A noncomprehensive list of unimportant things I’ve been profoundly wrong about, and why: the movie Prometheus (thought the trailer looked amazing); the Super Bowl chances of the 2016-17 New England Patriots (assumed the Atlanta Falcons could hold onto a 28-3 lead); the likelihood Brock Lesnar would defeat the Undertaker at Wrestlemania 30 (the Undertaker was undefeated at Wrestlemania up until that point, Lesnar’s momentum seemed lackluster); the merit of the Porches album Pool (I don’t know); the box office potential of Justice League despite the bad reviews (comic book fans love slop); the capacity of my slow cooker to fit a hunk of pork shoulder I wanted to make for a 2018 barbecue (I eyeballed it, it seemed fine); the quality of the chicken parmesan at one of my local Italian restaurants (how hard is chicken parm?); the potency of a marijuana vaporizer pull I took before my Thanksgiving flight back to New York City (I am just an idiot). These are just a few that come to mind, as sadly I’ve been wrong about many things in the past, though the corresponding low stakes provided a bulwark against true humiliation because it’s not really such a big deal if one eats a bad chicken parmesan.
Only a few times have I been profoundly wrong about important things, of which the most consequential is easily the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Despite all my understanding of Donald Trump as a uniquely malicious candidate, and Hillary Clinton as a uniquely flawed one (in the context of American politics, and her particular opponent), I was nonetheless confident beyond any possible doubt that the electorate would do the right thing, and choose relative normalcy (by historical standards, at least) over certain depravity. I’m sure I expressed this multiple times over the course of the campaigning, but specifically remember one such affirmation a few days before the election, when my cousin asked me if I thought Trump had any shot, to which I replied: No, absolutely not, there’s no chance, with the assuredness of a man who thinks he’s about to eat a decent chicken parmesan.
In the wake of the final results, what I remember just as acutely as the shock (over the result) and the despair (over what the results would likely lead to), was an overwhelming sense of wrongness. I had casually invested all my powers of computation and logic in predicting a result that was laughably incorrect; it was as if, without looking, I’d said “the sky is blue, no shit, it’s a sunny and gorgeous day, you’d have to be the dumbest person alive to think it isn’t” and immediately tilted my head upwards to find it was neon yellow. My wrongness was so comprehensive that I felt my understanding of American politics was permanently unmoored, that I could probably not ever predict anything confidently in that realm for the rest of my life without triple and quadruple-checking it, and even then qualifying it with a “well, maybe.”
Naively, I assumed that everyone in the country who’d also gotten it wrong — at least the Hillary voters in my orbit — would experience a similar moment of humility, and capitulate to the possibility that their future certainties would be just as fundamentally flawed, which would make everyone more thoughtful and generous as a result. This has not happened, another wrong prediction on my end. One reason is that some of the people who’d gotten it wrong hadn’t been as wrong; they’d consciously or subconsciously allotted some possibility that Trump could win, and prepared themselves for the body blow, which made them feel relatively informed when compared with guileless rubes like me. Another, more universal reason, is the human tendency toward adopting confidence despite the opposing evidence. Think about all of the people in your life, and how quickly even the intelligent ones assume they’re right pretty much all of the time — now remember how the dumbasses behave. Plus the fact that there aren’t many tangible, enforceable penalties for being wrong, which is an invitation to keep doing it.
But still, wouldn’t this spirit of humility somewhat inform the 2020 election, given the stakes? Ha ha, absolutely not. Everywhere I look, the same people are repeating the same assumptions to deleterious effect. We can pick up such tendencies in any circle, but let’s look at Bernie Sanders. Because I support Sanders, I find myself particularly attuned to opinions about him, especially since I think my reasons for supporting him are fairly logical. Thus I can’t help but notice that in every direction, someone is wrong about him. The centrist media underestimates his electoral viability; some of his supporters underestimate their need to build bridges between like-minded voters instead of shouting like assholes at Elizabeth Warren fans; some of his detractors stupidly assume his ultimate goal is the destruction of the Democratic party and thus pledge their support to fucking Pete Buttigieg, or just outright condescend to his political goals; maddeningly, Hillary Clinton seems to partially blame him for losing the 2016 election. You can keep going, and the totality of this wrongness is overwhelming at times.
