A Piagetian Perspective on Hillary's Loss

Trump's victory as a conservation experiment

Posted Nov 14, 2016

The 2016 American presidential election was a complicated event that likely will be analyzed and talked about for years. But I believe a simple explanation is sometimes the best, and here I attempt to provide one. In doing this, I draw on my background as a developmental psychologist familiar with the ideas of the Swiss developmental theorist Jean Piaget. Specifically, I make the argument that the outcome (Donald Trump’s victory, Hillary Clinton’s loss) can be explained as a form of Piagetian “conservation” experiment that was flunked by just enough voters as to cause America (to paraphrase the words of a political music video) to “shoot itself in the face.”

Within psychology, conservation refers to the ability to hold onto an unchanging aspect of reality in the face of a distorting illusion which is sufficiently salient as to cause some people to think falsely that reality has been fundamentally changed. An example, drawn from Piaget’s work on the conservation of matter involves taking two equal-sized lumps of clay rolled into identical balls. After establishing that a subject recognizes the balls are identical—in response to the question “does this one have more clay, does that one have more clay or are they the same?’’—one of the balls is rolled into a cigar shape and the same question is asked. Younger, “pre-operational” children will answer that they are different, focusing either on the longer dimension of the cigar or the higher dimension of the ball. Older “concrete operational” children will answer that they are the same, indicating that while the appearance of the objects has changed, there has been no change in the amount of clay making up each object.

In the 2016 election, the question being asked was not “which ball has more clay” but rather “which candidate would make the better president”? Just as height and length were the main perceptual factors affecting judgments about clay, the 2016 political contest boiled down to the consideration by voters of two somewhat independent perceptual factors, which I label “suitability” and “character.” Even a majority of voters who ultimately chose Trump acknowledged that Clinton was the more suitable (in terms of both experience and temperament) of the two candidates. Thus, there was a big gap, in Hillary’s favor, in the suitability realm. The election, therefore, came down to voters’ judgment of the candidates’ respective characters. If they were seen as equal in character (in the context of this particular election, meaning having equally bad character), or if Trump’s character was seen as worse, or even if Trump’s was seen as just a little better), then Clinton likely would have won. The trick for the Trump campaign was, thus, to make Hilary’s character appear to be much worse than Trump’s. This was a challenge, as there are many who saw Hillary as a fine person, while Trump has said, done or tweeted some highly despicable things over the course of the campaign and his long tenure as a public figure.

Hillary had two main character vulnerabilities, which were effectively exploited in Trump’s speeches and campaign ads: (a) the millions paid to her, her husband and their foundation, by corporations and foreign entities seeking to curry favor; and (b) the improper routing to her home server of official emails, during the time when she was Secretary of State. The first (greed) issue likely did not make a critical difference politically—even though it bothered many Democrats—in that Trump was himself certainly guilty of egregiously feathering his own nest financially. The main key to painting Clinton as a serious criminal (a constant theme of Trump’s rallies was the chant “lock her up”), therefore, was the email issue. According to Clinton’s primary challenger Bernie Sanders, and many others, the mixing of personal and official emails on a home server, while reflecting extremely poor judgment, was not really that big a deal, and certainly did not merit the constant attention paid to it by the media and by Hillary’s Republican challengers.

For a while the issue seemed to have receded into the background (except at Trump rallies), after FBI Director James Comey announced in early July 2016 that he would not be recommending bringing criminal charges. Then, on October 28, about 10 days before the election, Comey resurrected the issue with the announcement that some Hillary emails were found on a computer belonging to former Congressman Anthony Weiner. He is the disgraced estranged husband of Hillary’s close aide Huma Abedin, and the FBI search of his computer was triggered by an allegation that Weiner’s latest sexting transgression was directed at a 15-year-old female. A little over a week later, Comey announced that no new incriminating evidence was found and the Clinton investigation was now closed. But at that point, just a couple of days before the election, the damage had been irretrievably done, as Trump was able to warn voters for over a week that if they voted for Hillary, they would be electing a president with a plausible shadow of impeachment hanging over her head.

As Hillary herself said when commenting on her loss, Comey’s action slowed and reversed her momentum, at a time when national public opinion polls seemed to be trending strongly in her favor. (It also helped Trump that in the election’s last days, his Twitter account went strangely silent, thus preventing him from making any new self-destructive utterances that could point the bad character needle again in his direction).  It should be noted that the unusual role of a FBI Director as the decider of the 2016 presidential election was due in part to the foolishness of Hillary’s husband Bill, when he invited himself onto the plane of Attorney General Loretta Lynch when their planes were in proximity at the Phoenix airport in June, 2016. This created the impression (whether or not it was Bill’s intent) of his trying to influence the AG at a time when she was in the process of deciding whether to bring charges against his wife. The ensuing uproar caused Lynch to recuse herself from the decision, thus dumping the decision into Comey’s lap. (This is unusual, in that it is the job of a prosecutor and not a cop to decide whether to seek an indictment). Although warned by highly-placed officials at both the Justice Department and the FBI that it would be improper, and possibly even illegal, for him to make accusatory-sounding utterances so soon before a presidential election (and before he even had anything substantive to report), Comey (a lifelong Republican with a reputation for moral rigidity) likely felt he had an ethical obligation to do what he did. Thus, the election’s outcome could be attributed not to a comedy of errors (by Hillary for creating the server problem, by Bill for crudely approaching Lynch, and by Comey for ignoring the advice to stay silent) but by a cascading tragedy of foolish (risk-ignoring) actions by three smart people who should have known better.

Returning to the analogy of a Piagetian conservation experiment, the task for a voter in the 2016 Presidential election was to hold onto the reality that Trump was less desirable on both suitability and character grounds, in the face of the very salient distorting appearance of gross impropriety in the matter of the emails. While Piaget's experiments with children seemed to mainly involve cognitive capacity, in the case of the election, in which the judgments were made by presumably competent adults, the distorting cognitive illusion was aided by the strong affect—bordering on hatred—which many voters already held towards the Clintons. In creating a failure of conservation, Trump was helped by his tenacity in keeping a highly ramped-up version of this issue front and center, by Hillary’s inability to adequately answer questions about her actions, by Bill Clinton’s creation of an appearance of impropriety, by Comey's

istock getty images
Source: istock getty images

very unwise intrusion into the election, and by the media’s constant focusing on the matter. Thus, I believe a case can be made that the failure of a conservation experiment by many voters was all that it took to turn what had been widely expected to be a Clinton victory into a fairly substantial loss (in the electoral college, if not in the popular vote). Of course, it did not help Clinton’s chances that Trump was able to capitalize on a widespread yearning for change (by branding himself as a change agent), while Hillary’s main message in the critical last weeks seemed to boil down to “I’m not Trump.”

             Copyright Stephen Greenspan