james debate
james debate

Saturday, 5 November 2016

As the 2016 Presidential election comes to a close, it's time to start looking back at what we have learned over the past several months, about our politics, our government, and indeed ourselves as a nation. The Ephemeric will publish a more in depth final forecast before election night, but for now I'd like to get the ball rolling on this.

hillary clinton hate conspiracy ignorance trump election 2016 apathy

Does this false equivalency make me sound cool?
If there is one thing I am sick of hearing, it's people who say things like "what a terrible election, both candidates are horrible!" or asking "they really couldn't find anyone better than Clinton and Trump?", and accordingly deciding that they won't vote this year, or will vote third party.

One of the strangest themes of this election has been how fashionable it has become to speak of Hillary Clinton with the same tones of revulsion as one discusses Donald Trump. This is a woman who had previously been one of the most popular politicians in America with sky high approval ratings. Wife of a very popular former President, a distinguished career in the Senate and as Secretary of State. On paper one of the most qualified candidates of all time, and someone who has dedicated a career to social progress. What has changed?

Clinton is more truthful than most politicians, but voters refuse to believe it
The numbers are pretty clear: Hillary Clinton has a trust problem, with polls consistently showing that voters trust her even less than Donald Trump. Yet it's hard to see how this image has been cultivated. After all, the fact-checkers show Clinton to consistently be one of the most honest politicians in America, with 73% of statements rated true, while her opponent has by far the worst record, with an astonishing 70% rated at least mostly false. Of course, simply being better than Trump doesn't make her good, but for comparison, Clinton's record is more honest than both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, and better than every single Republican who ran for office this year.

So even setting aside her opponent's horrendous record for a second, Hillary Clinton is objectively more honest than just about any politician in America, and yet people don't believe it for some reason. This reputation hardly seems to be supported by the facts, and yet it's proven to be one of those deeply held beliefs that are hard to shake, to the point where I've seen people make some absurd excuses in order to dismiss information that appears to contradict that belief. When news broke this week of actors within the FBI leaking information on ongoing investigations to the Trump campaign, I actually heard someone defend them with "wow, Hillary must have done something really terrible to justify that".

To understand what in the world is happening, I decided to look deeper into why people dislike Hillary Clinton. I've spoken now with people of various backgrounds whose views range from "she's a murderer" or "sex pervert" (somehow) to "she's hiding something" or "she's a liar".

Let's get one thing straight from the off. Hillary Clinton is not a murderer. This website doesn't peddle in baseless conspiracy theories. She hasn't committed anything that could come close to being actions of sexual abuse or perversion. When pressed further on the vague "she's a liar" type statements, invariably the response comes back "something something emails".

Something something emails 
Very few people actually seem to know what Hillary has apparently done wrong with regards to emails. They just know she's done something bad... with emails.

So, a little background: Hillary Clinton was accused of using a private email server to store classified information, something which is in itself not a crime if not done with intent to leak information, but would clearly show poor judgement if true. The FBI decided to look into this, and requested access to her emails. The FBI then ruled that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing, but her accusers have alleged that Clinton deleted a large number of the requested emails, with the implication being that she was trying to 'burn the evidence' as it were. This story has received a huge amount of media scrutiny this election, and indeed it seems to be the genesis of much of Clinton's trust problems.

There's just one problem, it's all nonsense. A complete non-scandal that has been fudged by her political opponents and blown way out of proportion.

Hillary Clinton did have a private email server, but did not store any information on that server which was deemed classified at the time of storage, although some of it was later classified after the fact. Clinton did not delete a whole bunch of emails requested by the police, and no official source has ever alleged as much, rather these were emails that were deleted over the course of her tenure, well before any investigation was ever started. I've deleted several emails today, not to hide anything, but just because that's what any sane person does with an email they don't need.

This most recent revelation that broke the news this week is even less substantive, a notification of new emails that weren't even sent by Clinton, were not stored on her private server, and may not even contain any relevant information.

Ultimately the FBI ruled that there was no evidence of wrongdoing whatsoever, and that "no reasonable prosecutor could possibly move forward with a case". No fact-checker or watchdog has ever endorsed these conspiracy theories, and even when these missing emails did leak (from the FBI's servers, ironically), there was ultimately nothing illegal in them. There remains absolutely zero evidence of any wrongdoing, and barely even the suggestion of any particular carelessness. The apparent contradiction of Clinton's accusers suggesting that she risked leaking information from her insecure server, while simultaneously complaining that these emails are hidden and unobtainable as a result of her tight security measures, seems to be lost on these people.

