Trump is a Centrist and Everybody is Wrong

“I have never considered myself right, left or center. On some issues, such as law enforcement, I do sound like a Birchite: and on others, more like Fidel Castro after two quarts of Appleton’s rum.” – these are the words of Truman Capote, the great novelist, spoken in 1968. The Birchites were an advocacy group that argued the civil rights movement was a communist movement. Was Capote mad? No. Was he unusual? To an extent, but not nearly so unusual as he may seem to political pundits.

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Truman Capote looked a bit like British actor Toby Jones

The views of a typical member of the public, like the views of Truman Capote, are a long way from those of a typical UK MP. Polling shows that most Labour voters want less immigration than current levels and an overwhelming majority want tougher restrictions on immigration. Most Liberal Democrat and Labour voters support an oath of integration for immigrants, and most Lib Dem and Labour voters think prisoners should not have the vote. 72% of Labour voters support changing rules so NHS treatment is only available for people who have lived in Britain for at least a year.

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Even the reds oppose immigration.

At the same time, 85% of Conservative voters and 81% of UKIP voters think mental illness is as serious as physical illness. 64% of Conservative voters support a ban on colourful cigarette packaging, and more Conservative voters support a mansion tax on houses worth more than £2 million than oppose one. A third of Conservative voters would prefer to live in an economy with a more even distribution of wealth, even if that meant there was less wealth to go around.

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Artist’s impression.

What’s going on? Why are Labour voters so right wing and Conservative voters so left wing? Well, what you’re seeing is the dislocation between the spread of political opinion in the country and the spread of political opinion in parliament.

The swing voters who decide most elections are not half way between Ed Milliband and David Cameron. Typical swing voters hate immigration and love the NHS. They think the EU is undemocratic and they want top banker CEOs to be in jail. There are differences between voters of different parties – mainly on the economy (which voters care a lot about), and foreign intervention (which voters care comparatively little about). The broad progressive vs conservative division you see in the news and parliament is not particularly helpful as a tool for understanding the public.

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Caption competition.

This leads to three conclusions.

1. If you don’t look at polls or focus groups you don’t know what the public thinks

If you have regular exposure to me you are probably highly educated, socially liberal and/or young and the people you hang out with are probably highly educated socially liberal and/or young. We tend to connect with people who are similar ages, sexes, professions etc. One thing that has changed in the past 20 years or so is it is much easier to connect and form groups with like-minded people. As a result, you have plenty of people you can talk to about Dungeons and Dragons or skydiving or indie computer games (or whatever floats your boat), which is great. But you also tend to connect with people who have similar interests and similar beliefs.

This can be resolved to an extent by looking at polling data, to an extent by considering what the opposite viewpoint might be when reading an article, to an extent by actively reading and listening to people you disagree with, and to an extent by having conversations with members of the public from a totally different demographic than your in-group. It cannot be resolved completely. Neither I nor you, nor Theresa May, nor Stephen Hawking will have a hugely accurate understanding of what the public is thinking. Accept and ingest this.

Side note – “the polls are always wrong” will not save the left

A lot has been said about the inaccuracy of polls. I may go into this more later, but the short response is that the polls are inaccurate, but they tend to be inaccurate in a fairly predictable way – the public is between 1 and 7 points further to the right than the polls present, usually about the 3-3.5% mark. This is what I have observed in the UK, and at a glance this seems to hold up in the US. (Please correct me if I am wrong here). The polls (especially with the caveat that they have a left-wing bias) are almost always a hell of a lot more accurate than the alternative. The EU referendum polling showed a narrow remain lead in the end, and what happened was a narrow leave win. They showed a narrow Conservative lead, leading to a possible minority administration in the 2015 election, and what happened was a narrow Conservative majority. If you take into account their left-wing bias, they could actually be used to guess the outcome nearly spot on.

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2. Trump is closer to the centre than you think

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Once you get a partial understanding of what the public believe, and what the public think is important, you begin to have a better understanding of how someone like Donald Trump can win over former Obama voters. You begin to understand why “Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week” was a winning message across the spectrum in the referendum on EU membership. Trump is often characterised by the left as a far-right figure, way outside of conventional political opinion. Perhaps he is – in Westminster, or on your Facebook news feed. But much of his platform fits with the broad sweep of American public opinion. Americans oppose both immigration and free trade. They want lower taxes and they want economic recovery for the working class. Americans want to Make America Great Again. On one of the biggest issues of his campaign – trade – Trump is and was to the left of the mainstream Republican establishment.

The centre of public opinion in the US and the UK (and possibly across the globe) is not half way between progressivism and conservatism. It is more accurately described as nationalist. It puts citizens and long-term residents first. It makes foreign policy about national interest. It’s tough on crime, and tough on terrorism. It says immigration should be low and controlled. But it’s also sceptical of globalisation, and supports effective public services (and sometimes the taxes that pay for them).

3. Everybody is Wrong

As an exercise, I want you to do a few things:

  1. Guess what the public thinks on some issue. One you haven’t seen polling data for before. Maybe an approval rating. Or voting intention. Write down what you think they think before you look it up. Then look it up. Do this a few times and be strict with yourself about not looking up the issue before. If you’re stuck for things to look up in the UK, read a few articles about a political party in another country and then make a guess on them.
  2. Guess what the odds are on something. Odds on betting sites are based on what people put their money on so they (to an extent) reflect public opinion. Write down your guess and check it against the odds.
  3. Actually make a bet or a prediction that can be falsified. Write this down somewhere. Give it a time scale. Make a note in your diary to check back against this afterwards.

If you do this regularly, you will soon find that there is only an extremely narrow range in which you have any reliable knowledge, if at all.

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Repeat this to yourself. Everybody is wrong.

People you disagree with?

Everybody is wrong.

People you agree with?

Everybody is wrong.

Your favourite idols?

Everybody is wrong.

Me?

Everybody is wrong.

You?

Everybody is wrong.

I have highlighted a tiny area (public political opinions) in which I believe I am less wrong than most. But on almost everything I don’t have active expertise in or verifiable data, I will be wrong. And I will probably be quite confident that I’m right, because I’ve read about it and seen it on the news and talked to Facebook friends about it. Let’s repeat that again.

Everybody is wrong.

Everybody is wrong.

Everybody is wrong.

If you want to play a computer game that I believe to be amazing based on what my Facebook friends have said, then check out Marketforce!

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