Trump reminds us that 'gut feeling' is still essential to politics
I felt the first tremors of the political earthquake of 2016 last spring at the Winking Lizard Tavern in Cleveland, Ohio. I had just delivered a speech to a group of alumni of Jesuit universities when a fellow Jesuit and I popped in for a pint and started chatting up a college-educated, 30-something Clevelander about presidential politics. It was all quite ordinary and predictable until the guy said something that stopped us in our tracks: He had wanted to vote for Bernie Sanders, he said, but he felt that Bernie couldn't win, so he was now planning to vote for Donald J. Trump. “Trump and Sanders have diametrically opposed politics,” I thought. “How can he pivot so easily from one to the other?”
Then I saw it. As the blood rushed to his face and his fist hit the bar, he told us that the political system is run by elites who don’t care about people like him, the people Bill Clinton famously described as the folks “who work hard and play by the rules.” This Clevelander felt betrayed. Now he wanted to blow up the whole d**n thing, and he didn’t care whether Sanders or Trump lit the fuse.
I felt other tremors during the trip. There was the white, millennial female at the Delta Airlines counter who said she was voting for Mr. Trump because she resented the suggestion that she should vote for Hillary “just because she’s a woman.” Then there was the African-American hotel doorman and the Latino Uber driver who also wanted to make America great again. After 72 hours in Cleveland, my gut told me that Mr. Trump could not only win the election but that he very well might.
Then I did something I rarely do: I ignored my gut. Like the rest of the media and most of the eastern establishment, I decided to trust the hard data, which all pointed to a Clinton win. The polls weren’t wrong; they proved to be an accurate predictor of the national vote. But I ignored the data that mattered most: what my gut told me about who had the momentum. In politics, as in sports, momentum is that invisible, unquantifiable, powerful force that makes or breaks a campaign. What the Force is to Star Wars, the Big Mo’ is to politics; and your gut is the surest guide to measuring and channeling it.
Instinct, emotion, intuition—all those elements that make politics, well, politics—still matter.
The 2016 election reminded me that the gut still matters; that instinct, emotion, intuition—all those elements that make politics, well, politics—still matter. The science matters too. But you wouldn’t ask a macro-economist for accounting advice. You’d ask an accountant. Similarly, the people who know politics best are not the political scientists but the politicians, not the pollsters but the people sitting next to you at the bar. The science, data, technical expertise—these all have their place. But there’s a reason it’s called “the art of politics” and a reason why politics is called “the art of the possible.” Human beings and human behavior are a complex amalgam of body and spirit, faith and reason. In understanding them, we shouldn’t make science do the work of art, or art the work of science, or the head the work of the gut.
Yet in our increasingly technocratic world we often discount what is unseen in favor of what is seen and measurable. And not just in politics. As is well known by now, the New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was the 199th overall pick in the sixth round of the 2000 N.F.L. draft. On paper, according to the stats, there wasn’t much there. Now he’s widely regarded as the greatest quarterback in N.F.L. history because Coach Bill Belichick had a gut feeling that Brady had that indescribable, indispensable quality that makes a champion.
That same Jesuit friend who joined me for a pint in Cleveland told me that he knew by the start of the third quarter that the Patriots would beat the odds and come back to defeat his beloved Atlanta Falcons to win the super bowl. How did he know? “I had a sinking feeling,” he said. “I could feel it in my gut, and I could see it on the screen. They had momentum.” Every broadcaster cited the hard data to tell us that the Pats couldn’t and wouldn’t come back. But Tom Brady had a gut feeling that they would and then they did. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat had a similar gut feeling at halftime and it produced the best tweet of the night. “Seeing a lot of confidence this game is over,” he wrote, “from people who apparently didn't live through 2016.”