William Goldman famously explained Hollywood’s inability to make more hits than flops with the pithy three-word line “nobody knows anything.” Motion-picture executives are paid tens of millions of dollars presumably so they won’t make the very mistakes they do make. All their experience, all their reading, all their marketing, all their hard-won wisdom, is worth precisely nothing because nobody knows what makes a hit. Nobody knows what causes a failure. Every success is a fluke, and every flop could have been a success.
Goldman neatly summarized a painful truth about all human enterprises. The world is simply too complex, with too many independent moving parts, for anyone to be in a position to guarantee that his next effort will succeed. The only thing we know for certain is what has already succeeded—and that while using prior successes as a model for future successes is psychologically comforting, doing so inhibits innovation and change, and does not offer any hope for broadening a market or finding new customers.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the same is true of democratic politics—worldwide. I write on the morning after the British general election, in which the ruling Conservative Party won an absolutely staggering victory that has entirely redefined Britain’s political future. The most important third party over the past three decades (the Liberal Democrats) is likely dead and buried. Its successor as the key third-party force, the Scottish Nationalist Party, has taken a deadly bite out of the hide of the Labour Party. The right-wing populist UKIP party gained only a single seat in Parliament but received three times as many votes as the Scottish Nationalists, who won 58. With that kind of following, UKIP may be in a position in future elections to do to the Conservative Party what the Scots did to Labour.
And the key point is this: Nobody saw any of this coming. Nobody.
Commentators and pollsters alike were writing pre-obituaries on the morning of the vote about the cautionary lessons to be drawn from the seeming failure of Tory leader David Cameron’s “modernization” program. And why not? Every piece of social-science data suggested a tight race between the Tories and Labour—and all of it was wrong. But Cameron’s party ended up with 105 more seats than Ed Milliband’s Labour and a majority in the House of Commons for the first time in 23 years.
These results came six weeks after the stunning outcome of the Israeli general election, in which Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party rose from 18 to 30 seats in the Knesset. Again, no one had even dreamed of such a thing only 24 hours before the votes were counted. Polling—and there was a lot of it—had Likud and the Zionist Union neck-and-neck.
Similarly, in the American midterm elections in 2014, in state after state, polling had Senate elections too close to call in races that were won by five, six, eight, even 11 points when the votes were all in.
There is a commonality to these failures across three very different political systems with very different political realities. First, they suggest that polling as it has been conducted for the past 70 years is now irredeemably broken—that it has not figured out how to move forward following the death of the landline telephone as the primary means of communication.
Second, after a refreshing moment in 2008 when the polling in the United States proved remarkably accurate, we appear to be reverting to a traditional problem: The systematic underrepresentation of right-of-center voters in these surveys. Whether this is because such voters lie to pollsters—known in Britain as the “shy Tory” effect—or because pollsters don’t know how to find them (or for partisan reasons don’t want to find them) is a question above my pay grade.
But everyone should understand this as we go into 2016: Nobody knows anything. We’ve received fair warning just when we need it. Polls are coming out fast and furious now about views of the Republicans and Hillary Clinton and the primaries and potential match-ups in the general election.
They cannot be trusted. Nobody knows anything.