We live in an age of uber epistemic closure, and I think that helps explain why the political world has been torn asunder as it tries to even explain the enduring strength of Donald J. Trump.
The phrase "epistemic closure" is a philosophical concept; it was brought outside the lecture halls and into conversation by Julian Sanchez in 2010 to refer to the tendency of a political group's members — in that case, conservatives — to derive significant and even existential benefit from their own contained universe of assumptions, facts, and ideas. Correspondingly, they exhibit a willfulness to reject and derive energy from the automatically "wrong" and other-wordly ideas and facts emanating from another political group.
People who practice epistemic closure make the error of assuming that everyone right believes as they do, and so people who believe differently are not just wrong — they are dangerous.
(Related phenomena include the tendency of conspiracy believers to discount facts and logic that disprove their theory by creating an even more elaborate theory to account for disconfirming evidence and for confirmation bias, where we generally throw out acts that cause us cognitive dissonance).
Trump's rise has occasioned a debate between two sets of political actors who approach the subject with a sort of certainty that borders on panic, the exact combination of traits that signals to outsiders that some sort of epistemological crisis is ongoing.
Both groups believe that Trumpism is, for lack of a better word, a passing fad.
The first group consists of Republican-affiliated political consultants and almost everyone who has made money off the conventional historical progression of GOP presidential races — perhaps even the entire "establishment" of the party as currently constituted. To them, it is inconceivable that the universe they live in could simultaneously include the party that they knew and the party that they see — the party that is currently giving Donald Trump significant and enduring support in statewide and national polls.
Stuart Stevens, a legitimately well-regarded consultant, tweeted this Monday, in response to a liberal writer's attachment of the "frontrunner" adjective to Trump: "I'd suggest no one is really a frontrunner until voting begins. We'd have the Clinton/Rudy/Perry/Newt etc. parties."
This is true as a statement of caution — but here is the "but:"
- Trump's rise either caused or coincided with a large increase in the percentage of people who are paying attention to presidential races early. Just look at those debate ratings!
- There is no reason to believe that there is enough history even to make the comparison. Just because the markers of a presidential contest are the same does not make the developments, pace, and even structure of the race like other races. Every year could be different; most years aren't because the GOP has exerted some measure of control over the nomination calendar to prevent apostates from taking over.
- In 2012, the year Stevens' candidate won the nomination, he did so after a primary season had seriously damaged his party; Mitt Romney was not able to rescue it, and activist conservatives, though they voted for Romney at crunch time, ensured that Romney had to craft an identity that was not entirely his own.
Romney was saved by the GOP calendar, which was constructed by insiders to give conservatives a sense that they have true power — they frontload key primaries that "reflect" different types of party conservatives — but actually preserves the decisive role of the party's financiers and benefactors by ensuring that the type of Republicans who have actual voting power tend to reflect less threatening viewpoints. Conservatives, of course, realize this, to some degree or another. It is one reason — just one — why Trump is so popular today.
I can understand why, for many, many Republicans, the idea that Donald Trump is a real frontrunner who reflects real voters in their party is upsetting. It appears, though, that Trump truly does. He is not a resume conservative: He is a leader who is calling for restricting immigration by building a wall, he fights with the liberal media and the GOP establishment daily, and acts like he always wins; he legitimates the sense of persistent cultural threat that many activist conservatives have been feeling for years without — and this is important — compromising to the alleged realities of American politics or the niceties that give off the foul wind of eventual compromise. Perhaps because he is so obviously disdainful of the party — and so obviously incapable of submitting to its prerogatives — he is on the verge of consolidating the support of those conservatives who feel like everyone else is likely to sell out, because they always do.
My other candidate for epistemic closers are the quants: The people who keep telling us that the only thing that ultimately matters is who wins, and that it is irresponsible of the media (because we don't look at the numbers properly) to focus on the pre-primary pageantry. David Weigel had a great riposte to this universe: The winners matter, but the history matters more.
The story of an election is far, far bigger than the story of who won it. The Trump drama, and the movement that has discovered and elevated him as its candidate, is obviously the political news story of 2015. Actually, it's the latest in a long, semi-tragic history of primary campaigns that revealed plenty without producing a nominee. You can start the clock in 1964, when then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace ran for president for the first (of four) times. He had no chance of defeating President Lyndon B. Johnson in the primaries, but where he competed, he scored margins that baffled the political establishment. [The Washington Post]
The same goes for Ronald Reagan in 1976, and Howard Dean in 2004.
This world — which is a world I respect for many reasons — feels uncomfortable with its lack of data and lack of what statisticians might call priors: reliable protocols to conditionally evaluate the probability of an end state becoming true. But I think many reporters are rediscovering that campaigning is a verb, just as Republican establishmentarians have discovered that their control of the party is not nearly as strong as they hoped it was.
In the end, the GOP primary calendar is still set up — rigged — to elect someone who does not fit Trump's profile. But even when (if?) they do, it will be Trump's party they are inheriting.