Salvos Psephology in Free Fall

Or why the polls tell you nothing you actually need to know

Sam Kriss


Sometimes you have to wince. The 2016 election was full of awful, cringing moments: “Pokémon Go to the polls.” The mere existence of Jeb Bush. The strange, silent, static confusion as a whole clutch of Republican hopefuls seemed incapable of walking onstage for their debate. The awkwardness that always results when glib psychopaths try desperately to endear themselves to the general population. But the worst, by my reckoning, was Trump surrogate and attorney Michael Cohen’s interview on CNN on August 17, 2016. The Trump campaign was in free fall, constantly bringing in staff and firing them again, forcing a visibly resentful Donald to read out labored banalities from a teleprompter instead of whirling through his usual private cycles of free association. The whole garish circus was finally wheezing toward its inevitable defeat, and that is what CNN’s Brianna Keilar told Cohen in the interview.

You can watch the interview now; like all the worst and most painful moments, it lives on forever. “You guys are down,” she starts, flashing a little grin, half sympathetic, half triumphant. Meanwhile Cohen looks into the camera with a froggy throat and a placid, bovine, cross-eyed stare. “Says who?” he interjects. Keilar is dumbfounded for a moment. “Polls,” she says, as if explaining the situation to a small and quite dim child. “Most of them.” And then she arches an eyebrow. “All of them?” But Cohen isn’t perturbed. He waits for a few seconds of excruciating dead air to collect his thoughts. “Says who?” And so it goes on: Keilar restates the truth, that the Trump campaign is losing, and Cohen looks at the objective facts, the crushing loss that he is about to suffer, sniffs, and asks, “Says who?”

The clip very quickly went viral; it was proof of the Republican Party’s total and idiotic indifference to the facts, a kind of cultish madness that had clearly infected the whole campaign. Now, however, the interview is viral in the sense that it points up an acute, uncontrollable sickness assailing the body politic. Seen in the cold light of recent history, Brianna Keilar doesn’t look like the voice of reason anymore, someone patiently trying to explain the facts to a maniac who simply won’t listen. She’s bluffing, and she doesn’t even know it; it’s painful to watch. Because what she’s saying doesn’t really mean anything like what it should. She’s not really saying that among several weighted samples of the American public, Donald Trump is more unpopular than his competitor. What she’s saying is this: sibyls and soothsayers have fated you to suffer a great defeat.

But the sibyls and soothsayers were wrong. And they’ve been wrong a lot lately. They didn’t predict Trump, and they didn’t predict Brexit. Polls said that the referendum on the peace deal in Colombia would be accepted by a landslide majority of the population; instead, the majority voted for death by another thousand cuts. In 2015, the polls pointed to a victory for the Israeli Labor Party’s Isaac Herzog; instead, Bibi Netanyahu’s long rampage over the Levant continued unabated. And in the same year, polls decided that the general election in the United Kingdom would result in a hung parliament and a new—possibly permanent—era of European-style coalition politics; instead, the Conservatives triumphantly trampled over a shy, cowering Ed Miliband and proceeded to systematically fuck up every instant from that day to the present.

Divination hasn’t disappeared; it’s taken over the world.

If one pollster had failed to accurately predict one result, you could conduct a fairly simple investigation: Had they chosen their samples incorrectly? Had they asked their questions misleadingly? When every poll gets it wrong, with increasing and alarming frequency, the problem is no longer methodological but metaphysical. There are, of course, some perfectly reasonable explanations. For starters, there are anything-but-surveyable patterns of voter suppression and voter lethargy, together with steady influxes of new, never-before-surveyed voters in the electorate. There’s also the huge methodological difficulty that most polling is traditionally carried out via phone, and large sectors of the electorate are no longer happy to answer the phone when unknown numbers appear on the screen.

But these second-order obstacles aren’t enough to explain the current collapse of poll-driven political certainty. They’re just excuses, even if they’re not untrue. Something about the whole general scheme of polling—the idea that you can predict what millions of undecided voters will do by selecting a small group and then just simply asking them—is out of whack. We need to think seriously about what the strange game of election-watching actually is, in terms of our relation to the future, our power to choose our own outcomes, the large-scale structure of the universe, and the mysteries of fate. And these questions are urgent. Because predictions of the future don’t simply exist in the future, but change the way we act in the present. Because in our future something monstrous is rampaging: it paces hungrily toward us, and we need to know if we’ll be able to spot it in time.

