An Election Unlike Any Other

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France’s population had changed considerably since 1614. The non-aristocratic members of the Third Estate now represented 98 percent of the people but could still be outvoted by the other two bodies. In the lead-up to the May 5 meeting, the Third Estate began to mobilize support for equal representation and the abolishment of the noble veto–in other words, they wanted voting by head and not by status. While all of the orders shared a common desire for fiscal and judicial reform as well as a more representative form of government, the nobles in particular were loath to give up the privileges they enjoyed under the traditional system.  —History.com

This is about special years where the old rules don’t matter.

Most of the time, the Republican establishment’s views line up well with grassroots conservatives. Both teams oppose federal regulation and meddling in business. Both teams favor lower taxes. Both teams hold favorable views of business, especially of entrepreneurs. On social issues, the sides sometimes clash, but those are minor squabbles. And the establishment always win. Except when everything bursts like a piñata at a birthday party.

Behind the scenes, the establishment thwarts innovation and uses regulation and enforcement to destroy disruptive competitors. But people don’t see this happening, so they don’t worry about it. And if the people believe today is pretty good and tomorrow will be even better, what’s a little shadiness hurt? Until things rupture like a birthday piñata.

Once in a while, though, the stars align crooked. When things seem to be going badly, the people demand change. When the people see their interests—jobs, income, savings, safety, education, kids—at risk, they become risk seekers. When today seems bad and tomorrow looks worse, we become far more willing to gamble and to take matters into our own hands. Trust in institutions plummets like candy from a piñata on your birthday.

It’s all part of prospect theory, and I’ve written about it before. But here’s a quick review:

When facing a certain loss, people become risk-seeking. Try it yourself. Say you take your car in for routine maintenance, and your trusty mechanic tells you your transmission has a problem. He says, “I can fix it now for $1,000. If it fails completely, you’ll need a new transmission at about $4,000.”

You ask, “what are the chances it will fail completely if I don’t get it fixed now?”

“About 85 percent over the next four years according to the diagnostics report.”

So here’s your situation: Would you prefer to lose $1,000 for sure, or take an 85 percent chance of losing $4,000 and 15 percent chance of losing $0?

Most people will take their chances. It’s an irrational decision, but it’s what most people do. When facing a certain loss, people seek risk.

When people think their state and their country are on the right track, they become risk averse. We can test this the same way.

You find an old coin in a drawer and take it to a coin dealer. He tells you he’ll pay $1,000 today for the coin, but there’s an 85 percent chance that the coin will be worth $4,000 in four years. Of course, there’s a 15 percent chance that the coin could be worth nothing four years from now.

If enough people take this poll, most people will gamble when facing loss and will take the sure thing when facing a certain gain.

Now, let’s look at Right Track/Wrong Polling. You probably know that about 71 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. You can probably guess that Missourians feel our state is also on the wrong track. People feel we’re on the wrong track because they face diminishing wages, fewer job prospects, zero raises, diminishing savings, increasing crime, and constant terrorism threats.

In other words, the vast majority of Americans are facing a certain loss if things keep going the way they are. In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president, things were going well and people expected things to get better. Then, we were facing a certain gain.

via Gallup: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1669/general-mood-country.aspx
via Gallup: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1669/general-mood-country.aspx

In 1997 we learned the President had sex with an intern in the Oval Office, his wife blamed a vast right-wing conspiracy, and Bill Clinton lied repeatedly under oath about the affair. Yet the American people opposed his impeachment. Sure, they told pollsters they opposed impeachment because sex is a private matter, not a national concern. But any psychologist will tell you the real reason was risk aversion. If tomorrow’s likely to be better today, why would you take the chance of making it worse?

In the 1990s, people were risk averse. We avoided disruptions that could derail our right-track future. Now, though, we’re risk-seeking. We’re willing to take a chance with massive changes because doing nothing will make our lives worse day by day. We all know that.

Great Expectations = Great Disappointments

My favorite historians and my favorite psychologists agree on this: people believe the future will be a linear progression of the recent past. When we feel better off today than we did six months ago, we believe we’ll feel even better six months from now. But if we feel worse off today than six months ago, we assume we’ll be in worse shape six months later.

Most of the time this strategy works. The problem is that eventually that trend line breaks. And we have no idea when that will happen or why. A financial collapse, a terrorist attack, a criminal indictment of the Democratic candidate for president. Anything can snap a winning streak. Anything at all.

Look at that Gallup chart above. When Drudge first introduced us to Monica Lewinsky, satisfaction with America’s direction was in the high 40s. It had been rising steadily since 1992. From that perspective, the risk of deposing a president seemed ridiculous–like turning down a sure $1,000 for the chance of turning it into $4,000 in four years.

Beginning with 9/11/2001, though, the regression line turns south. And stays there. And this time is different.

