Trump, Political Innovator

People are complicated. Not only can each voter be described by a very high dimensional space of characteristics, the space of possible sets of voters is even larger. Because if this, coalition politics is intrinsically complex, making innovation possible and relevant.

That is, at any one time the existing political actors in some area use an existing set of identified political coalitions, and matching issues that animate them. However, these existing groups are but a tiny part of the vast space of possible groups and coalitions. And even if one had exhaustively searched the entire space and found the very best options, over time those would become stale, making new better options possible.

As usual in innovation, each actor can prefer to free-ride on the efforts of others, and wait to make use of new coalitions that others have worked to discover. But some political actors will more explore new possible coalitions and issues. Most will probably try to for a resurgence of old combinations that worked better in the past than they have recently. But some will try out more truly new combinations.

We expect those who innovate politically to differ in predictable ways. They will tend to be outsiders looking for a way in, and their personal preferences will less well match existing standard positions. Because innovators must search the space of possibilities, their positions and groups will be vaguer and vary more over time, and they will less hew to existing rules and taboos on such things. They will more often work their crowds on the fly to explore their reactions, relative to sticking to prepared speeches. Innovators will tend to arise more when power is more up for grabs, with many contenders. Successful innovation tends to be a surprise, and is more likely the longer it has been since a major innovation, or “realignment,” with more underlying social change during that period. When an innovator finds a new coalition to represent, that coalition will be less attracted to this politician’s personal features and more to the fact that someone is offering to represent them.

The next US president, Donald Trump, seems to be a textbook political innovator. During a period when his party was quite up for grabs with many contenders, he worked his crowds, taking a wide range of vague positions that varied over time, and often stepped over taboo lines. In the process, he surprised everyone by discovering a new coalition that others had not tried to represent, a group that likes him more for this representation than his personal features.

Many have expressed great anxiety about Trump’s win, saying that he is is bad overall because he induces greater global and domestic uncertainly. In their mind, this includes a higher chances of wars, coups, riots, collapse of democracy, and so on. But overall these seem to be generic consequences of political innovation. Innovation in general is disruptive and costly in the short run, but can aide adaptation in the long run.

So you can dislike Trump for two very different reasons, First, you can dislike innovation on the other side of the political spectrum, as you see that coming at the expense of your side. Or, or you can dislike political innovation in general. But if innovation is the process of adapting to changing conditions, it must be mostly a question of when, not if. And less frequent innovations are probably bigger changes, which is probably more disruptive overall.

So what you should really be asking is: what were the obstacles to smaller past innovations in Trump’s new direction? And how can we reduce such obstacles?

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  • http://www.sim-ai.org/blog Sergey Kurdakov

    “what were the obstacles to smaller past innovations in Trump’s new direction?”

    I think that was inability of elites to follow new phenomenon – more information in hands of people. Largely politicians behave as if there is no internet at all.

    A solution I once already proposed in comments in this blog – a sort of ‘political wiki’ with ideas and approaches to solve problems

    Problems really have many solutions, but politicians do not try to learn them and try to apply.

    But influential politico-economic wiki with ‘solutions’ ( not necessary conventional ) might change that attitudes, will facilitate more micro steps in politics.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    “what were the obstacles to smaller past innovations in Trump’s new direction?”

    The post-WW2 taboo on nationalist, protectionist, authoritarian politics?

    Lots of people thought the political support for fascism was dead and gone. It was just suppressed.

    But is removing the obstacles to innovation in that direction wise? Are there alternative ways to deal with the underlying motivations?

    • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

      Really? Hillary Clinton was a libertarian?

  • msreekan

    Obstacles could be institutional. In this case, the two parties –Republicans and Democrats. The internal selection framework within these parties tend to weed out certain forms of innovations. Please note that Sanders almost toppled the Democratic cart.

    Discovery process itself is accelerated when there is more accessibility to information. Trump’s celebrity status, his “debate” techniques and the complementary use of Twitter enabled a direct channel to the masses.

    Also, Trump’s coalition was already getting primed by years of conservative talk radio. I think he heard them and identified an entrepreneurial opportunity. Masterfully took their topics and ran with it. Trump is indeed an exaggerated version of conservative talk radio jabber.

  • Jacob

    Playing on peoples deepest fears and economic uncertainty using pithy slogans, empty promises and lies, while demonizing opponents isn’t exactly innovation. He’s not using a new recipe, he’s using an old one which we thought and hoped was obsolete.

    Change is inevitable, progress is not.

    • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

      Both candidates used these tactics extensively. Earlier debates were much more civil.

      To call Trump’s complete snubbing of elite support as uninnovative is false.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        The 100 generals who supported him weren’t part of the elite?

  • aluchko

    The problem isn’t political innovation, the problem is Trump’s specific innovation. He has built a coalition based on nationalism, sexism, class resentment, a complete disregard for evidence, and a complete disregard of competency.

    History has shown these are very dangerous ideas on which to run a country. Much of the risk around political innovation comes from the fact that during upheaval coalitions like Trump’s sometimes end up in charge.

    • http://www.sanger.dk Pepper

      OK, I can maybe grant the rest, but you really think electing a billionaire represents “complete disregard of competency”? All the other coalitions I can think of are allergic to electing people who are that successful.

      • aluchko

        I think initially a lot of people thought he was highly competent and will figure out the job when he needs to, and many of his base still believe that. But there’s a big portion of his base who think he’s really unqualified and unprepared, lacks the temperament, and still voted for him.

        That’s why the revelation that his campaign took his Twitter away didn’t really get a ton of play. Most people have already been operating under the assumption that as President he’ll be kept under adult supervision and kept from doing anything too outrageous.

      • aluchko

        As for “All the other coalitions I can think of are allergic to electing people who are that successful” I think that misses what the other coalitions are objecting to.

        The objection to heredity money like Trump, Romney, and even Bush isn’t that they had business success, it’s that their success was being attributed to their talents rather than their obvious family connections. It’s like watching someone celebrating winning a race when they started halfway down the track, you’re bound to feel a little resentment.

        The Clintons as a couple, and especially Obama, all achieved a lot of success in their fields. But they did it without relying on family money and connections. To appeal to the left you either need to be successful without being born with a huge head start, or if you did have one, you need to acknowledge it.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        The objection to heredity money like Trump, Romney, and even Bush isn’t that they had business success, it’s that their success was being attributed to their talents rather than their obvious family connections.

        A self-made billionaire would be better? Maybe Peter Thiel?

      • aluchko

        Not Peter Thiel, the person’s political views still matter.

        Warren Buffet has always been popular with Democrats and would probably be a strong candidate if he had run. John Podesta included several billionaires as options for Hillary Clinton’s VP choice.

        Mark Zuckerberg is fairly popular and if he transitioned to politics in 10-20 years could probably do quite well.

        There is another facet to the issue where they push back against someone like Trump or Perot saying “I’m a successful businessman therefore I’m qualified and entitled to run for President”.

        Being a successful businessperson suggests a certain competency (though Trump seems to be evidence to the contrary), but that doesn’t mean you’d be a good politician. Businessmen claiming they can slide across at that level suggests a certain contempt for the role government actually plays, and that contempt doesn’t play well with the left.

      • http://invariant.org/ Peter Gerdes

        Don’t be pedantic. If you take that statement fully literally electing anyone not actually suffering from crippling mental illness wouldn’t be a “complete disregard of competency.”

        The obvious meaning is that people choose someone who is surprisingly less competent that the alternatives and past office holders.

  • Per Hansa

    Ranked voting may be one such way to lower obstacles to creating innovative new coalitions. Ranked voting also changes the rules of the game as to which coalitions are more likely to succeed by incentivizing moderation instead of extremism.

    For more on ranked voting see: http://www.fairvote.org/rcv

    note: Maine has enacted the first ranked voting scheme in the united states.

  • FieldMedic

    Twenty-four hours after Trump’s win I might have agreed with you. Knowing what we know now, that he’s appointing Washington insiders to cabinet positions, I don’t think that we will be seeing that much innovation coming out of his presidency.

  • Chris Hibbert

    I like your characterization of Trump’s innovation, Robin.

    I’m used to describing most politicians using the two-dimensions (economic liberty vs personal liberty) popularized by the Advocates, and it usually works well, even though there are a few issues (pro-life, and war/military, e.g.) that many people feel strongly about, but which seem uncorrelated with the two major axes. But I haven’t been able to figure out what Trump espoused during the campaign, or what his followers had in common in order to tell whether they fit in a well defined place on those axes, or whether we need a different chart in order to say who voted which way in this past election. (Notice that Trump picked up minority voters and lost white voters compared to recent R presidential candidates, so it’s not the racial divide that the media seems to think it is.)

    • Jason Reagan

      “But I haven’t been able to figure out what Trump espoused during the campaign”

      I think he simply espoused “Everything is BAD and I will make everything GOOD. How? I’ll worry about that later.”

