Whether you supported Obama, Romney, or whether the word “support” overstated your interest in the affair, the 2012 presidential election is a wonderful case study in how our orientation guides our observation.
Peggy Noonan has another of her perceptive columns in the November 8 Wall St. J. (subscription required). Early on, she gives a link to her column of three days earlier where she predicted “I think it’s Romney” and then laid out all the reasons why. Looking back, every one of them was an anecdote — a tired-looking Obama, the perceived enthusiasm of the Romney crowds, the number of yard signs in Florida. As she summarized it: “All the vibrations are right.”
Except, of course, they weren’t. She’s a perceptive observer of things political, so how did she blow it? One possibility is that she knew full well what the true situation was, but, writing for the intensely Republican WSJ, she took one for the team. I have no way to judge this, so for the purpose of argument, let’s assume she wrote what she believed.
Interestingly, in yesterday’s column, she blames everyone but herself: “That is the authentic sound of the Republican political operative class at work: in charge, supremely confident, essentially clueless.” In other words, not Peggy. She does admit that she may have underestimated the degree to which voters are lazy or just stupid.
What is the orientation driving all this? Ms. Noonan lays it out at the end: “Its [the Republican Party's] principles are right and have long endured because they’re right. But do all the party’s problems come down to inadequate marketing, faulty messaging, poor candidates? Might some of it be policies, stands, attitudes?”
Given this orientation, and whether it’s valid or not is immaterial to this discussion, it is easy to see why she mis-interpreted what she was seeing right before the election. The plural of “anecdote,” as a nerdy old saying goes, is not “data.”
Now here’s the important part. Assuming that the November 5 column predicting a Romney win wasn’t just agit-prop for her bosses, you have to conclude that if it can happen to as seasoned an observer as Peggy Noonan, it can happen to you. If you look back at her orientation, you can see that it isn’t something she would question, and this is the trap.
As Boyd put it, the key to dealing with a changing world is “agility,” and at its heart, agility is the ability to change our orientation to keep it aligned with that world. While adherence to a set of moral principles is essential, if those principles are so narrow that they lock your orientation, you are no longer a perceptive observer but an ideologue, a true believer, and you will see what you want to see.
The big question, then, is how do you tell?
[Update: Pat Lang put it well: “The Republicans defeated themselves. They did that by allowing themselves to become a closed system in which they would not communicate with anyone outside the system and would not accept information that was not generated within that system.” Or as Boyd put it, “incestuous amplification.”]