data journalism in politics.

I think it is clear we don’t know how most people feel about politics and how it ties in with other aspects of their lives and identities. Yes, we may know that some of them are not very interested, don’t like it very much, or are quite partisan. But what does that actually mean? I don’t think we know… In my view 2016 shows we need to start qualitatively researching the (diverse, fractious, fascinating) majority too, and see whether a better, evidence-based understanding of how people relate to politics and public life can help us get it right next time.

Politics are about human behaviors. To understand politics, therefore, we can’t just treat people as quantitative data points. We need to also understand them as humans; to hear and tell their stories. Instead, we were mesmerized by the whizbang statistical models and fancy data visualizations of Nate Silver and other pundits/prognosticators. What we really needed was to talk to and hear each other at scale.

Moving forward

So, now what? What can we do beyond understanding our filter bubbles, getting out of our echo chambers, and doing more thorough, narrative research? Well, this morning, Michael Moore gave us (well, me; I shouldn’t assume you’re on the same side as Michael Moore) a five-part plan. I think that’s a good starting point.

Additionally, I want to make a plea for empathy and for understanding. On the latter, I learned a long time ago that we all mourn differently. For those of us mourning the loss of this election, I ask you all to not judge how we mourn. It will go differently and at different paces for each of us. On the former, I just think empathy should always lead. Please try not to say things like “It will be OK,” because it might just not be OK, particularly for those particularly at-risk. And, “relax” is about the worst thing you can say. Empathy works so much better. So, moving forward, let’s start there.

1 thought on “Making sense of last night’s nonsense”

  1. Thanks, Jon, for spending yesterday reading and for sharing your thoughts and findings with us. So much important stuff here to think about. And yes, first and foremost, “empathy should always lead.”

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