Common thread in 2016 election stories: Giving ourselves a pass

Common thread in 2016 election stories: Giving ourselves a pass
© Getty Images

Over the past two years, several distinct stories have emerged about the 2016 election that are rarely told together. All of these stories involve people with other agendas in the general election besides determining who would be president for the next four years. Most of these stories involve people unenthusiastic about the Democratic presidential nominee, although some involve her strongest supporters (and, apparently, the candidate herself).

What unites these stories is that none of the people involved actually intended to help elect President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE. Instead, they each believed that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTop Sanders adviser: Warren isn't competing for 'same pool of voters' Anti-Trump vets join Steyer group in pressing Democrats to impeach Trump Republicans plot comeback in New Jersey MORE was far enough ahead that they could give themselves a pass to act on their personal agendas.

It is quite possible that, individually, one or two of these people could have pursued their personal agendas without affecting the election’s outcome. When all did so at once, however, an election in which Secretary Clinton seemed far ahead suddenly tightened and then produced an outcome that none of them expected or desired.

ADVERTISEMENT

FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien Comey3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 Barr predicts progressive prosecutors will lead to 'more crime, more victims' James Comey shows our criminal justice system works as intended MORE determined that the Justice Department had insufficient grounds to indict Secretary Clinton for mishandling classified information on her private email server. Under longstanding Justice Department practice, the proper response was simply to inform her that the Department was taking no action and to close the case. He nonetheless found her actions reprehensible, if not criminal. He also was under pressure from agents apparently offended by her responses to police shootings and from congressional Republicans challenging the agency’s independence.

With Secretary Clinton far ahead in the polls, Comey thought he could afford to address these concerns by breaking with precedent to write a diatribe against Clinton at the time he decided not to prosecute. He then further prioritized the FBI’s image when he re-ignited the Clinton emails story days before the election, giving the electorate the impression that she, but not her opponent, was under serious investigation when the opposite was true.

Supporters of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTop Sanders adviser: Warren isn't competing for 'same pool of voters' Eight Democratic presidential hopefuls to appear in CNN climate town hall Top aide Jeff Weaver lays out Sanders's path to victory MORE were incensed by the Democratic National Committee’s favoritism of Secretary Clinton during the primaries and the Clinton campaign’s own bare-knuckles tactics during the nomination process.

With Secretary Clinton far ahead in the polls, they thought it was fine to stay home or vote for Jill Stein.

Wikileaks’ Julian Assange blamed Secretary Clinton for U.S. actions against members of his network. (I have no idea if his grievances are well-founded.) I am told that he felt it acceptable to cooperate with the Russians to embarrass her and give her a public bloody nose because she was way ahead and seemed certain to win anyway.

The mainstream media was constantly under attack from Republicans for supposed liberal bias. To protect themselves, they ran countless repetitive stories about Secretary Clinton’s email server while moving on quickly from myriad stories about the dishonesty and controversial positions of her opponent. At the same time, the media continued to write confidently that Clinton’s victory was assured.

Some mainstream Republicans thought it was acceptable to avoid angering the base by supporting a Republican nominee they regarded as unqualified because the polls assured them that he would lose and they could reclaim the party afterwards.

Indeed, even the Clinton campaign indulged itself in this game. Seeking the prestige of a big win rather than the assurance of some win, she wasted her time in states like Arizona, which had no chance of deciding the election. They, too, heard the siren song of the polls.

Some of this is a foolish, arrogant over-reliance on polling data. I cringe when I hear friends talk about how much time they spend on polling aggregator websites. At best, polls tell us how an election would turn out if it were held today – which we all know it will not be.

In fact, polls are heavily dependent on models of who is likely to vote, which are notoriously difficult to get right. And late-breaking developments – be they misleading reports that a candidate is under investigation or false rumors on social media – can shift preferences dramatically. 

How remarkable that many of the very people who quite rightly denounce the junk science offered to dispute climate change cheerfully misread public opinion data as offering a certainty that it cannot.

But another piece of this is an ethic that allows people to give themselves a license to refrain from doing what they believe is right because they expect others will do so instead. Game theorists call this game Chicken, and it often does not end well.

I hope we have learned to take more responsibility for our actions and to not give ourselves a pass from doing what we believe to be right, but I am not sure that we have.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.