The science fiction election
On July 18, 2015, Nate Cohn of The New York Times published a blog post titled “The Trump Campaign’s Turning Point.” Here are the first three paragraphs, which I suspect Cohn himself might prefer we forget:
Donald Trump’s surge in the polls has followed the classic pattern of a media-driven surge. Now it will most likely follow the classic pattern of a party-backed decline.
Mr. Trump’s candidacy probably reached an inflection point on Saturday after he essentially criticized John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War. Republican campaigns and elites quickly moved to condemn his comments—a shift that will probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust.
His support will erode as the tone of coverage shifts from publicizing his anti-establishment and anti-immigration views, which have some resonance in the party, to reflecting the chorus of Republican criticism of his most outrageous comments and the more liberal elements of his record.
Needless to say, Cohn was slightly off here, and he recently wrote a long mea culpa that attempted to explain why he got it so wrong. But I remember being surprised by the tone of the post even at the time. Statements like “Mr. Trump’s candidacy probably reached an inflection point” and “his support will erode as the tone of coverage shifts” seemed weirdly overconfident in advance of any hard numbers, particularly for a blog that was openly designed to mimic the data-driven approach pioneered by Nate Silver. The phrase “inflection point,” in particular, seemed odd: Cohn was describing a graph that didn’t exist, as if the curve were already before his eyes. But I also understand the impulse. The desire to predict the future is central to all political coverage, even if it’s unstated: the twists and turns of a campaign inevitably come down to the outcome of a few binary moments, and whenever a journalist reports on an incident, the implication is that it matters in ways that will translate into real votes—otherwise, why bother? Unfortunately, amid the noise of the primary and general elections, it can be hard to figure out which events are truly significant. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned this year, it’s that the issues, controversies, and personality traits that the media thought would have an impact ended up not mattering much at all. But the fact that so many journalists—who have a huge incentive to at least appear to be right—were so mistaken about Trump won’t stop them from continuing to make predictions. It certainly hasn’t so far.
Yet there’s another, equally strong inclination that serves, at least in theory, to counterbalance the incentive to predict: the need to create a compelling narrative. A few days ago, David Roberts of Vox wrote a depressing but, I think, fundamentally accurate piece on how media coverage of the upcoming election is likely to unfold. Here are his main points:
There will be a push to lift Donald Trump up and bring Hillary Clinton down, until they are at least something approximating two equivalent choices. It’s not a conspiracy; it won’t be coordinated. It doesn’t need to be. It’s just a process of institutions, centers of power and influence, responding to the incentive structure that’s evolved around them. The U.S. political ecosystem needs this election to be competitive…
The campaign press requires, for its ongoing health and advertising revenue, a real race. It needs controversies. “Donald Trump is not fit to be president” may be the accurate answer to pretty much every relevant question about the race, but it’s not an interesting answer. It’s too final, too settled. No one wants to click on it.
I think he’s right, and that there’s going to be significant pressure in the media to turn this election into a case of Kang vs. Kodos. But it’s also worth pointing out that the two impulses we’re discussing here—to predict the future with apparent accuracy and to create a narrative of equivalency where none exists—are fundamentally incompatible. So how can a journalist who needs to crank out a story on a daily basis for the next six months possibly manage to do both?
As it happens, there’s a literary genre that depends on writers being able to navigate that very contradiction. Science fiction has always prided itself on its predictive abilities, and with as little justification as most political pundits: when it’s right about the future, it’s usually by accident. But the need to seem prescient is still there, if only as a narrative strategy. The genre also needs to tell engaging stories, however, and you’ll often find cases in which one impulse, excuse me, trumps the other, as Jack Williamson notes in an observation that I never tire of quoting:
The average author is more stage magician, a creator of convincing illusions, than scientist or serious prophet. In practice, once you’re into the process of actually writing a work of fiction, the story itself gets to be more important than futurology. You become more involved in following the fictional logic you’ve invented for your characters, the atmosphere, the rush of action; meanwhile, developing real possibilities recedes. You may find yourself even opting for the least probable event rather than the most probable, simply because you want the unexpected.
Replace a few of the relevant nouns, and this is as good a description of political journalism as any I’ve ever seen. In both cases, writers feel obliged to cobble together an implausible but exciting narrative with what seems like predictive accuracy. It’s something that both readers and voters ought to keep in mind over the next year. Because if you think that this election already seems like science fiction, you’re even more right than you know.