Future Tense

America’s Next President Needs Our Imagination

The 2020 presidential race is suffering from voters’ blinkered focus on the recent past.

A half-empty glass, a lightbulb, a Magic 8 Ball, a calculator, a pair of glasses, and some calculations.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Unsplash, Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash, Trifonov_Evgeniy/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and Libby Penner/Unsplash.

On Sept. 24 at noon, Bina Venkataraman will discuss her new book The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age with James Fallows and Wajahat Ali in Washington. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

From the ancient habits of reading oracle bones and tracking seasons via patterns in the night sky to modern sports prognosticating and by-the-hour weather forecasting, humans have long obsessed over predicting the future. We want to know what lies ahead, whether we use algorithms or Magic 8 Balls.

Now predicting who will be “electable” in 14 months in November 2020 has become an all-consuming calculus for U.S. Democratic voters, as they strategize about which presidential candidates to back in primaries and where to send donations. At this stage of the race, when polls about general election matchups with President Donald Trump are far from reliable, estimating “electability” requires the subjective projection of the future—a kind of conjuring of the possible largely based on past precedents imprinted on the minds of individual voters.

The wounds of 2016 are still fresh for Democratic voters. Social science illuminates why it can be difficult to imagine an unprecedented future outcome when a past traumatic experience remains poignant. Our ability to imagine the future depends on episodic memory, evolutionary psychologists believe: Harvesting and rearranging the scenes of our past are how we project a future reality. This served early humans well, who could learn from a past encounter evading a beast or hunting a fish how to better deal with the next one.

But when a powerful past event shakes us, we’ll often make warped decisions and overprepare for history to repeat itself. Wharton economist Robert Meyer’s research shows that before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, even insurance companies (whose business is calculating risk) neglected to account for financial risks of terrorist attacks in their policies covering New York buildings. After 9/11, many companies began to pay overly exorbitant premiums to protect against terrorist attacks, way beyond what was warranted. Meyer’s research with Howard Kunreuther similarly showed that just after a 1994 earthquake in Northridge, California, two-thirds of local residents had earthquake insurance but that more recently, as the collective memory of big earthquakes has faded, less than 10 percent of homeowners in high-risk areas of California do. The same happens along coastlines vulnerable to hurricanes.

Similarly, many voters’ and pundits’ expectations for 2020 appear to be shaped more by recent experience than the imagination of what’s possible. Democratic voters have told reporters, for instance, that even though they’d like to vote for a female candidate like Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris, or a gay politician like Pete Buttigieg, they struggle to imagine that a woman or gay man can win the presidency. A recent poll finds that supporters of female candidates assume that other voters would not share their views—they can’t envision enough of the American electorate sharing their own confidence in a candidate.

The modern era of data-driven prediction pretends to solve the problem of failed imagination. Businesses and governments around the world rely on algorithms to predict future trends, whether it’s what a retail customer will buy next, the potential for an arrested person to commit another crime, or a job candidate’s likelihood of success. Sometimes these predictions become self-fulfilling prophecies, actually setting the chain of events in motion because of how they shape our expectations of people or the world.

But even robust, scientific prediction can fall short of helping us adequately prepare for the future, whether it’s an earthquake warning or the projection of rising seas. This is because people often ignore or underestimate forecasts, as happens at high rates among coastal residents facing deadly hurricane warnings, even when they have advanced noticed and adequate resources. People are biased toward expecting and fearing what we can actively envision happening to us—whether it’s because we readily perceive the threat or opportunity with our senses, or because it seems more imminent or concrete. The filmmaker Wim Wenders once said there is “a monopoly of the visible.”

I would also call it a monopoly of the imaginable: What we can easily summon in our minds—winning the lottery or a shark attack—often shapes our expectations of the future far more than everything that is possible or even likely. It helps explain why hurricane forecasts that include “the cone of uncertainty”—as with Hurricane Dorian’s—seem to encourage people to prepare less for storms than those that show a simple, dotted path

Data-driven predictive models also replicate the human bias of constraining the realm of future possibilities to recent past experience. In the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis, the credit rating agency Moody’s, which gave mortgage-backed securities a top-notch AAA rating, only used data going back 20 years when estimating the risk of default. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. similarly did not account for tsunami risk over a long enough timespan in its simulations of threats to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. A good forecast, it turns out, is not the same as good foresight.

If we want to be better prepared for the possibilities of the future—and better able to bend the contributing factors in our favor—we’d be wise to do more than invest in better methods of prediction. We ought to hone our imaginations. Luckily, there are techniques we can use, as individuals and collectively, that can help with this. They include war games, a method of projecting forward known as prospective hindsight, and drawing on broad, diverse historical analogies. (I write about many such methods in my new book.)

Voters and pundits once doubted whether a failed businessman who admitted to sexually assaulting women or a black man with the middle name “Hussein” could be elected president. What’s possible under unprecedented circumstances can’t be predicted by looking backward or by declaring the novel impossible. Harvard sociology professor Marshall Ganz, also a former organizer in the U.S. civil rights movement and a key strategist in the United Farm Workers movement, told me that imagination plays a crucial role in the success of social movements. Animating visions—of better working conditions on farms or integrated buses and lunch counters—motivated activists to make sacrifices in the short run for the sake of shaping the long shots of the future. Without imagined alternate realities, their efforts may not have seemed worth it. Candidates and voters who hold new visions for America’s future, not just resistance of the present or reversion to the past, may be just delusional enough to change it.

Based in part on The Optimist’s Telescope by Bina Venkataraman. Published by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Bina Venkataraman.

The cover of The Optimist‘s Telescope.
Riverhead Books

The Optimist’s Telescope

By Bina Venkataraman. Riverhead Books.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.