When I said that opinion polls are sibyls and soothsayers, it wasn’t just a figure of speech. Opinion polling has all the trappings of a science—it has its numbers and graphs, its computational models, its armies of pallid drones poring over the figures. It makes hypotheses and puts them to the test. But polls are not taken for what they are: a report on what a small number of people, fond of changing their minds, briefly pretended to think. Instead, we watch the tracking graphs as if the future were playing itself out live in front of us. The real structure of the electoral-wonk complex is more mystical than materialist: it’s augury and divination, a method handed down by Prometheus to a starving and shivering humanity at the faint dawn of time. Behind all the desktop screens and plate-glass of his office, the buzz of data and the hum of metrics, Nate Silver retreats to a quiet, dark, and holy room. He takes the knife and slits in one stroke the throat of a pure-white bull; its blood arcs and drizzles in all directions. He examines its patterns. And he knows.

Trusting Your Guts

“I am aware of no people,” the great Roman philosopher and anti-democrat Cicero writes in his De Divinatione, “however refined and learned or however savage and ignorant, which does not think that signs are given of future events, and that certain persons can recognize those signs and foretell events before they occur.” History is full of these techniques—ways in which the apparent senselessness of the world can resolve itself, if you know how to look, into clear and comprehensible meaning. Our own time is no different, and it’s not just election pollsters. We have meteorologists, actuaries, fashion forecasters, the manic futurists of the tech industry, and the somber futurists of climatology. Divination hasn’t disappeared; it’s taken over the world. What is the stock index but an averaged set of predictions about the future? In between it all, the old forms remain. Astrologers still list in the daily papers how the grand tragedy of vast moving spheres in far-distant space is really just about an exciting new workplace romance, while tarot readers can glimpse your future through mass-produced cards with tacky illustrations. But the soothsaying tradition is far richer than these pop-mystic franchises might suggest.

Ololygmancers would hear future events in the howling of dogs at night. Brutus used the Sortes Homericæ, in which a random passage from the Iliad is pressed into service to portend the future, before the Battle of Pharsalus; he read the words “by the cruel crown of Fate I was undone” and knew that his armies would lose. Scatomancers saw the future in shit, uromancers in piss, cephalonomancers by boiling a donkey’s head, and tyromancers—it’s not entirely clear how—did it by using cheese. All of which raises the question: How did it work? When the sailors of antiquity would spill out a seabird’s guts onto the deck, examining them for signs of fair weather or storms, what exactly did they think they were doing?

Philosophers from Plato to Plutarch divided divination into two types, the natural and the artificial. Natural divination comes directly from the gods, who speak through the mouths of oracles, send omens in the form of celestial events and monstrous births, or plant strange, threatening hate-mail in your dreams. Artificial divination is different, encompassing all the ordinary objects of the world; gods may be involved, if you like (after all, they’re in the name—although the atheist Anaxagoras never doubted that divination still worked in a godless universe). But regardless of etiology, divination is first and foremost a skill, a technics, a way of reading the prose of the world. These things are, as Cicero notes, signs; the world speaks itself, and if the universe contains everything, it must also contain its own future. All you need to do is learn how to interpret its language.

Speaking to the entire universe is difficult to do—the thing that contains everything will always be indifferent—but luckily there are structures at play here. As the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus puts it, quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius: as above, so below; every part contains the whole. Our world reproduces its order in infinite nested circles, an order that reveals itself through acts of chance. There are so many different forms of divination because it’s not the material substrate that matters, but the words invisibly printed into every scrap of matter. Roll the dice, throw the cowrie shells, or pick a card, any card. The entrails of a butchered creature contain, glistening in their slime, a map to the whole of reality; grab something living from the sky, and take a knife to pull out its secrets. Or, in other words, select a representative sample, collect your data, and plot it on your probability graph.


Our word for the science of elections is psephology. The word is quite new; it was coined in 1948 by the British historian R. B. McCallum, otherwise chiefly remembered for his aphoristic dictum for democracy-watchers: “Find immortality in the footnotes of others.” One of McCallum’s colleagues, David Butler, later remarked, “Actually I regret having launched the word. It implies there is some occult expertise about the subject.”

When every poll gets it wrong, with increasing and alarming frequency, the problem is no longer methodological but metaphysical.

Occult is right. Psephology comes from the Greek psephos, or pebble; in Athenian democracy, votes were cast by dropping black or white pebbles into ceramic urns. But that wasn’t the only thing the ancients did to their pebbles. The word has a dark twin, psephomancy, divination by pebbles, something far older and vaster, something it can never quite break free from. The high priests of the ancient Israelites would wear the Urim and Thummim in their breastplates, white and black stones of alabaster and hematite that were, along with dreams and prophets, a means by which God would reveal Himself to the world. Psephomancers would throw pebbles, and then study the patterns they made to predict the future or decide whether someone was innocent or guilty; in the Bible, the Book of Samuel records this practice in the court of King Saul. His son Jonathan gets the black pebble; that’s how we know he has sinned and must die.

Modern psephology hasn’t taken the mysticism out of this ancient practice, just robbed it of its grandeur. The age of truly data-driven psephology started in the early 2000s with the rise of Nate Silver, who got rid of all the dross that used to come with the game of predicting elections—the partisan interest, the stereotyping, the “national mood,” the ponderous gut-instinct of paunchy old commentators—and replaced it with binary numbers, black and white. It didn’t matter why someone told the pollsters she was going to vote in one way or another. The testimony of poll respondents was just a data-point, without history or determinations—a random artifact of the world, as individually meaningful as a chucked rock. Silver collapsed the whole practice of national-mood divination back into a denuded, numbers-driven irrationalism. You throw the pebbles, but it doesn’t even announce who is innocent or guilty—because who, these days, is innocent? All you learn about is more pebbles.

Future Imperfect

There’s a single principle running through all this, one that the ancients were mostly certain of, but that’s proven harder and harder to accept in the twenty-first century. For any kind of divination to work, from haruspicy to opinion polling, the future has to already exist within the here and now. In other words, the world must make some kind of sense.

Natural sciences tend to work by a process of logical deduction. You start with a general principle and apply it to a particular set of circumstances. This is the form of the syllogism: No living creature can ever truly get what it wants; you are a living creature; therefore, you will never truly get what you want. But deduction also allows physicists to predict from mathematical models, with a great deal of accuracy, what dead and inert matter will do. By contrast, both augury and opinion polling work from the opposite logic, that of induction, moving from the particular to the general, from observations to principles, grabbing hold of the senseless stuff of the world and trying to mold it into something universal. Every raven I have seen is black; therefore, all ravens are black. A weighted sample of the electorate contains a majority of Hillary Clinton supporters; therefore, she will win the election. I have never truly got what I want; therefore, it’s impossible for anyone to truly get what they want. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with inductive reasoning. Induction is why you go to work every morning, assuming that it will still be there (even though the evidence of your senses might readily confirm that this isn’t necessarily a good thing). But induction is always susceptible to coincidence, chance, and will—the basic building blocks of magic. Induction plus certainty equals mysticism.

As the philosopher David Hume argued, the predictive powers of induction are never actually based on simple observations. In his critique of causality, he notes that we never actually see cause and effect taking place; we just apprehend the sequence of one thing happening, and then another. What undergirds inductive logic is an assumption, one that can’t be proved inductively or deductively, that “instances of which we have had no experience, must resemble those of which we have had experience, and that the course of nature continues always uniformly the same.”

Watch enough spheres glancing off each other, and induction will tell you that effect always follows cause, because it’s always done so in the past and we have no reason to think it’ll stop doing so in the future. If what we’re talking about is the sun rising in the morning or billiard balls on a table, you can probably go on thinking like that. But things aren’t always the same. Bertrand Russell uses the example of a chicken who expects the farmer to come and feed it every day, until the day he comes to wring its neck (and possibly, depending on when this farmer lives, spill out its viscera to build a map of the universe). And in politics this expectation is fatal, because in politics nothing is ever the same.

