The e-particle analysis is pertinent for Europe
I have been trying to develop a deeper understanding of the US electorate as its current behavior has resulteert in tuning US politics upside down. The question I have is this: was this the intention, or is Trump’s election a side effect of another issue. I find it interesting because reflections on what has happened in the US may also be pertinent for upcoming European political contests, which are of course important to me as a European citizen.
During my reflection, I happened upon the following parallel: imagine the US electorate, or any electorate, to be a rare particle, like the ones researched in the large hadron collider or LHC. Prior to using the LHC, a researcher will need to define what he or she is looking for, and set up experimental tools, such as sensors, to “capture” such a particle. There are constraints as well: experiments cost money, and the money for experiments is not unlimited. Hard choices have to be made as to which experiments to run and which to hold back. If an experimenter choses a less appropriate experiment, he or she may be deceived as to what can be learned, and perhaps start interpreting it the wrong way.
How to analyze the e-particle
Now, let’s consider this specific particle, the “electorate” particle. It is a very special particle, in that it can only be observed once every four years, and even then only by means of a simple question: “Who should your elector vote for as president of the United States?”, a question with multiple options, of which only the candidates for the major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, have a real shot at the White House. The question is the experiment. What I am wondering about is whether this was a good experiment to get to know the US electorate?
Based on the answers given to that question, politicians infer characteristics about that e-particle, about that electorate. But there is a problem: the choices offered may not allow for adequately detailed information about the electorate, and its intentions may be misinterpreted. There is a term for this, which is “parallax”: a displacement or difference in apparent position of an object as it is viewed along two different lines of sight.
The parallax issue
Let me give you another example. Imagine you and a friend are observing a building constructed in a round valley, from one of the valley ridges. You cannot descend into the valley. The building is large, complex, not symmetrical and quite a distance away. Now, considering this, what situation would give you the best information on what the building looks like in reality: (a) an observation when you and your friend are standing quite close to one another on the ridge of the valley or (b) an observation by you and your friend when you are quite a distance away from each other, for example 90° away or even at opposite sides on the ridge of the valley?
It’s clear that the more distance there is between you, especially in a situation where the building is not symmetrical, the more information you will have available to you. It will be no means be complete information, but it will provide information on aspects you would not see when you are standing too close together.
The same goes for the e-particle: I think this was a bad experiment with the e-particle because the choices offered to the electorate weren’t adequately divergent at all. And confronted with a known quantity and a more unknown quantity, the electorate has chosen to go for the unknown quantity, although not in such extreme numbers. So we need to be very careful in interpreting this as a revolt of the conservative white class. I’ve heard pundits interpret this as a big middle finger to the establishment and in favor of Trump-ism. But is it, really?
Do swing states explicitly support Trump-ism?
Let’s look at some specific “swing” state results that turned out to be highly relevant, based on the information available on the Ballotpedia website:
Florida (29 electoral votes)
Florida went from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. A revolution? Not really. Trump did not score significantly better than Romney did in 2012. 49,3% for Trump as compared to 49,1% for Romney. However, there was a lot less support for Clinton, who lost 2,1% of support as compared to Obama. The electorate vote for others increased from 0,9% in 2012 to 2,9% in 2016. Does Florida support Trump’s vision? I don’t think so, but I do believe it rejected the “traditional politics” as embodied by Clinton.
Iowa (6 electoral votes)
Iowa went from blue to red in a big way. Trump gained 6,4% as compared to Romney’s 46,2%. Clinton lost 9,2% compared to Obama’s score. This is more of an explicit mandate for Trump. Which is actually kind of interesting, as Iowa has quite a diverse economy with one of its main economic drivers, manufacturing, heavily dependent on export (48%). Iowa also has quite a low unemployment rate, significantly below the US average. There’s a lot more on Iowa’s economy here. I read this both as a rejection of traditional politics and some support for Trump’s ideas, although the state would potentially suffer from the US backing out of trade agreements, especially with the Far East, as the East and Russia absorb about 30% of its exports.
