“What went wrong?” is the underlying question in David Frum’s much-talked about piece in the Atlantic on the “Republican Revolt”. How could an establishment candidate like Jeb Bush, who was expected to be almost irresistible and has raised more than $100 million now be running at 3-4% in the polls? How can the GOP primary race have been hijacked by a reality TV star at the expense of experienced Governors and Senators?
Let’s leave aside the betting on who will finally get the nomination, or how good or bad Trump is, as most of the media focuses on little else and most journalistic speculation is essentially useless. To be sure, despite his consistent lead, the Donald may not be inevitable as the field thins out and the ‘ground game’ of turnout becomes important.
It’s just that as of now, some of the most powerful, elite and supposedly expert people in US politics look like losers. This is really not where they want to be.
So let’s coolly step back and look at the pattern. How could the establishment miscalculate so badly? What does this tell us about why decisions go wrong? Could other elites have the same problem?
In a nutshell, people refused to see contrary evidence.
Many establishment policies were not popular with the GOP base, Frum says. Less than 17% favored cuts in social security, for example. Most wanted more deportations of illegal immigrants, the exact opposite of a pathway to citizenship.
As a class, big Republican donors could not see any of this, or would not. So neither did the politicians who depend upon them. Against all evidence, both groups interpreted the Tea Party as a mass movement in favor of the agenda of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. One of the more dangerous pleasures of great wealth is that you never have to hear anyone tell you that you are completely wrong.
They could not see things that did not fit in their frame. They could not learn from errors or defeats. The establishment had been shocked at Romney’s loss in 2012, for example.
And yet, within hours of Romney’s defeat, Republican donors, talkers, and officials converged on the maximally self-exculpating explanation.
That meant Republican leaders decided the problem was Romney’s talk about more immigration enforcement alienating Latinos, the very issue where the establishment differed most with their base and where hard evidence of votes to be gained in the center was (Frum says) mostly lacking.
Otherwise, the party yielded on nothing and doubled down on everything. No U-turns. No compromises.
Instead of adjusting to minimize or forestall the chance of a revolt, or finding a smart alternative way forward, the leadership interpreted things in self-serving terms and escalated.
This, of course, is a problem that is extremely widespread and not confined to the GOP. We saw exactly the same thing on all sides in the last midterm elections.
Perhaps the establishment will be able to adapt now that their problem is (you would think) undeniable and it is darkest before dawn for them. Or they can double down again. But serious damage has been done, and some ground rules of US politics – like the importance of raising money – have been rewritten.
Here’s the takeaway. Once again we see in this example that the fundamental problem with decisions is not really bias, or lack of formal rigor, or failure to gather data. It’s that people most often don’t change their mind in response to evidence. Or they fail to adapt until so late in the game that all the choices are bad. That’s what we need to fix, and would save countless billions of dollars and tens of thousands of companies and careers.
The most brilliant investors intuitively realize this. But as this incident demonstrates, most leaders and managers and policymakers do not. They are surrounded by yes-men. They stick with the familiar. They are clever enough to explain away facts which do not fit their narrative.
People get stuck, and persist too long in self-delusion. They fail to adapt and move when they still have the chance. If you can mitigate that, you can do more than most crystal balls could ever do. After all, if the only thing you see in a crystal ball is your own wishful thinking, what good is it?