Hamilton called it a grand experiment. If you were a late-18th century American, you keenly understood what “experiment” meant. Action–not just words but action–without a certain outcome. No outcomes were certain in the Revolutionary experiment. Replacing a monarch with popular sovereignty? Total experiment. Only recently had an inchoate republic, in the boldest of military experiments relying on rural militias of common people, narrowly beaten (with France’s help) the world’s strongest imperial power. Then, the popular sovereignty experiment promptly failed under the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution that followed in 1787 wasn’t just 8,000 words: it was an action, a very narrowly ratified action, another experiment.
Experimentation is baked into the DNA of the American republic. It’s baked into the Constitution. It’s why the original Constitution included within the original 7 Articles the Amendment Article 5. Amendability, interpretability, the right to change, was and is part of the experiment. Amendability came before the 1791 Bill of Rights, the first 10 of 27 experimental amendments that changed the original experiment (e.g. outlawing slavery; women’s right to vote and so on).
The DNA of experimental popular sovereignty means that “change” is not just a modern political slogan. Popular sovereignty will choose change whenever its consensus perception of its current circumstances becomes intolerable. It’s the “are-you-better-off-today” test. It will choose change, experimental action, over norms of conventional words and phrases. It will sometimes choose change for the sake of change. It will choose change without knowing where it’s headed. That’s what experiments do: switch out the variables and see if new ones will work any better.
Why were the pollsters and pundits so wrong in election 2016? Because Digital Age tools create the illusion, call it the pride, of omniscience. Pollsters and pundits, with cell phones, internet surveys and the Information Age at the fingertips, missed The Experiment.
The grand experiment is not, has never been, will never be, that predictable.