The day before the Brexit referendum, it seemed utterly impossible that the United Kingdom would vote to leave the European Union. The vast majority of polls had consistently predicted a win for Remain, but it wasn’t just that: a lifetime of unconscious induction had convinced us that things would be, more or less, the same forever. Britain might leave the EU, in the same way that your workplace might be obliterated by an asteroid impact, or that you might awake to find yourself transformed into a gigantic insect. The day after the referendum, everything felt unreal. I went outside, I walked through familiar streets, I took the Tube, the shops were open, the sky was blue, an indifferent sun gleamed on the boredom below, birds chattered apolitically in the trees, worms left their delicate and asemic coils of processed mud nestled between blades of grass, and it seemed absurd that everything could go on working as if nothing had changed. Where was the rubble? “The disaster ruins everything,” Maurice Blanchot writes, “all the while leaving everything intact.”

Afterward, a few Leave voters—probably not that many, but enough for some sectors of the media to happily seize on them—said that when they voted for Brexit, they didn’t think it would actually happen. They just wanted to send a message. It was the same in America: a Trump victory had always been, from the very beginning, impossible—right up until the moment when it happened. The pattern of unpredictability keeps on replaying itself. Across the world, polls get it wrong when they assume that the candidates of peace and stability and ordinary day-to-day misery will win, and the candidates of sudden, catastrophic, cruel, and meaningless destruction will lose.

It’s not that the pollsters are themselves biased toward business-as-usual politics—although they usually are. The problem is that the whole method and metaphysics of polling starts from the assumption that reality is consistent and unchangeable. The sentiment is a very old one; it’s the sentiment of power that cannot imagine its own destruction. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. World without end. Amen.

What the Thunder Said

Something is lost. Between the intention and the act, between the opinion and the result, between the poll and the prediction, falls the Shadow.

As any psychoanalyst could tell you, the statement “I plan to vote for Donald Trump” has any number of meanings—“I hate my mother,” “I’m afraid of death,” “I used to delay orgasm by thinking really hard about baseball, but now thinking about baseball is the only thing that makes me come”—but none of them can tell you who’s going to win. It gives you a picture of the present, not a portal to the future. Anything can happen between announcing your intention to do something and actually doing it. The idea that the motive force setting the course of history is just “what people reckon about stuff”—a stream of pure individual opinion, untethered to history or class or the deep chthonic powers that rule our lives—is the chief delusion of liberal democracy. The idea that thought alone can influence reality is the cornerstone of magical thinking; it’s The Secret for wonks. We need something better: at the very least, a more reliable form of magic. So forget everyone who got it wrong. Who got it right? What secrets did they see that we couldn’t?

Throughout the long dumb crawl of the 2016 election, there was one person clairvoyant enough to know from the very start that Donald Trump would win, and who kept on warning us, louder and louder, without anybody listening. That person was Donald Trump. From the moment Trump slid down the brown and gleaming escalator to plop out in front of the world’s cameras, he said that he would take the White House, and he did. How did he know? A narcissist’s certainty, natural divination, dreams and prophecy, the gods of history seizing a small and stupid person by the brain, not something that’s much good for us. But after Trump himself, there were others.

Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, has predicted every election result since 1984 (except in 2000, when the Electoral College decided that both the popular vote and the professor should be ignored). His calculus pays no attention to polls or approval ratings; instead, it looks at the incumbent administration and asks a few very basic questions. Has there been major social unrest? Have there been disastrous foreign interventions? Has economic growth been higher or lower than in the last two administrations? If the incumbent party manages the slow decline of capitalism efficiently, they’ll win again. If not, someone else will. And in September 2016, he totted up all his columns and announced that Donald Trump would win. He didn’t quite believe it himself; in an interview with the Washington Post he was full of caveats and reservations. “We’ve never had a candidate before who not just once, but twice in a thinly disguised way, has incited violence against his opponents. We’ve never had a candidate before who has embraced as a role model a murderous, hostile foreign dictator.” In the end, it didn’t matter.

The absolute winner of the 2016 future-guessing game, though, was Bill Mitchell, who had no caveats and no reservations. Formerly a little-known radio host and executive recruiter whose main talent was tweeting hundreds of times a day, described by BuzzFeed as “the Trump team’s post-truth, post-math anti-Nate Silver,” Mitchell emerged from the election as a shining, globe-straddling prognosticator. Bill Mitchell is not a particularly smart man. He’s a two-bit propagandist, handsome and fanatic and oafish, but he didn’t just believe, he knew. And, like Michael Cohen, he was ignored; he gave every appearance of being a reality-denying dumbfuck. BuzzFeed quoted anti-Trump Republican strategist Rick Wilson calling him “the dumbest motherfucker on the internet” and “a guy who’s proud of the fact that he doesn’t understand math.” But he was right.