As you can see, the line usually goes up gradually, drops sharply, then begins its upward ascent quickly after a shock. But that didn’t happen after 9/11. The trend line jumped a bit after Obama’s election, but the overall regression curve has been negative for 15 years.

Everybody now expects tomorrow to be worse than today. Projecting out, we all know that if nothing changes, America will lie in ruins in 20 years. People now in their 50s will be homeless or dead. People in their 20s will be living in government squalor or holding down four jobs just to survive. The American Dream will look like a nightmare scene from an Upton Sinclair novel.

We also know we can’t trust institutions or associations. They’re rigged for the people with power and control.

When the institutions are rigged and the future looks bleak, who you gonna call? Generation X.

Here’s the best description of Gen X written when we were young in 1993. From 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail:

As a group, they aren’t what older people wish they were, but rather what they themselves know they need to be: street-smart survivalists clued into the game of life the way it really gets played, searching for simple things that work in a cumbersome society that offers little to them.

As a generation, we had our fun young and became hardened realists during that steep decline in expectations. We knew the world was looking for a chance to fuck us, and it did.

Unlike all other generational archetypes, though, the Nomads of Generation X won’t fold up and cry. We don’t need no stinking safe spaces. While Millennials think of themselves as snowflakes, we think of ourselves as cinders. Both fall from the sky in winter, but a little sunlight melts the snow. Us carbon cinders will be here forever. Heat only makes us harder. Generation X is a base element. If we get in your eye or shoe, we hurt. If we get in your head, you’re dead.

As I said before, 2016 is the Gen X election. Gen X was the first generation in American history that expected to be worse off than its parents. And we are, so don’t say we never get anything right. For all our playful fatalism, we see through the bullshit of the establishment. We know why the Farm Bureau broke tradition to support a Democrat for governor: the Republican establishment told them to. We know a bottom when we see one.

When you mix a bleak forecast with Gen X attitude, you get a wild combustive. You get 2016.

Greitens and Trump

There are a lot of similarities between the messages of Eric Greitens and Donald Trump. Be careful with this. While I support both men, Eric Greitens is a remarkably polite man by Midwestern standards while Donald Trump skates on the edge of politeness by Brooklyn standards. (And those two standards are very different. Believe me.) Their styles have nothing in common.

But their messages are remarkably similar. And their message is: it’s time for someone outside the political class.

Face it: the political class made the mess we’re in. While the political class thinks it can fix it, it can’t. We all know that. And two of Greitens’s opponents recognize the people’s distrust of establishment politicians. From STLToday.com:

“Sometimes, you just are on the wrong end of a phenomenon,” said Catherine Hanaway. She made history more than a decade ago as Missouri’s first female House speaker and was attempting to repeat the feat at the gubernatorial level. “We got hit with the tidal wave of the ‘outsider.’”

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder concurred. “[Greitens’] entire campaign was based on being an outsider, at a time when that appears to be compelling nationally and in Missouri,” said Kinder, who had hoped to cap his unbroken 25 years in state government by seizing its top prize.

One thing I’ve noticed since getting deeply involved in politics is that many of the politicians don’t know how they’re manipulated. Neither do their supporters. Neither do the voters.

Rest assured that we’re all manipulated a lot. For example, if I asked you to think of a children’s birthday tradition right now, what would pop into your head?

If you’re from the Midwest and you read my blog, there’s about a 5% chance that piñatas are part of su familia birthday tradition. But I’ll bet way more than 5% of you clicked on piñata. Because I anchored piñata way up top. I wasn’t even subtle about it.

You probably knew that when you saw the options. But you clicked piñata anyway. And you’re probably justifying your choice now, telling yourself you’re into diversity or you really like piñatas. But if you clicked the piñata on this post, it was because I anchored you at the top.

We’re all victims of our brains.

So are politicians. It’s not their fault that they become tools of the lobbyists. It’s human nature.

And the voters let it happen for many years. Until, finally, the results we’re getting aren’t worth the comfort of sitting back and letting someone else handle things.

At these moments, we take control. We leave the comfort of our living rooms, fire the political class, and usher in a new political class.

2016 is a great year to be alive. The political order that took power after WWII is dead. The people who earned their power in 1945 were dead long ago. Usurpers took their place and tried to play the same game. But these usurpers failed. They didn’t have the mettle. They never earned their chops.

So we’re shaking the Etch-a-Sketch. We’re taking things back to zero and turning the knobs ourselves for a while. We’re taking a chance on Trump and Greitens because, at this point in time, it’s actually riskier to not gamble on something very different.

In 2016, we’re all Gen Xers. We’re all “street-smart survivalists clued into the game of life the way it really gets played.” In 2016, the outsiders have the inside track.

It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.

Also published on Medium.