Is being consistently surprised a good thing or a bad thing for democratic politics?by David Runciman / March 18, 2019 / Leave a comment
Electoral politics has been rife with surprises recently, most notably in the UK and the US. From the 2015 general election (which the Tories weren’t supposed to win but did), through Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and on to the general election of 2017 (which the Tories were supposed to win but didn’t), event after event has confounded expectations.
Why were we so surprised, and what does that tell us about the current state of democracy? Is being consistently surprised a good thing or a bad thing for democratic politics?
At one level, democracy is meant to be surprising. It is designed to allow the voters regular opportunities to thumb their noses at their masters, by returning them answers they did not expect. It picks up on buried signals of popular discontent. Democracies may not always come up with the correct responses to the challenges that they face. But by being open to sudden changes of direction, they are good at avoiding getting stuck with the wrong ones.
That said, modern representative democracy also requires some degree of consistency and predictability in order to function effectively. Our bureaucratic and administrative machinery has to plan for the future. That is very difficult if the future keeps changing overnight.
Of course, not everyone has been taken by surprise recently. My mother repeatedly told me before the May 2015 general election that the Tories would win an overall majority, regardless of what the polls were saying, and she was right. I should listen to her more often. But almost no one saw all these events coming, and those who did were ignored by just about everyone else.
Why everyone got it wrong
In each case, six distinct categories of participants were taken by surprise by the outcome—let us call them the six “Ps.” The public, pundits, political scientists, pollsters, prediction markets and politicians all got it wrong.
Perhaps we should not be so surprised by the failure to foresee the outcome in the first four cases. The public decides the result of elections, but that does not mean the public knows what it is going to do before it does it. Journalists and commentators are in the business of reporting and commenting on news, not of predicting it. Political scientists are also not really in the…