The political party who cried wolf
You might ask, why did the FBI even investigate something which isn't a crime, especially with such scant evidence? The investigation started, unsurprisingly, in the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Hillary Clinton's political opponents, the Republicans. They, who have every incentive to accuse Hillary of wrongdoing, accused her of wrongdoing, and voted to open a full Congressional investigation.

Anyone who has been following politics these past eight years won't have been at all surprised by this. After all, this is the same Republican party that has conjured up frivolous scandal after frivolous scandal, seemingly every other week, to throw at their opponents, most prominently Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Acorn, Solyndra, birth certificates, death panels, Benghazi... The Republicans have spent years, and millions in taxpayer money, pursuing a seemingly endless series of baseless "scandals" against their opponents, and unsurprisingly every single one has proven untrue, and gone nowhere. It's important to remember these things, because the Republicans are counting on you to forget. This is the boy crying wolf for the thousandth time, and yet somehow Americans keep paying attention.

Lesson #1: Voters are apathetic and dependent on the media
This cuts to the real issue in this election. Most people simply aren't switched onto politics. Voter apathy is high, and being interested in politics is not "cool". People only tune in for the Presidential election years. Millions of voters are paying attention for the first time in years to find headlines about Hillary's emails all over the news, but without having the essential context that this is simply the latest in a long series of empty "scandals". For them, this is the first time hearing the boy cry wolf, so they don't appreciate that it's just noise.

Lesson #2: The media is obsessed with false equivalency
The media deserves a fair amount of criticism here. Clinton's emails have received the largest amount of media coverage this election cycle. More coverage than Trump violating federal law to break the Cuba embargo, more coverage than the dozen or so accusations of sexual assault against Trump, which Trump has been recorded on audio admitting that he did, more coverage than Russia's concerted effort to install Trump as a puppet leader, more coverage than Trump embezzling funds out of his charitable foundation, more coverage than Trump calling for his opponent to be jailed, or calling for his opponent to be assassinated. Each one of these are many orders of magnitude more serious than anything Clinton's been accused of.

Perhaps most damning of all, amid all this hyperbole over a Clinton case which doesn't even have enough evidence to go to court, the media has somehow completely ignored the fact that Trump has already been charged with fraud and racketeering, and will be in court defending himself a mere three weeks after the election. You would think the fact that a Presidential candidate is currently awaiting trial for fraud would be newsworthy... but then again something something HILLARY HAS EMAILS??!

It's a problem of false equivalency. If a news network reports a disproportionate number of negative stories about one candidate, they'll be accused of bias, and lose viewers, even if it's completely justified. News networks are therefore incentivised to create this false equivalency where they have a roughly equal amount of positive and negative coverage for each candidate, regardless of the reality.

So you really can't blame apathetic voters for tuning in, seeing both candidates portrayed in an equally negative light, and coming away with a somewhat warped view of the election, ie that both candidates are terrible. In particular, when they only have one negative Hillary scandal to run, but dozens for Trump, it stands to reason that Hillary's one story will get a lot more coverage than any single Trump scandal, so no wonder it's been a bigger issue for more people than Trump's much worse charges.

Of course comparison to Donald Trump does not vindicate Hillary Clinton, the weakness of the case against Clinton, as we have already outlined, does that already.  But still, it needs to be pointed out repeatedly that Trump's scandals and alleged illegality are unprecedented in American politics, and yet the largest share of media coverage has been for a story which only exists due to rank partisanship and abuse of power by the Republicans, where Clinton has already been cleared of all wrongdoing. That is shameful.

The truth is, Hillary Clinton is about as clean a candidate as one will find. The strong fact-check ratings and the fact that this weak email nonsense is the best and only attack line her opponents can come up with after decades of vetting are proof of that. It's frankly a fairly unremarkable "scandal". What she did is nothing even vaguely unusual. President Bush did the same thing, Governor Bush did the same thing, Barack Obama did the same thing, and no doubt many other politicians did the same thing. Donald Trump, ironically, did the very thing of which he has wrongly accused Clinton. Frankly, in any other election this wouldn't even be a newsworthy story. Make no mistake, if this was Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders as the nominee, they'd just have cooked up a different scandal. They'd be harping on about Sanders having had pro-Soviet views in the past, or Biden doing something untoward while Vice President, or god knows what. You're fooling yourself if you pretend otherwise.

If this election teaches us one thing, it's the danger of voter apathy and a media that is incentivised towards sensationalism and false equivalency. When people don't pay attention to politics, they're more dependent on what they see in the news, and the news is increasingly incentivised to present a more "marketable" view of reality, rather than an accurate one. This inherently leads to the high level of misinformed voters that we are seeing this year. A lot of young people seem to think that rejecting both major candidates somehow makes you smart or informed, it doesn't.

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