2016 was not a good year for political experts. To be fair, it’s not as though they had that many opportunities to get things wrong, but the opportunities they did have were highly significant: the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union, and the United States voting for Donald Trump as their next president.
For the most part, the people telling us that it was not a good year for political punditry are the pundits themselves, who are also trying to explain how they were shocked so badly. These explanations have ranged from the sober to the shrill, and everything in between. But few, if any, of these really manage to fully explain why the people paid to tell us what will happen failed to correctly tell us what would happen.
I believe there are two fundamental reasons political punditry got 2016 wrong.
The first reason is consensus building. For the most part, if you’re paid to talk or write about politics, you live amongst people who are paid to do likewise. You’ll reside in the capital city, where the parliament is; you’ll spend your workday covering the goings-on in the parliament, with your peers; you’ll be reading, watching and making the same news as everyone else, and chances are you’ll be discussing what you see and hear with one another.
In other words, you live in a bubble.
Living in a bubble virtually guarantees the building of a consensus, of a single explanation to why a particular event has occurred or will happen. There is no room in the bubble for an opposing view. There is far too much risk in dissenting for all but the most respected of talking heads. If a journalist breaks from the pack and gets it right, their peers will be jealous and seek to take them down. If they break and get it wrong, they will be called out for it and lose a great deal of respect.
For many, the thought of dissenting probably doesn’t even occur. The views they hear around them are the ones they hold themselves, as has been the case since they were at university. The world is just like that…isn’t it?
At this point, at least some of you will be up in arms. After all, isn’t it obvious that there are differences between different political news media, even just among those that are ‘mainstream’? Didn’t half of British national newspapers endorse Leave, and the other half endorse Remain? Hasn’t Fox News made its mark by being overtly one-sided politically, in opposition to other news organisations?
It is important to keep in mind when thinking about this topic that different countries have different media cultures. Historically, British media has been openly, gleefully combative and partisan. American media, by contrast, has been the opposite, always seeking to appear unbiased. The advent of 24-hour news media has created a convergence of sorts of these two different approaches, but the remnant of their histories remains even today.
In the case of the EU referendum, each newspaper had different reasons for supporting the cause they did – some honest, some for appeasement of their readership, most a mix of both – but few believed that Leave was the favourite to win. You were certainly more likely than not to find dissenting voices within, but their dissension would be what made them notable. The majority belief was that Remain would win. This was more readily observable when widening the net to include television and radio, both dominated by the BBC, which has in its charter the notion of being ‘unbiased’ – thereby making it more susceptible to the deficiencies of experts, mostly based in London, living in the bubble. Note that this is not a question of whether the BBC was biased during the campaign, but rather whether or not it was able to accurately see what the result might be.
The bubble doesn’t only consist of media. Politicians, civil servants, businessmen and academicians are all readily found within it as well, all being just the kinds of people who the media rely on for their expertise. Any media attempting to be ‘unbiased’ must, by necessity, rely on sources of information who can be reasonably viewed as ‘objective’. Because these sources exist within the bubble, they can be almost guaranteed to come to the same conclusion. Those that don’t are most likely to do so for admittedly subjective reasoning, thereby removing their ability to be used in ‘unbiased’ reporting. Such is the cycle of consensus building.
This has been more of a problem in the United States, where the hiding of biases has been taken for granted as being part of the media’s role. American media has been expected to give every possible signal that their reporting is totally objective. This is probably why Fox News chose the tagline ‘Fair and Balanced’ when they chose to be a deliberately partisan network. It was a way of indicating that they were a reputable American media organisation. If you were on board with what they were saying, then they would seem more ‘fair and balanced’ than any other media organisation; if you were not on board, then you could point to traditional media as being the true examples of ‘fair and balanced’.
But wherever you pointed, you would be pointing to the bubble. The election of Donald Trump made clear, in my eyes, the second reason why the experts got 2016 wrong: an incorrect ideological framework.
Previously to 2016, and even to some extent in the EU referendum, there had been what appeared to be the formation of two consensus, known by the short-hand of ‘left’ and ‘right’. In the United States, media would either align openly align themselves with one of these two, or promote themselves as being ‘unbiased’ and ‘neutral’. But both of these consensus existed within the same bubble, and so in turned out that their differences were not so great as they had appeared.
Once Donald Trump arrived on the scene, the bubble became as one: he wouldn’t become President, it was just not possible, his most recent mistake would end his candidacy, and so on.
Much like in the United Kingdom, there were some dissenting voices, but these were more rare as, unlike in the UK, partisanship is a feature of television, not print. There is far less room for dissension on TV. Even Fox took a long time to get on board the Trump Train, and never really did so fully, pushing Megyn Kelly (no friend of Trump, personally or ideologically) as the face of the network until she decided to leave for NBC, and seemingly trying to balance the line between a viewership that predominantly supported Trump, and a staff that predominantly did not, resulting in a mixed message from show to show.
How was it that the bubble could have the same voice, when for so many years previously they did not? This is a tough question to answer if we assume that the ideological framework the media operates under is correct, as our only real answer would be to say that Trump is so politically extreme that he has united opposing forces (and, indeed, this argument has already been used by some within the media.) But if we were to say that, could we say the same thing about Bernie Sanders, who was similarly surprising to the experts and arguably deserved to be the Democratic nominee? What makes either of them ‘extreme’?
This question is much easier to answer if we assume that their ideological framework is incorrect. Once the left-right scales fall from our eyes, we can see clearly the obvious assumption that you would make about any tight-knit community that communicates in its own language and lives in its own world: those in the community believe the same thing.
That is, regardless of which member of the bubble you encounter – politician or civil servant, journalist or professor – you will be coming across the same political viewpoint. In the grand scheme of ideologies, they are all more similar than they are different. But because the left-right idea is so potent – is there anything more powerful than ‘us against them’? – the minor differences they do have are played up, consciously and subconsciously.
When a major challenger comes along from outside this ideological bubble, the minor differences are put aside. This is why the experts couldn’t see Brexit actually happening – the force behind it was from outside their bubble. This is why the experts couldn’t see Trump actually happening – the force behind it was from outside their bubble. Their ideological standard, which has guided politics in the Western world for decades, simply couldn’t account for it, so they couldn’t either.
The phenomenon of the bubble hasn’t gone unnoticed by those within the bubble, now that it’s been shaken by two powerful outside forces. Indeed, it’s been a port of call for a number of those seeking to understand how they got it wrong (amongst many, many other explanations). The phrase ‘Westminster bubble’ was even added to the OED this year.
But a simple recognition of the bubble doesn’t make it burst. Those within the bubble aren’t changing their job, their place of residence, their peers or their interests just because they got 2016 wrong. There is no reason for them to do anything so drastic, so why would they? It would be of no benefit to them.
Of course, it isn’t of much benefit to us for them to remain in the bubble when they’re meant to be the experts we can rely on to tell us what’s going on in the political world, but for as long as we pay attention to them and treat them as gurus, they will continue to be paid to misinform us.
There is also an argument made, particularly in the United States, that there is more than one bubble. I will address this in detail another time, but I will say this for now: that argument is not wrong, and the existence of two bubbles reached its fulfillment in the recent election. It was not a clash of political ideologies – it was a clash of worlds.
If we want to be truly well-informed about the political world, the first thing that has to change is the ideological framework we use to describe and debate it. The bubble(s) cannot burst until each person knows what they believe, what other people believe, and how they truly differ from each other.