what we actually missed

There was a feeling, after the 2016 election — different from, but clearly related to, the depression and fear that washed over so many. For me, it felt like a frenzy, especially within journalism. We’d missed something — so how could we make sure we wouldn’t miss it again? Or, more frantically, how could we make up for what we’d missed?

What was the thing we’d missed, as journalists? TRUMP VOTERS. We hadn’t taken them, or the candidate they’d voted for, seriously enough. We’d missed their “economic anxiety,” their despair, their resentment. Or so the early narrative, the one that felt most readily graspable, went. We missed that white women, 52% of them, would vote for him. We missed that rural people loved him; we missed that the rural Democrat was dead and gone and we’d just forgotten to print the eulogy. We — and by “we,” I mean the national news media — missed that the country had become something very different before our eyes.

In hindsight, this response was just as irresponsible as the (relative) inattention to the strains of Trumpism that sparked it. It was imprecise, overinflated, and self-flagellating in a way that didn’t invite extended introspection. In hindsight, here’s what happened in 2016: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. In three states (Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) that her campaign did not consider to be as contested as they were, she narrowly lost the popular vote, thus swinging the presidency to Donald Trump. And while Clinton’s neglect of those three states had to do with mistaken perception of the working class/union “gravel road Democrat” vote, the reason Trump won those states seems to have far more to do with his appeal to middle class/upper-middle-class white people. As countless articles have demonstrated, it wasn’t about economic anxiety. It was about status anxiety — and by “status,” I mean the status of white people at the top of the racial/societal hierarchy.

I think of this shift in terms of best-selling nonfiction: immediately after the election, the industry — and the people who looked to it — glommed to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. In the month after the election, I remember hearing Vance — who managed to personalize and rationalize voting for Trump in way that was immediately appealing to those seeking answers — on at least four prominent podcasts in one week. But Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland offers far more complicated non-answers to the question of what’s going on at the intersection of class and politics — and rejects the narrative that rural working class Americans were the ones who accepted Trump’s narrative without question.

But it’s hard to parse the larger ideological story with any sort of precision immediately following an election, especially as other factors (Russian bots! Russian collusion! Wikileaks! Coverage of the emails!) makes it difficult to isolate any cause. Exit polling is unreliable (later analysis of actual voting data showed 52% of white women was actually more like 47%) but we flock to it because it’s often the only data we have, and few things are scarier in the information age than an information vacuum, even a temporary one.

Even my own election-night take, entitled “This is How Much America Hates Women,” feels too blunt for its own good. I still think most Americans — including and especially women — have internalized the notion that women aren’t as valuable as men, that bad behavior towards women is either earned or not a problem, that most problems women do face are of their own doing, not the result of systemic and discriminatory policies and practices. I think there were many valid reasons to disagree with Hillary Clinton’s policies, but the dislike and abject hatred that accumulated around her had more to do with her gender and age. (As an experiment, consider what would happen if a man with a similar past and policies were running in her stead — and whether the chants of “lock him up” would ring out quite the way they did).

But you know who didn’t vote for Trump? The majority of voting Americans. But “This is How Much the Majority of Voters in the States That Decided the Electoral College Have Internalized and/or Rationalized Misogynistic Attitudes Towards Women” is not a very catchy headline. Good analysis is patient. It builds on years of knowledge and reading. It is precise yet adept at synthesizing myriad modes of reporting: from data and theory to interviews with normal people and specialists and authorities. Good analysis, in other words, takes wisdom — and wisdom takes time.

Which is why it took so long to accumulate wisdom about what happened in 2016, and why, in the week after the midterms, I’ve watched organizations attempt (sometimes more successfully than others) to hedge their immediate analysis of what happened, and what it means. Sure, people on cable news were talking about “a blue ripple” as returns filtered in — but that’s because cable news operates almost exclusively in extremes. It was either a tsunami (if, say, Beto O’Rourke won) or a ripple (if he didn’t); there was nothing in between.

Cable news is entertainment, whether people want to conceive of it that way or not, and all entertainment attempts to provide its viewers with some sort of narrative. CNN/Headline News first rose to prominence precisely because of their ability to map narrative — available, for the first time, 24 hours a day — onto what was happening in Iraq and Kuwait during the first Gulf War. In times of crisis, we look for narrative, especially narrative that provides legibility: things that are good or bad, right or wrong, tragic or uplifting, huge or tiny. There’s very little room within that narrative calculus for nuance, or hedging, or patience — or, let it be said, wisdom.

It’s not that the people on these programs aren’t smart, or don’t demonstrate wisdom in other arenas. But wisdom requires more than soundbites, more than Hollywood Squares death-match debates, more than well-paid punditry. But like any media object, part of the reason cable news has become what it has become = because we, as audience members, proved that there was an audience for it. If we want better analysis, we have to be patient, and demonstrate our willingness to pay for it, either with our dollars or our attention span. (On the flipside, we, as creators and sources of analysis, have to be able to look at the different forces that create demand: do our audiences actually crave immediate analysis? Or do we just think they do because that’s what we’ve trained them to expect?)

Thinking through these questions demands….wait for it….wisdom. And in an attempt to accumulate some of my own, I’m transitioning from months of continuous on-the-ground reporting (which is part of accumulating wisdom as a reporter, I think!) to reading, thinking, synthesizing, and writing about some of the bigger ideological currents and societal shifts informing what’s happened, what’s happening, what will happen.

That process involves being precise with the language we use to describe results and areas of the country and voting blocs (something I’m writing about right now); it involves admitting what we do and don’t know and can’t know for some time. But for me, any attempt to accumulate actual wisdom always entails reading a lot of books, a pile of which are currently stacked on my desk, starting with Lilliana Mason’s Uncivil Agreement (Amazon link here; Indiebound link here) which is the smartest (no, actually, wisest) thing I’ve read on polarization and political identity. (It’s just 140 pages, academic but by no means inaccessible, has a ton of charts — you can probably read it in an afternoon).

I’ll be talking about each of the books I read over the course of the next few months — in part to keep myself accountable, but also because I’d love to talk about the issues with the audience I keep in my mind every time I write. If you have suggestions for big picture/aerial view texts that you’ve read and clicked things into place for you, I’d love to hear about them (on anything American culture related, really, but especially looking for focus in religion, whiteness, polarization, suburbanization, you get the picture).

And for now, here’s some other stuff from this week I read and loved:

If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox every week or so, forward it this way. If someone forwarded it to you, here’s how you subscribe (it’s free and easy!) Please excuse typos and weird sentences; allowing myself slight imperfections is what makes it possible for me to make time for this every week. And if you have feedback or good books or liked any of the recommendations, just reply to this email.