In short, I’d hope that my beliefs would not be centered in any need to be right, which is probably the worst motivation for believing in anything
Still, I continue to support Sanders because I believe his electoral history, ideological directives, and rhetorical approach comprise the best shot at taking down Trump, and also pushing back the forces of corporate greed and naked class warfare responsible for America’s current condition. However, as a matter of practice I just have to consider the possibility I’m wrong about this — that perhaps all of the possible information really does indicate Biden has the best and realest shot at beating Trump, that perhaps Sanders will be just as ineffectual as his predecessors, that worse, he’d just get demolished in a general election. But because we live in the real world, where we must make real decisions with real consequences on a real timeline, the effect of considering this wrongness is not to spiral off into the ether, and tease out every single possibility and their corresponding likelihood of reality, an activity with literally no end in sight. The practical effect of contemplating my wrongness is to consider what I’d actually do if I was wrong; how my wrongness would inform my future behavior.
I would hope that, should Sanders lose the nomination, I’d avoid the emotional lethargy that followed his defeat in 2016, when I assumed Clinton was a foregone conclusion and thus didn’t need my focused support. (Somehow working up enthusiasm for Joe Biden would, I think, be the most magnificent personal development of my lifetime — but then again, what’s the alternative in that situation?) I would hope that, should Sanders become president and fail to enact any of his ideas, I wouldn’t take this as evidence that his leftist ideology was completely inapplicable to American society. I would hope that, should Sanders win the nomination and lose against Trump, that I wouldn’t swing back to the “actually, we need to get more racist” of electoral pragmatists. I’d hope to put aside my own saltiness about feeling like a giant dumbass, and continue support and search for the politics that would lead to the best outcome for everyone, not just the one that would satisfy my own ego.
In short, I’d hope that my beliefs would not be centered in any need to be right, which is probably the worst motivation for believing in anything. Of course, this desire is the animating factor behind a lot of human behavior, political or otherwise, which is partly what makes following election coverage such a nightmare. Across all the websites and all the cable channels, in the pages of newspaper op-eds and glossy magazines, on social media platforms and obscure blogs, we find hundreds and hundreds of incurious, selfish jerkoffs extolling their wrongness as if it is a virtue, confident in the conclusions they’ve arrived at through assumption and ignorance.
This is not only because of that human tendency toward adopting confidence despite the opposing evidence, but a more pernicious truth: that the financial and professional incentives for doggedly pursuing this wrongness are, in fact, quite immense. You can build an entire career on wrongness, staggering from one idiotic position to the next with no consistency or morality, and just… keep doing it. Nothing is going to stop you. Think of someone like former Obama adviser Jim Messina, to pick one of a thousand wrong idiots in the public sphere, who went to work for former U.K. prime minister Theresa May ahead of her disastrous 2017 election, and nonetheless still pops up to be more wrong about things like Bernie Sanders despite the evidence that maybe he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The gall of this arrogance, to keep barreling ahead in light of such wrongness, is fairly astonishing to me, but it’s not wholly surprising. Cultivating self-reflection and humility, qualities that make one a worthwhile human being, would also force Messina to admit his expertise is built on a foundation of shit. As he currently functions, at least he can stay employed.
Given such incentives to just keep at it, what can be done about the wrongness of others? At scale, probably nothing. A hoary cliche is that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice — well, that’s what the people resisting it also believe. But while I have been wrong about many things, I’ve never been wrong about the need to forge more meaningful connections between people, personal and political and otherwise, and that truth fuels me even when everything else seems confusing. In general, I think we — and here I speak for everyone — could stand to be a little more comfortable with exploring the potential of our own wrongness, not just because life is so vast and unknowable (though, yes), but because acknowledging our wrongness allows us to tunnel through into the new reality where, hopefully, we can be a little bit more right, about ourselves and each other. If not this time, then maybe the next, because one can only be wrong for so long.