      For a certain percentage of the population such black/white concepts, alas, play well; despite the fact that by most indicators our lives are improving.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        For a certain percentage of the population such black/white concepts, alas, play well; despite the fact that by most indicators our lives are improving.

        For your analysis to hold, it’s necessary that the “certain percentage of the population” that embraced Trump is itself characterized by improvement. Did the you miss the news about declining life expectancy among a section of the population – just that section that was crucial for Trump?

      • Jason Reagan

        The answer to your question is “no, I did not miss that.”

        Your premise is based on the flawed assumption that populations agree universally on what constitutes “improvement.” Perhaps you misunderstand what I mean when I say improvement. I mean measurable metrics that are generally agreed to be beneficial to any given society (education, health, income, etc.).

        To a Trumpite, America is in a state of non-Great. This perception of malaise will vary among his electorate but nevertheless seems to be a misguided longing for some non-existent “good old days” when America was “great.”

        The perception of improvement to them could in fact be non-improvement to the rest of the Western world.

        Using your “that section” example: to them improvement may mean more access to firearms despite the fact that we know populations that have more access to firearms experience more gun deaths.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    The main obstacle to political innovation in American politics compared to other countries is our two-party system and plurality-based elections that ensure it.

    The question, however, isn’t necessarily “what were the obstacles to smaller past innovations in Trump’s new direction?” Trump is a product of the limitations on innovation, but if innovation could proceed more freely, it might well take a different direction. Trump broke through a stifling establishment because he’s very rich and famous. Without his resources he couldn’t have done it. The kind of innovation on offer from someone like Trump isn’t a good indicator of the direction of innovation if we had a multi-party system.

  • http://invariant.org/ Peter Gerdes

    “They will more often work their crowds on the fly to explore their reactions, relative to sticking to prepared speeches.”

    Why, a priori it seems just as plausible innovators would need more rehearsed content as they are unable to rely on well worn conventions and must test each variant for the first time. Also this seems to assume that crowd appeal is a good indicator of electability. Innovation seems just as possible focused at the people who don’t come to rallies.

    I think you’ve described what VISIBLE innovators do. The people who do all their innovation BEFORE they gain momentum on the campaign trail (even Trump spent a lot of time experimenting with his political positions/strategy before this years race). Those who fail or whose innovations are worked out before the campaign or behind the scenes probably just don’t get seen as innovators. New coalitions can be mapped out in other ways.

    In other words the content here is really….Trump is like those people who share descriptive traits with Trump…one of which is that he innovated.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Innovation requires more variation. Yes you can vary behind the scenes, but even those who vary in public can also vary behind the scenes. So you can do more variation if you also vary in public.

      • http://invariant.org/ Peter Gerdes

        I guess that’s true. I didn’t realize you had a psychological model of people who are inclined to follow the tried and true path and others who are inclined to explore many variants.

        I guess that seems plausible. Willingness to try new variants in one aspect isn’t independent of willingness to try it in others.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    When an innovator finds a new coalition to represent, that coalition will be less attracted to this politician’s personal features and more to the fact that someone is offering to represent them.

    Why should they believe that someone who is fishing around contradictory positions would in fact represent them? One reason Clinton lost is that she was exposed by WikiLeaks for doing just that. Most voters expect a candidate to stand for something personally. They don’t trust someone who arrives at positions because they allow the assembly of a winning coalition.

  • Map ≠ Territory

    What was innovative was the industry of fake news for Trump supporters: https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/viral-fake-election-news-outperformed-real-news-on-facebook

    Do you wanna reduce obstacles to the spread of misinformation among people who disregard epistemic rationality: http://www.salon.com/2016/09/26/its-science-stupid-why-do-trump-supporters-believe-so-many-things-that-are-crazy-and-wrong/

    • Casey

      buzzfeed and salon? LOL

      Lemme guess, you. think the Russians are behind 9/11 too, don’t you?

      • Map ≠ Territory

        Wrong. Were you too lazy to read the articles, which link to other sources? Or to do internet searches to verify their claims? Or to fact check Trump, who’s notorious for lying and having so many ignoramuses believe his lies?http://www.politifact.com/personalities/donald-trump/

        WTH are you even doing on this website? Taking a break from spinning lazy, data-poor theories about the inferiority of females? Bet you’re too lazy to even read Otto Weininger’s similar theories.

  • Plutarch X

    Perhaps the bias most worth overcoming is the bias towards death.
    4-5 billion humans exterminated would be best for those remaining.