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Incompetence and hysteria are the American way

A long night followed by a long morning. Champagne bottles popped, emptied, and despaired of. Action omnidirectional in Chinese currency markets, dubious offshore e-betting shops, conventionally traded stocks and bonds, cash office pools. Wild swings, inscrutable media coverage split across reverse-partisan lines. At the head of one party a senile careerist being fed warm milk emerges from his bunker and solemnly declares that his party has carried out “the most extensive and inclusive voter fraud operation in the history of American politics.” Atop the other a would-be dictator who cannot even enjoy unfettered access to a communications platform available to hundreds of millions. Both declare victory, implicitly or otherwise.

Then a day of madness. A mad rush to explain 150,000 votes that appeared out of nowhere because a poll worker tagged on an extra zero. Pizza boxes on windows. The shuffling of papers. Cheers as observers loyal to the president are evicted from counting stations. Cheers. Men in cut-off shirts emblazoned with “BBQ BAR FREEDOM” screaming during press conferences. The president’s main Ukrainian fixer asking why his opponent could not have voted 5,000 times. An entire state shocked to learn that the rest of the nation would be interested in learning its results. Incompetence and hysteria. The near certainty that all of this will end up in the courts, for weeks and months.

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This, or something very like it, was always the most likely result of the 2020 presidential election. The most prominent polling organizations in the country predicted spectacular victories for Joe Biden that not only failed to materialize but had no chance of doing so. The forecasting division of our paper of record inflated his chances by six points in Florida, by four or so in North Carolina, by nine in Ohio, by 10 in Wisconsin, by considerably more than that in Iowa. This was not a credible attempt to measure likely support for two presidential candidates. It was opinion journalism, or, as we say now, “election interference.”

Neither side is willing to entertain the possibility of the other’s victory. A fascist coup for Trump is possible. Biden could win, by his own admission as far as the president’s supporters are concerned, because of skullduggery. There are no alternative explanations.

What we are witnessing is the culmination of two overlapping epistemic crises in American life. The first is the almost unbelievable decline in institutional competence, which is the inevitable result of the arrogance of our professional classes. When the supposed formal sophistication of models — as opposed to their efficacy — becomes their justification, we should not expect their makers to be held to account when they fail. The implications of this problem extend far beyond the comparatively unimportant subject of public polling to everything from free trade to criminal justice to foreign policy. This is how you end up with half the country insisting that a man who has been publicly and demonstrably wrong about all the important questions that Americans have faced in recent decades — NAFTA, urban crime, the Iraq war — is the voice of reason and the other half questioning their sanity.

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Which brings us to the second cause of our decline, what we used to think of fondly as “partisanship.” This word is no longer adequate. We do not live in a country in which two loosely defined political factions strive for victory in electoral contests. Americans inhabit competing digitally augmented realities. These two problems reinforce each other. Biden’s 11-point polling advantages in states won handily by Trump are explained away by smug pollsters, and the president’s supporters are confirmed in their own delusions. Meanwhile the reality that in the world’s wealthiest country we cannot count pieces of paper in a timely manner recedes into the horizon. Better not to blame ourselves.

What could arrest this decline? Accountability, forcing those in whom our trust has been placed to face the consequences of their mistakes. This is unimaginable, not least because it would require subjecting our leaders to tests other than the ones they have set for themselves — and holding fast to these assessments even when they later become inconvenient.

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