Q&A with Anne Sorock of The Frontier Lab
For most people, both Donald Trump’s campaign and success came out of nowhere.
But not for Anne Sorock of The Frontier Lab.
Anne started writing for Legal Insurrection in April 2012 and was a regular contributor for many years. Over time Anne focused more and more of her time at The Frontier Lab, and now writes for us only sporadically.
We have featured Anne’s research at The Frontier Lab many times. Anne uses the Deep Values methodology she learned while interacting with the Food & Brand Lab at Cornell University while getting her MBA. Deep values research seeks to understand not just what consumers like or want, but what deeply held values lead to such decisions.
At the Frontier Lab, Anne has applied deep values methodology to numerous political topics, including why people decide to become politically active, Occupy movement participants’ motivations, and why Republicans won’t call themselves Republican, among others.
I saw Anne at CPAC 2015, and in the course of our discussions, I asked Anne who she liked among the many rumored presidential candidates. She said Donald Trump.
I was like, what is that all about? He’s never going to run, he always teases, and anyway, Trump? Seriously? She was serious. She said, look, he’s the one. She was insistent not only that Trump would run but that he’d win. It seemed totally incredible.
By that point I’d known Anne for a while, and considered her a friend. I could tell she wasn’t joking. That she knew something I didn’t. But it still seemed so other-worldly, that even after Trump took the famous escalator ride at Trump Tower to announce, I didn’t give it any credit.
That was then, this is now. President-elect Trump saw something in the mood of the nation, and captured that lightning in a bottle.
Since I’m a big fan of Anne’s, and respect her research abilities, I wanted to let her explain what she saw as far back as March 2015 that others didn’t see. And how her deep values research methodology allowed her to be perhaps the first person to spot the Trump phenomenon, maybe even before Trump himself realized.
Here is our written Q&A:
WAJ: When I asked you who you supported at CPAC 2015, what made you not just respond, “Trump,” but insist upon it when no one else thought he would run much less win?
Anne: I remember that day we spoke at CPAC. The giddy atmosphere of insiders and wannabe-insiders was almost ominous. I had been working at The Frontier Lab on mapping disaffiliation by conservatives from using the term “Republican” to describe themselves. These conservatives had had enough after 2012, being told to get in line and vote for Romney, and then the RNC Autopsy report came out basically as a rubber stamp to keep pursuing the same tired strategies.
Those aware of the Autopsy felt it simply confirmed what the Romney debacle had already shown them – that the GOP and its parasites were incapable of reforming themselves. The only answer was an outsider to blow it all up.
But beyond this it was Trump who aligned with so many of the deep values I had been identifying in my research as central to the modern way many Americans relate to politics. Although we use many different methodologies to look at our research questions, one in particular has served me time and again to push beyond the surface to what’s driving behavior around politics. Using the “Laddering” qualitative interview technique we essentially push high-intensity representative of a certain idea or policy (or product) to reflect on the consequences of their connection.
Recently, for example, I found myself asking “why is it that Black Lives Matter appeals to you MORE than your time as an activist with Occupy?” And then, “why is it important that your classmates see you as affiliated?” As we continue to push we reveal the underlying values and emotions that drive this behavior.
At the time, I was following these threads about conservatism:
- The desire for a concrete way to demonstrate the action of “standing up for your beliefs”
- Concern that they had been enabling “bad behavior” of the GOP in the same way that a parent enables a child
- A taste of empowerment that had come from interaction with the Tea Party movement, but yearning for more
WAJ: What about this outsider aspect?
Anne: That was the functional part — being an outsider would allow him to do what previous candidates, and all candidates being considered, were incapable of. And that was absolutely reject the king-makers at CPAC and in DC in general.
There was so much anger I had been cataloging at those in charge. There was a seething sense of being disrespected by those in charge. One of the insights from my research at the time was that when people were asked to “choose the lesser of two evils,” they were basically dropping like flies from the Republican label. They might vote that way, but they resented it even more each time. They were looking for an anti-hero.
WAJ: What were their issue differences with the CPAC crowd?
