Simple narratives never tell the whole story

It seems like such a dreadfully obvious thing to point out, but some of the things that happen in the world happen for more than one reason. The cliche is that things happen for a reason. But things happen for rarely just one reason.

It seems like such a dreadfully obvious thing to point out, but some of the things that happen in the world happen for more than one reason. The cliche is that things happen for a reason. But things happen for rarely just one reason.

The world is complicated — too complicated for us it seems — so we humans like narratives that compact a lot of information into simple formulations. We want to understand why certain things happen and we want it boiled down into a few sentences to maintain our short attention spans.

Case in point: Hillary Clinton has been slowly emerging from the shadows after months of maintaining a low profile since her inexplicable (and for some, unexpected) loss last November. Her re-emergence has led to a rehashing of her electoral post-mortem.

There aren’t enough words available in this column to enumerate the myriad narratives that have sprung up to explain the results of that particularly bizarre election.

Trump’s victory and Clinton’s loss have been attributed to fake news, Russian interference, voter suppression, James Comey’s November surprise, her emails, John Podesta’s emails, identity politics, the middle American backlash to identity politics, Wikileaks, Donald Trump’s celebrity, strategic errors by an overconfident Clinton campaign, economic malaise in the Rust Belt, a pathological hatred of the Democratic Party by the American right, sexism, a desire to preserve a certain ideological balance on the Supreme Court, disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporters, and Clinton’s inherent weakness as a candidate.

The reality — which ought to be self-evident — is that it was all of the above.

Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com has constructed a pretty solid statistical argument that Comey’s announcement that the FBI was reopening its investigation into Clinton’s emails in the dying days of the campaign led to a swing in the vote that moved the needle enough to cost her the election.

But critics of that theory note the announcement would not even have been an issue if Clinton hadn’t made the mistake of keeping her emails on an insecure home server in the first place. And things wouldn’t have been close enough for such a relatively mundane scandal to matter if the country wasn’t so intensely polarized that people would tolerate the likes of Donald Trump. Nor would they be so close if voters — and particularly supporters of Bernie Sanders — didn’t perceive (rightly or wrongly) that she was too close with Wall Street’s monied elite.

And perhaps Clinton could have pulled out a victory despite Comey’s intervention if her campaign hadn’t been so overconfident and moved resources out of states that she thought she had in the bag in hopes of enlarging what was expected to be a significant electoral college victory.

Political outcomes are the products of a recipe. We can debate the importance of each ingredient, but, just as you can’t bake a loaf of bread with flour alone, you can’t attribute an electoral outcome to any one factor.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the use of narratives to understand politics. There were 127 million people who voted in last November’s presidential election. Each of them went to the polls motivated by their own assortment of thoughts about and assessments of the two candidacies.

But if you interviewed each voter you aren’t going to get 127 million completely different answers either. Themes would emerge and the narratives I enumerated above serve a useful explanatory purpose.

What bothers me is our tendency towards absolutism. It isn’t enough to see some narratives as being more compelling than others. Some are just all wrong and others are all right. When Clinton went on TV, as she did recently, and laid out a number of factors that she felt contributed to her loss she was accused of “blaming everyone but herself.” It couldn’t simply be that there were a lot of different factors at play. The only explanation for such a long laundry list, if you listen to Clinton’s critics, is sour grapes.

To make matters worse we like to see these things through our own ideological and partisan glasses. If you like Clinton and can’t see (as I admittedly don’t) how a Trump presidency could possibly be seen as preferable to a Clinton presidency, you might downplay her flaws — seeing them as mistaken perceptions created by decades of unfair media treatment rather than a reflection of reality.

If, for whatever reason, you are one of those people who is satisfied with the results of last November’s vote, it is likely all about Clinton’s various character flaws and failures (that or you’re one of those people who just wants to see the whole thing burn to the ground). Russian hacking, sexism, and voter suppression are seen as the excuses losers make for putting forward a weak candidate.

Conceding that the result was a complex mix of factors, for whatever reason, is unpopular.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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