Don’t be too keen to write the Republican party’s obituary; predictions have a habit of being wrong

Here lies the Republican party, born 1854, died 2012

This doesn’t just renew the Obama presidency, it announces the arrival of the Obama nation, says Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. He’s far from the only one to do so; the newspapers today are loudly proclaiming that Barack Obama‘s win has changed the face of US politics.

Now that he’s won, it’s not merely that he’s won, and it’s not even merely that we knew in advance he was very likely to win. Now, it seems, it was inevitable; and what’s more, it was so inevitable that now, the Republicans in their current form can never win again.

Those of us who were saying beforehand that Mr Obama was the likely if uncertain winner, on the basis of well-founded but of course fallible polling data, would be forgiven for being a touch surprised. Was it so obvious? And does it really tell us that, now, the world will never be as it was in the pre-Obama-second-term days, that the Republicans have to completely change their shtick in order to get back in? That seems a big claim.

But, as those of you who’ve read me for a while and are aware of my obsession with Dan Gardner and Philip Tetlock will know, this is how we always work. The future always seems unknowable and chaotic, until it’s happened, whereupon we think it was predictable and orderly.

In Gardner’s book Future Babble, there’s a chapter entitled “EXPERTS AGREE: EXPECT MUCH MORE OF THE SAME”. He points out that in the early 1990s, American pundits were pretty much convinced there’d be a war with Japan in the not too distant future. Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun claimed that the war had already begun, but that its early battles were being fought between corporations. Another 34 books from around that time, with titles like The Coming War With Japan or The Silent War, said that America’s world dominance was under threat from the rising of the Rising Sun, as Japan boomed and America stagnated. The economic lines were clear: Japan would overtake the US as the biggest economic power in the world, within a few decades.

Then, in 1993, Japan’s economy collapsed and it entered its famous “lost decade”. Suddenly it was no longer the fiery eastern sun, merely another country, while America entered another upturn, fuelled by the technology industry. And Japan was no longer on track to overtake anybody.

This is because our predictions of the future tend to go like this: look at how things have gone recently, and extend those lines into the future. Of course, the future, being unhelpful, rarely follows suit. So something unpredictable happens – a Japanese lost decade, for instance – and suddenly the lines are pointing in different directions. So our predictions are redrawn, the old predictions forgotten, and suddenly we’re expecting America to be overtaken by China instead.

As Freedland says in his (sensible) piece, though, “The US pundit class is fond of hailing every presidential election as the birth of a new, permanent Democratic or Republican majority. Such verdicts should be handled with care.” But this one, he and others say, is different, because the main basis for predictions of Republican doom is demographics. The immigrant and ethnic minority population is growing in the US; immigrants and ethnic minorities tend to vote Democrat; ergo, Republicans will lose, forever.

Demographics are, it must be said, among the more reliable predictive methods: the behaviour of a population of millions has impressive inertia and is hard to shift. But even so, as Gardner told me when I spoke to him for a piece a year or so ago:  “If you look at the history of demographic predictions, they are not only often wrong, they are routinely wrong.”

For example, we’re currently petrified of runaway population growth. But “We swing from one to the other: we swing from fear of overpopulation to underpopulation and back again. If you go back to the 1930s, you’ll find many smart people – George Orwell among them – saying that it’s terrifying that Britain will be completely depopulated by the 1980s.” Patterns can slowly shift, but also be overturned by a sudden event: someone writing in a British paper in 1910 would have no way of predicting that 10 years later, young women would outnumber young men hugely, because so many men would have died in the trenches of the Western Front.

Some predictions will be right, of course; perhaps China will overtake the US (it makes sense, since it’s so much bigger); perhaps the Republican share of the vote will continue to fall steadily for the next several elections as the US demographics change. More likely, something else will happen entirely, and we’ll all think it was really obvious and inevitable, and write lots of pieces about how we totally saw it coming and the next thing will be more of the same. Because that’s what we do. In the meantime, let’s not write the obituary for the Republican party just yet.


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