I will survive.
I had no idea that it was that easy to get the attention of, much less—apparently—annoy the hell out of a national talking head for a semi-big-time news network like MSNBC, but apparently in the brand-new world of social media such things are easily possible. Such, at least, is what I learned when I happened to object to that network’s Joan Walsh’s cheerleading for Hillary Clinton on Twitter the weekend before the New Hampshire primary. I won’t get into the particulars—the lowlight was probably when she got taken to task by a city councilman from New Rochelle, New York for attempting to use race as a bludgeon (the councilman is black, seems like a decent guy)—but suffice it to say that many supporters of Hillary Clinton seem to think that she deserves the Democratic nomination on the basis that she has climbed through all sorts of slime to get to the position she is in now. From one perspective, of course, that might be a good reason to think she should not be elected—crawling through slime tends to get dirty—but as Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Edward Snowden story, pointed out the other day, logic does not appear to be a strong suit in Hillaryland. What Greenwald’s story suggests is that the difference between Clinton supporters and Sanders’ supporters is that the latter understand the logical error known as “survivorship bias,” and the former don’t. The trouble for Hillary Clinton’s campaign is that without such an understanding, there seems little reason to vote Democratic at all.
That then would seem to make “survivorship bias” a significant concept—but what it is it? Essentially, survivorship bias is the magical belief that something successful possesses a special quality that caused that success, instead of considering that it may simply be the result of coincidence. Nicolas Taleb advances an example of how survivorship bias can skew our assessments of the world in his book, Fooled By Randomness: imagine, he writes there, 10,000 money managers whose annual results are decided by a coin flip. If the flips are conducted for five years it could be expected, simply out “of pure luck,” that 313 of those managers would have “winning” records—that is, for every year for five years running, those 300-odd managers would have won their coin flip. One can only imagine how they might feel about themselves; one suspects that at least a few of them would write books describing their “successful methods” for “beating Wall Street.” (And perhaps one or two of those books would themselves be successful, increasing the self-esteem of those people even more.) In other words, imagine Donald Trump.
It’s the notion of survivorship bias that is the very basis for science—the thought that maybe the eye of newt wasn’t what made little Timmy well, but instead that he happened to get well on his own. And it’s also something that, according to Glenn Greenwald, Hillary Clinton’s supporters in the U.S. media simply don’t understand—which is how we have gotten the narrative known by the name “Bernie Bros.” Greenwald explained the point recently in a piece for The Intercept, the magazine he started after being one of the first journalists to meet Edward Snowden, the former federal employee who blew the whistle on the National Security Agency’s spying on Americans.
What Greenwald calls the “‘Bernie Bros’ narrative” has, he says, two components: the first the conviction that Hillary Clinton has not received universal acclaim because of sexism, and the second that “Sanders supporters are uniquely abusive and misogynistic in their online behavior.” The goal of this game, Greenwald goes on to say, is to “delegitimize all critics of Hillary Clinton by accusing them of … sexism, thus distracting attention away from Clinton’s policy views, funding, and political history.” Greenwald’s insight is that, while many in the mainstream media have taken the idea seriously (or at least claimed to), in fact being subjected to “a torrent of intense anger and vile abuse” is simply a function of being on the Internet. “There are,” as Greenwald points out, “literally no polarizing views one can advocate online … that will not subject” a person to such screeds. In other words, pro-Clinton journalists are attracting hateful messages from supposed Sanders supporters because they are on the Internet, not because Sanders’ supporters are somehow less polite than partisans of other candidates: “If you spend your time praising Clinton and/or criticizing Sanders,” Greenwald observes, “of course you personally will experience more anger and vitriol from Sanders supporters than Clinton supporters.” As Greenwald points out, Sanders’ women supporters—and boy, there seem to be a lot of them—also have unpleasant experiences online. But because—surprise surprise—Hillary is the “establishment” candidate, very few of them have the pulpit of the national media from which to parade their hurt feelings.
What the whole episode I think demonstrates—though Greenwald does not draw this out—is precisely what this primary season is about: it conclusively demonstrates that Clinton’s version of the Democratic Party has very little interest in considering the role of chance in how our lives turn out. That’s a pretty stunning renunciation for a party that once denounced a Republican candidate (as Jim Hightower said about George H. W. Bush during the 1988 Democratic Convention) for being “born on third base and think[ing] he hit a triple.” Survivorship bias, in other words, has been the intellectual link between the Democratic Party’s reliance on science and its interest in society’s less fortunates: it’s not only what makes the Democratic Party the party whose members are far more concerned about the welfare of their fellow citizens, but also far more likely to believe the word of climate change scientists. To either misunderstand—or worse, deliberately misunderstand—the concept of survivorship bias is a far stronger argument against a Clinton presidency than virtually any listing of the campaign contributions she has accepted from various dubious sources. Which is something, because Clinton’s financial dealings with such charming fellows as the gentlemen at Goldman Sachs and the sheiks of Saudi Arabia are pretty alarming—and alarmingly plentiful.
Yet, maybe it’s a sign of hope that the American electorate is rejecting Hillary Clinton because for all Hillary Clinton claims to be a “survivor,” she doesn’t really understand what it means.