Unknown Unknowns

Unknown Unknowns

A lifetime of studying politics doesn’t guarantee that you’ll understand what’s happening now, and having been right once before isn’t much help either.

I was waiting outside the important professor’s office when I heard him shout, “Barack Obama will never be president.” It was autumn 2007. He was a famous scholar, and I was a first-year grad student. And now, I was furious.

I considered myself a Marxist—I was going to meet with the important professor to talk about a dissertation I was writing on the Old Moor himself—but I was also an Obama groupie. It didn’t feel as strange at the time as it might seem now. Marx spoke to the ideal of a world of universal emancipation, and Obama represented the best we could achieve in the short term. The acolyte in me didn’t want to believe that I was backing a doomed candidate, but my inner political hack didn’t buy the argument either. Obama had cornered the market on change in a year when the polls said Americans were desperate for something new. It was at least possible that he could win. The important professor was supposed to know all this. Why couldn’t he see the obvious? How could he be so out of touch?

I told this story on more than a few occasions after the 2008 election, each time enjoying a little smug satisfaction at my superior insight into American politics. It was the same insight that left me confident in the fall of 2015 that Donald Trump would never be president, and that Bernie Sanders couldn’t be more than a speed bump on Hillary Clinton’s road to the Democratic nomination. The first point was comforting, the second was depressing, but both were facts.

Except they weren’t facts at all. They were stories I had been told, and that I had been credulous enough to believe. After the election, I had to ask myself a few hard questions. Why hadn’t I seen the obvious? How had I been so out of touch?

The answer, of course, is that nobody really knows what’s going to happen in an election. A lifetime of studying politics doesn’t guarantee that you’ll understand what’s happening now, and having been right once before isn’t much help either. So I’ve stopped making predictions about electability. A lot could go wrong in the next two years for the left: Bernie could flame out in the primaries, he could win the nomination and lose to Trump in the general, he could become president just in time for Great Recession 2.0, and so on ad infinitum. But if there’s one lesson I’ve learned since my time as a bright and shiny first-year grad student, it’s that people do stupid things when they let themselves be ruled by fear. And if there’s one thing I’m sure of about this election, it’s that there will be plenty of stupid in it already.


Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels