Debugging Democracy

You had to be a crank to insist on being right. Being right was largely a matter of explanations. Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other, the source of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why. For the most part, in one ear out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.—Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler's Planet, 1969.

I began writing this column on November 9, 2016, on the balcony of a hotel in Istanbul, while a call to prayer echoed through the streets below. I took that as good advice, because a few hours earlier my country elected an Internet troll, Donald Trump, as its president Perhaps by now we're calling this day 11/9, in the mold of 9/11. I'm an optimistic guy, but color me pessimistic about where my country is now heading, led by a world-class narcissist.

And forgive me for obsessing not only about where this is going, but how we got here. Our country has been hacked, and that matters.

Disclosure: I'm a political independent, and not a fan of Hillary Clinton, though I thought she was the only sensible choice, given Trump's shortcomings, many of which should have disqualified him, flat out. But he won. Why?

I don't know, though I did see it coming. Mostly I felt it. Polls said one thing, my senses another. "We know more than we can tell", says Michael Polanyi. Evidence: most of the time we don't know how we'll end the sentences we start, or how we started the sentences we end. Yet we know what we're talking about. And if we succeed, another human being gathers our meaning, even though they can't repeat it verbatim.

To say something is to express some care about it. We also tend to hear what we like to hear more than what we don't, even if we welcome what might disagree with us. Those of us who work with logic (such as Linux Journal readers) have a high regard for the rational. But while logic and reason sit on the mental board of directors, emotions cast the deciding votes. As Bellow says, the soul wants what it wants.

To see how emotions might cast deciding votes, Heartbeat AI studied emotional leanings in five "swing" states: ones a candidate needs to win in a close election. Before Election Day, ordinary polls showed Clinton winning most or all those states. But the Heartbeat AI study showed something very different. Here it is. Play with it a bit. The little heart on the right is a tab that pulls out a drawer of variables you can turn on and off.

I just did that, and Figure 1 shows both candidates' sentiment maps, together.

Figure 1. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trumps' Sentiment Maps for Five "Swing" States, via Heartbeat AI

Trump won all those states. Hell, somebody had to. But the main point here is that voters disliked both candidates—a lot. They simply disliked Trump less than they disliked Clinton—not that they actually liked Trump.

This kind of study doesn't show a mandate, but it does suggest caution before suggesting that a victory by either party constituted a mandate of any kind—or should, anyway.

It also makes one wonder how voters came to feel the way they did about the candidates. To what degree are those feelings attached to actual facts? Hard to tell, but wondering should be productive.

On September 18, 2016, I blogged this:

As soon as it became clear that Trump was a breed apart, remarkable more for his powers of persuasion and enlistment than for anything else (his policies are all feints: magical misdirections away from his absolute vanity), I saw him as the Mule, star of Isaac Azimov's Foundation series. Here's how Wikipedia describes the Mule:

"One of the greatest conquerors the galaxy has ever seen, he is a mentalic who has the ability to reach into the minds of others and 'adjust' their emotions, individually or en masse, using this capability to conscript individuals to his cause. Not direct mind-control per se, it is a subtle influence of the subconscious; individuals under the Mule's influence behave otherwise normally—logic, memories, and personality intact."

Scott Adams more blandly calls Trump a "master persuader". The effect is the same, especially if Trump wins. Which I fear. And, hate to say, expect.


Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal