Three Things Determined the Outcome of the US Presidential Election: One of Them Is Fixable

The U.S. presidential election divided us into two emotional camps; most of us awakened on November 9th either delighted or dismayed. Regardless, we were surprised. How did we become so hostile towards one another over this election? What made us vote for one or the other candidate? Why, once again, did the electoral vote topple the popular vote?

Political Enmity Has Displaced Reasoned Discussions

Humans are "tribal animals". We live in concentric tribes each with its own priorities: brother against sister, brother and sister against parents, family against hostile neighbor -- we coalesce in smaller and larger groups offensively and defensively to engage in tribal-like conflicts. The people in Scandinavian countries rank among the happiest in the world in part because they are small homogeneous countries. At the other end of the spectrum, the middle east countries not only have been engaged in tribal warfare with each other but within the countries (Sunni against Shiite, Muslim against jew, etc.). Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of years of tribal conflicts will not likely end in our lifetime (if ever). It appears to be embedded in our very nature. Thus, when partisan politics emphasizes our differences over our similarities, we become increasingly combative. Only our personal relationships in the aggregate can mitigate hatred and vehemence.

Our two major political parties have become increasingly divided tribes as the following chart depicts split along demographic groups. Unfortunately, I don't foresee us replacing disgust with a healthier tolerance of dissenting political views for years to come. But we need to try.
One Perspective on Our Political Tribes

Our Political Decisions Were Dominated by Our Emotions.

As an economist, I once bought into the idea that decisions were largely the result of a rational cost-benefit assessment. No longer. I now adhere to Antonio Damasio's somatic marker hypothesis which places emotions alongside logic in our decisions. Damasio studied subjects who had injuries to the part of the brain that produces emotional responses (the ventromedial cortex, or VM), leaving intact all other brain functions (logical reasoning, language, memory, etc.). The subjects had difficulty making decisions about ordinary choices such as what to eat, where to shop, what to wear. When asked to select a place to eat lunch, a typical person with a damaged VM may spend a long time assessing the options "if we want a hamburger, we could go to..., but wait, we may prefer a sandwich, or some soup and salad...". This tedious process can last a frustratingly long time. What the VM-impaired person lacks is any emotional connection to the consequences of the decision and there is no obvious best logical decision. Decisions apparently require emotional input to feel right. Imagine how an early human would act in a dangerous encounter without the fear-induced fight or flight reaction but needing to pause to carefully consider all consequences. My guess is that branch of our species would not have continued to evolve. 

According to research scientists, most of us accumulate a package of emotions that are subconsciously associated with each possible choice and we choose one that is associated with positive feelings. The emotional component of a decision is made up of primary and/or secondary inducers.

Primary inducers act in milliseconds (we instinctively leap away from the sudden appearance of a snake -- this is called the "body loop" and is triggered by the amygdala in the brain).

Secondary inducers are triggered in higher levels of the brain
(as-if body loop) and bias more complex behavior. For example, when we perceive possible consequences of a decision, past experiences are linked with pleasant and unpleasant emotions that come together to sway our choices. When faced with uncertainty or ambiguity about the consequences of a decision, the as-if body loop is triggered in proportion to the severity of possible unpredictable consequences. That is, emotional bias can supersede rational decision-making processes. Some decisions call up fear, hatred, or disgust based on our accumulated life experiences. Because we all have had different life experiences, our as-if body loops have resulted in conflicting decisions accompanied by mutual disgust. We could have expected strong, even violent, reactions to either outcome of this election. This is not fixable but by understanding the phenomenon we can, perhaps, be more tolerant.

The Electoral College is Antiquated and Should Be Overhauled.

All 50 states elect governors based purely on the popular vote. We chose not to do so with our presidential elections. Had we done otherwise, The democratic nominee would be president today. Why did the founders of our country construct the electoral college to displace the popular vote? There are three common explanations for this current day aberration.

1. Balance the power of states having high populations with states having low populations. This rationale is why we have two senators representing each state but a number of representatives roughly proportional to the population in the house of representatives. At the very least, why should geographical size distort the counting of votes in a presidential election? In particular, why are electoral votes given an all-or-nothing weight in the presidential election rather than apportioning votes according to each state's popular vote?
2. The population of the nation would not have enough knowledge to make an intelligent decision. However, the emergence of national presidential parties weakened this argument;  presidential candidates and local candidates were more closely linked with national platforms so more rural states had access to political information. The 12th Amendment formalized the partisan party system and created the Electoral System that we have today. Obviously, today, there is no shortage of information that would justify the Electoral System.
3. Population did not equal people. The North and the South disagreed on how to count people to determine membership in the House of Representatives. Since slaves could not vote, the North could control national elections. The South had over a million slaves they insisted should count in order to balance the voting power of the North. By compromise, slaves were included as 3/5ths of a person. As a result, the southern states had a strong incentive to buy and breed slaves to have more political power. Indeed, for 32 of the constitution's first 36 years, the president was a white slave owner from Virginia. The North was unable to dismantle the Electoral College system at a point in history when it was most opportune to do so. We live with the antiquated election process today, a remnant of our shameful slavery era. It is time to reconsider.