Roll the dice, throw the cowrie shells, or pick a card, any card. In other words, select a representative sample, collect your data, and plot it on your probability graph.

His main fixation was polls, which he did not trust—like a David Hume or a Karl Popper. “The media is funny,” he tweeted in October. “They swear a sample of 500 in a poll hand-picked by Liberals represents 250 million but a crowd of 30k means nothing.” And it’s a fair point: as Alain Badiou has argued, the “active number” of “demonstrations, mass strikes, and, indeed, insurrections” can embody the movement of history far more than the passive numbers, those people who are merely counted, who complain on the phone to a pollster. Even if the passive number is far greater, the active number exists “above and beyond all considerations of averages and majorities.” In August, Mitchell asked: “Imagine polls don’t exist. Show me evidence Hillary is winning?” Nobody had an answer; instead, they laughed.

Mitchell had his own metrics. Unlike our modern mystics, he didn’t just randomly reach into the world to pluck out eternity from underneath the mask of the mundane; there were specific things he was looking for. Before Halloween, he pointed out that sales of Hillary Clinton costumes were far lower than sales of Trump costumes. He looked at how many people were talking about the candidates on social media. And above everything else, he looked out for yard signs. “There is no enthusiasm for Hillary,” he said. “No yard signs. THAT will hurt her turnout.”

It was an incredibly stupid opinion, a political understanding on the level of Homer Simpson’s rock that keeps tigers away. But then, after the election, a Politico report revealed that he was on to something. The Democrats never had any ground game, and nobody cared because they were too busy looking at polls. In the report, there’s the story of “an older woman in Flint who showed up at a Clinton campaign office, asking for a lawn sign and offering to canvass, being told these were not ‘scientifically’ significant ways of increasing the vote, and leaving, never to return.” Clinton lost in Michigan. And Bill Mitchell, who had eyes to see, knew all along.

The Present, at the Creation

When the pollsters said that Brexit would not happen, when they said that Hillary Clinton had an open path to power, when they said that Jeremy Corbyn was unelectable, when they said that Marine Le Pen would be defeated in the second round, these statements had real effects. Politicians, especially, live their lives in fear of the sibyls and soothsayers. They adjust their policies, their messaging, even their personal appearances on the basis of what the polls tell them people want. Court astrologer is still a deeply respectable vocation. It’s hard to imagine a Democratic campaign so torpidly complacent without its whispering crowd of prognosticators. If neither Clinton nor the public had been so convinced that she would win, maybe she would have. It’s possible that in the United Kingdom, Labour’s slow autophagy might be less fatal if the party’s old guard couldn’t point to the mystical charts in every newspaper, echoing their blind insistence that any kind of socialism is electoral poison. After all, everything they do to unseat Corbyn and reverse Labour’s decline in the polls only makes the party look more unstable, and causes it to sink further. We’re not likely to abolish polling—as Cicero knew, no tribe can do without it. But we should be aware that there are always other futures, streaming and effervescent, that the priests of empty, heterogeneous time can’t see.

Statements about the future are weird. Under the classical or correspondence model of truth, predictions are impossible to evaluate. Propositions are meant to be thought-images that are more or less in accord with reality—but unless you believe that the world contains its own future, there’s no reality against which to measure an image of the future, because it hasn’t happened yet. Any statement about the future will, in a sense, always be wrong: it sits there, trembling, waiting for the annihilating arrival of the event, and there’s no way of distinguishing a true prediction from a false one until this moment of reckoning takes place. At the same time, though, statements about the future are also actions in the present: they change things, they create new possible realities, they reinforce or undo their own prophecies. The future does not lie hidden passively in the present, waiting to unfold. It has to be built.

This is what the biblical prophets knew. Their messages from the eternal were not like the pop-occultism of Nostradamus—this will happen, and then this, and then this—but intended to create change now. Unless you part from your wicked ways, they said, the Lord will judge you harshly. Spoiler alert: we have not parted from our wicked ways.