So check me on this; I’m no political wonk, but I think I’ve got this right. I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about the deep divide in this country, as proven by the fact that the election was so close. And I think that from this point forwards, the election is pretty much always going to be that close, going to come to a razor-thin margin, a nail-biting conclusion, because in this era of Big Data, politicians have a lot more information about what voters want than they used to. And so they’re going to generally race to the center, wherever that center is, and position themselves right there on the edge of that dividing line. (Even allowing for Trump’s volatility, I think the Republican machine mostly managed to get him there, and where they failed, I suspect Clinton ended up meeting him wherever he was.)
This is illustrated by the hot dog stand / gas station problem, known in economics as Hotelling’s Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotelling%27s_law). This is what ends up causing two hot dog stands on the beach to end up right next to each other in the middle of the beach, rather than spotted one-third and two-thirds of the way down the beach, as would be more rationally convenient for the customers. They might start out in those positions, but when stand A realizes they can grab a little business (a few votes) by inching towards the center, they do that. And then stand B follows suit, and so they end up back-to-back in the middle of the beach. That’s also why you end up with three or four gas stations on the same intersection — they’ve raced to maximize their ability to grab customers.
So it’s not really that our country is any more deeply divided than it has ever been before, though it may feel that way. It’s that we’ve gotten very good at finding the exact dividing line, and, not incidentally, concentrating all our efforts during a general election on widening that crack.
So what does all that means for this particular election? I end up with four conclusions:
a) For those who are feeling shocked that almost half the country is willing to vote for someone who is advocating homophobia, misogyny, and racism, not to mention willing to throw people in desperate poverty under the bus — well, even if we’d ended up barely on the other side of that line and won the election, almost half the country was still willing to vote for that. That’s the reality of America right now. That’s the battle for hearts and minds that we have to win if we want things to change.
b) Change is possible, but it doesn’t come at the end of an election cycle. It has come earlier, moving the Overton window so that the center, the dividing line, shifts right or left. The politicians will follow us (because whatever their own ideology, they know they need to get elected first to implement their visions), and even a Bernie Sanders can only do so much to drag the Overton window without a groundswell of popular support behind him or her. I don’t think Sanders would have had a chance without the Occupy movement before him, putting income inequality squarely in the public eye, popularizing the phrase “the one-percent.” Pick your causes and support them now.
c) If half the country is against you (and would have been even if we’d won), half the country is with you. Try to concentrate on that for the next fight.
d) Third-party candidates are always going to be seen as spoilers from now on, because if it comes to that razor-thin margin, then inevitably, anyone who votes for them in swing states will, actually, likely help swing the election. If you really want to break down the two-party system, if that’s your cause, then I think you need to build up that third-party substantially, so it actually has a shot. Until then, people are going to be angry if you vote third-party in a swing state, because you’re saying that you think a faint nod towards breaking down the system is more important than the actual immediate consequences of electing the other guy. In this particular case, lives will be lost as a result of this election, on the healthcare front certainly, and probably elsewhere. That’s what lives on that bright dividing line.