The Viability Trap

Our next President will almost surely be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump—both corrupt, temperamentally unfit, and lacking in true accomplishments. Since they were chosen through a democratic process, it seems reasonable to hold the electorate accountable for this state of affairs. That is the prevalent sentiment among conservatives, and as H.L. Mencken observed, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” But while the common people are certainly blameworthy, the people are not getting what they want. Polls tell us that the voters are well aware of the candidates’ defects. Clinton and Trump are widely despised.

Therefore, it’s worth asking ourselves what is driving our citizenry to a collectively irrational choice they wouldn’t have made individually. We all know that too many voters are attracted to candidates for non-rational reasons, such as celebrity and charisma. Even so, we would expect a majority to be happy with the ultimate outcome. That this is not the case in 2016 shows there is an additional factor driving the country to what is an absurd result in a two-party system—a President whom the majority hold in contempt.

This additional factor is “viability.” Viability is a perfectly rational consideration in elections. Why support the best candidate who has no chance of winning when you can help a good candidate defeat a bad one?

But while viability is rational in the abstract, many of our notions of what makes a candidate viable are prejudiced toward the less rational segment of the populace. Even sober-minded voters assess a candidate’s viability based on name recognition, celebrity, and wealth. Such voters may immediately dismiss a candidate they otherwise consider best qualified simply because they doubt his attractiveness to the masses. This arbitrarily restricts the pool of viable candidates. With the candidate pool thus restricted, rational voters often find themselves choosing the least bad viable option.

This tendency to assess viability by non-rational factors is self-reinforcing. For example, most voters might prefer a true statesman in their heart of hearts. But this statesman performs poorly in the polls because he doesn’t possess those qualities deemed necessary for viability. His poor performance makes him seem even less viable, which causes a further drop in the polls, and so on. I call this the viability trap. Paradoxically, the candidate most voters truly prefer might be thought too unpopular to win.

This paradoxical result can be explained as a form of “pluralistic ignorance,” where a minority view prevails because most people mistakenly believe it to be predominant. Political correctness derives much of its potency from pluralistic ignorance—the silent majority cowed by the loud and arrogant voices of an “elite” minority. An older, fictional example comes from the classic tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The townspeople pretended that the naked emperor was clothed because they were too embarrassed to dissent from what they incorrectly presumed to be the dominant view. This false consensus was only punctured when a small child stated the obvious.

Although pluralistic ignorance does not entirely explain our current predicament, I think it explains much of it. Hillary was thought to be invincible because of her gender, celebrity, wealth, and political connections, but she could barely defeat an obscure socialist. Worthier opponents would have cleaned her clock, but they wrongly assumed she couldn’t be beaten. And while we can give most of the credit for Trump’s primary victory to his enthusiastic supporters, the winning difference may have come from those incorrectly predicting that his appeal to the working classes would halt Hillary’s path to power. Carly Fiorina is perhaps the best example. News reports showed that those who heard her liked her, but she was often a second or third choice because people doubted her ability to win. Carly was stuck in a viability trap.

We are now faced with two very unpopular major party candidates. In a sane world, this would doom both their chances, but everyone assumes one or the other will win. This is because almost everyone assumes only major party candidates are viable.

How can we break out of this viability trap? There are no easy answers—changing the culture is hard. But we can start by changing ourselves. We should vote, act, and speak based on our true preferences. When our friends raise viability arguments based on celebrity, wealth, and the like, we should counter by pointing to Hillary and Donald as the outcome of that sort of thinking. Perhaps this won’t work, but you never know. A small child exposed a naked emperor, and a small spark can ignite a great forest.