America's paralyzing uncertainty

Living with uncertainty is always hard — but it's especially difficult in these times of significant flux and sharply expanded possibilities

Uncle Sam.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Wikimedia Commons)

Living with uncertainty is always hard — but it's especially difficult in these times of significant flux and sharply expanded possibilities.

Consider the relative lack of uncertainties that confronted citizens in the comparatively placid period stretching from the end of the Cold War until roughly 18 months before Donald Trump was elected president. Will a centrist Democrat win the White House or will it be a centrist Republican? Will taxes be slightly trimmed or modestly raised? Will NATO be expanded by a small country or two? Or will the decision be delayed for a few years? Even the biggest uncertainties — Is it a good idea to invade and occupy Iraq? — seemed to be relatively low risk, since the fighting would take place many thousands of miles from American shores and be fought by an all-volunteer army.

Think of how differently the world looks today, when the range of options seems so much broader, and consensus is totally lacking among the so-called experts, not only about which course to take but even about what is going on at a fundamental level.

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Is President Trump merely the latest in a long line of conservative ideologues, perhaps representing the last gasp of a party well on its way to electoral collapse? Or is he something radically new — a right-wing populist stirring up long-buried atavistic hatreds and tapping into a latter-day longing for authoritarian rule? Is his presidency the first step toward outright fascism? Or maybe a prelude to a leftward lurch of the electorate toward democratic socialism?

Is the U.S. in steep decline? Or will the country be righted as soon as the Democrats take over in the winter of 2021? And what about the rest of the world? Is Trump sui generis — an outgrowth of distinctly American pathologies (the racism and white supremacist ideology that have permeated the country from before its official founding in the late 18th century)? Or is he just the American analogue to a much broader international movement against neoliberalism? And is that movement a sign of hope for the future? Or the leading edge of anti-democratic impulses that could extinguish freedom throughout the West?

There is at least one very smart and informed person, and usually dozens of them, firmly committed to each of these (and many other) interpretations and defending their positions intelligently with a range of evidence and argument. That increases uncertainty, and with it, anxiety, leaving individuals and groups tempted toward leaps of faith into more facile, monocausal ideologies, comprehensive theories, and philosophies of history, all of which promise to rescue them from the feeling of vertigo that accompanies the historical disorientation of the present by providing them with (a false) certainty firmly rooted in (illusory) knowledge.

At the low end of sophistication and plausibility, we see this in the paranoid conspiracies spun by online muckrakers and trolls. At the high end, it motivates analysts who insist that Trump's rise to the presidency can be explained by pointing to one factor that far outweighs all the others — be it racism and white supremacy, Russian interference, James Comey, the media's coverage of the major-party candidates through election season, or "the fundamentals" (which were inclined to favor the Republican after a two-term Democratic president). In the mid-range are the pundits (I'm looking at you Jennifer Rubin) whose hatred of the president is so viscerally intense that they drop every position they once espoused the moment Trump champions it, transforming themselves and their sometimes lifelong commitments in the blink of an eye.

Then there are the data heads who build probabilistic models to predict the outcome of future events, providing the rest of us with the illusion of knowledge about what can never really be known with any certainty at all: the future.

Of course the data journalists are usually clear about what it is they're offering: merely an informed prediction, an estimate, a likelihood, of one outcome or another taking place. So on the eve of the 2016 election, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gave Hillary Clinton a 71.4 percent chance of prevailing in the vote and Donald Trump a 28.6 percent chance. Other data journalists, meanwhile, were far more bullish on Clinton's chances, with one prominent website giving her a 98 percent chance of winning and Trump a mere 1.7 percent chance.

Who was right? At first blush, it would seem to be Silver, who was harshly attacked in the weeks leading up to the vote for portraying the race as more of a tossup than most pundits and political consultants supposed it to be. As soon as the dust settled from the earthquake of Nov. 8, 2016, Silver's much more modest prediction of a likely Clinton victory appeared to be vindicated.

But of course it wasn't. To justify that conclusion, we would need a way to determine whether Trump's win was a slight upset or a true black swan event that would happen only once or twice out of a hundred. But that is not merely impossible. It is absurd. There is no way to replicate the data, no control groups, no running further trials, to prove whether and to what extent Trump's victory, which was a function of millions of variables interacting with each other in the world, is properly seen as a mild surprise or an enormous shock.

In place of that impossible knowledge, we insert motivated reasoning. Pro-Trump conservatives talk about how the president's unique appeal to working-class voters made him a shoo-in for victory. Anti-Trump conservatives point to Vladimir Putin's remarkably successful efforts to manipulate the outcome, an effort without which Clinton would have won handily. Before the election, Democrats had an incentive to call the likelihood of Trump winning extremely remote — because no one like him had won a presidential race before and the prospect of losing to him seemed so horrible. After the election, Democrats had the opposite incentive, to portray the loss as preordained by structural conditions largely beyond their control.

Which interpretation is right? Would Clinton have won if Comey hadn't reopened the email server investigation just 11 days before Election Day? Would the Republican have won by a much bigger margin if he hadn't been saddled by Trump's unique constellation of defects as a candidate? And what was the probability of each of these outcomes coming to pass? Fifty-two percent? Seventy-eight percent? Ninety-six percent?

The debate is meaningless — and deep down everybody knows it. And yet, we remain paralyzed and unable to move on. It is the half-conscious awareness of the uncertainty underlying each of our positions that drives everyone on every side into a rage of overcompensation, as if truth were a function of the intensity of the insults hurled at those on the other side of debates that can never be definitively settled.

Living with uncertainty is hard — and the proof is in our strenuous, unceasing efforts to convince each other and ourselves that we know more than we do.

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