Ohio (18 electoral votes)
Trump gained 4,6% here over Romney, while Clinton lost 7,1% compared to Obama. This is again a more explicit mandate for Trump, as was the case in Iowa. This state which has the 25th biggest economy in the world has an unemployment rate slightly below the nation’s average. Like Iowa, Ohio has a strong manufacturing base. However, job and GDP growth for the future are mainly projected in the services industry. Read more about Ohio’s economy here. Ohio exports mainly to Canada, followed by Mexico, and the main export product is transportation equipment, and small to medium sized enterprises make up 89% of Ohio’s exporters. This is a state that stands to lose from too much protectionism. Therefore, this appears more of a rejection of traditional politics then a mandate for Trump-ism.
Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes)
Trump increased his vote share as compared to Rodney’s with 2,3%, but Clinton lost 4,4% as compared to Obama. That difference just put Trump over the top, with a 1,3% difference with Clinton. This state last voted Republican in 1988, so one could easily say that Clinton lost Pennsylvania more than Trump won it. Had Clinton maintained the Obama share of voters in Pennsylvania, she would not have lost the state. From an economic point of view, this 18th largest economy in the world exports mainly chemicals, followed by transportation equipment, computers and machinery. Its main trading partner is Canada, followed by Mexico. Its unemployment sits at 5,6%, slightly higher than the US national average. This is also a state that would lose from protectionism. A full endorsement of Trump’s ideas would see counter-productive for this state.
Wisconsin (10 electoral votes)
Trump gained 3% as compared to Romney, and Clinton lost 6,5% as compared to Obama. This state last voted Republican in 1984. It has a significant unemployment rate, which sits at 8%, significantly above the national average of 5%. It has a strong and diverse manufacturing industry. It’s main export partner is Canada, followed by Mexico. Again, protectionism would likely hurt the economic development in this state, leading to even higher unemployment figures. However, given the worse economic situation with a high degree of unemployment I could imagine this to be more of a Trump vote than in other swing states.
From where I sit, looking at the swing states, I don’t see a landslide victory for Trump-ism. What is a fact, however, is that there appears to be a clear rejection of the traditional politics as embodied by Clinton. This was predictable because we saw that reflected in the passion and intensity that Sanders voters showed all the way to the Democratic convention. In that sense, this is a Brexit-vote, although the public outcry of the people in the UK who felt not represented was, if you look at the voting distribution, significantly more extreme. This is not a strong mandate for Trump. This said, he has the mandate, but if he wants to hold on to it after 4 years, he’s going to have to walk very carefully because this is a precarious victory, which can more easily be attributed to the dislike for Clinton than to the popularity of his own proposed policies.
What it could mean for European politics
We have some elections coming up in different countries of the EU, and we see a sense of tiredness of old type politics, even more dire than we saw in the US. You only need to look at the Brexit vote to understand that. The way I see Farage popping up everywhere there is an election, I’m waiting for him to incorporate and make his advice a business proposition.
I hope the political parties in Europe that are nearing an election in which strong alternative right wing parties will play a role, such as in France, will understand that traditional politics no longer appears to be enough. Candidates need to be credible to counter the anti-politics which were present in Trump’s programma and that of Farage prior to the Brexit vote.
It’s going to be interesting to see how in this day and age of social media the European political battlefield will be shaping up. I hope everyone is aware that business as usual is out of the door, not because people want to jump to extremes, but because they are tired of the known solutions which do not appear to make a real difference in their lives.
In all that, I think that “this is what I stand for” remains a stronger message than “don’t vote for … or else”, at least as long as you can credibly stand for what you say you do. People need to believe you. Politicians also need to go into direct discussion and confrontation with people voicing unreasonable answers and need to ask the essential question: “So, how are you actually going to achieve that?” A question to which the easy answer of “We’ll fix it when we get there” is not an adequate answer.
If there is a message I take away from this US election, it is that one.