Anne: It was outside of the issue spectrum completely. There was a shift away from one-off issue concerns (taxes, health care, even jobs) in favor of the underlying heart foundation for those issues. Another event that those leaving the Republican label had in common (and yet remaining to vote that way) was an incident of perceived betrayal by the GOP establishment. Individual after individual had an anecdote to relate of an extremely negative interaction with a party official or candidate. Those peddling the issues simply looked down upon them and that showed.
WAJ: Why Trump then, and not someone like Cruz?
Anne: A mentor of mine remarked to me once that when things got truly bad, the talented and ambitious — those living their lives as doctors, businesspeople, scientists — would reenter the political realm. That’s the other thing. The GOP insiders didn’t realize “things had gotten truly bad.” They were still working. These people weren’t.
Even though Trump was so wealthy, he offered a sense of fairness in life. His show the Apprentice asked people to perform, and if they didn’t they were gone — that’s fundamentally what everyone was asking for. An economy where hard work could be rewarded. Not a handout.
Ted Cruz being so conservative simply wasn’t enough to win the hearts of people. It was as though he was disliked rather than respected for going against the grain. Trump succeeded at this outsider status.
WAJ: What about Trump resonated with what you were finding in your research?
Anne: Well Trump came along and said two things. He said, they’re not listening to you because they don’t respect you. Together we’ll take on the inherent elitism that allows the pundits, even Rush Limbaugh, to get away with calling you “low information.” The everyday American, and especially the one without an Ivy League education, isn’t “low-information,” but wise and able to govern himself. The GOP and the Democrat Party still don’t believe that. They don’t believe in true self-governance. Trump pushed back against that snobbery.
Then he said he’d address the issue of sovereignty. We’re being told constantly, even and maybe especially by the GOP, that we must orient ourselves to global opinion. That it’s old fashioned to have borders, to insist on constants in our values. Diversity as an end in itself must be kow-towed to, instead of our country’s unique set of historic values.
Immigration and border security, even terrorism, relate to the broader ideas of “is our culture in America unique?” “Do potential immigrants need to share those values?” even “what is diversity without shared values?” And of course, “is sovereignty important, or does the broader global community offer better guidance than we can?”
So the GOP’s failure to realize their small government vs. big government dialectic wasn’t answering today’s pressing needs renders them shallow connections with the hearts of Americans. Still does.
WAJ: Are you saying small government doesn’t matter?
Anne: No, it’s not that it doesn’t matter. Just like the Constitution didn’t cease mattering before the Civil War. But slavery needed to be addressed. Today, sovereignty and elitism are those issues, is what Americans were saying.
Then as now, despite this historic rebuke of the GOP’s management capabilities, many Republicans are insisting on broadcasting where they are along this “right vs. left” spectrum. They aren’t answering the fundamental questions driving Americans anymore. It’s like when the Whigs failed to give an answer on slavery, and the Republicans came along and said, “abolition,” this is what the GOP will be built upon.
WAJ: So why didn’t all the others predict Trump, especially in the consultant/market research community?
Anne: Polling about the economy, jobs, national security, etc., might reveal superficial insights, even move the needle a few important points, but it failed in one major respect. They were asking about issues that are, at best, the outgrowths of their deeper concerns, but not explanatory or helpful in making predictions. What you don’t know about, you can’t ask about.
WAJ: What should we understand about the Americans who supported Trump that we still continue to miss?
Anne: They may care about all these conservative issues too, but they recognize that the enemy is within the gates. Our culture is what’s’ being eroded. Small government may be the mechanism to restore much of our country’s greatness but it isn’t the emotion, the value, that drives our country’s unique role in the world.
WAJ: You predicted Trump more than two years ago. What’s your next prediction?
Anne: I’ve been focusing my work these past few years to studying the attraction of mass movements on the left. The problem is that the left is provides through its mass movements the fulfillment of deep human needs. Sense of purpose. Meaning in life. A community of like-minded individuals. A sense of belonging. Etc.
Much of this comes from my work on Occupy Wall Street and more recently a project on Black Lives Matter operatives and activists. Their stated aim is “total social upheaval.” I’m afraid that these programmed participants will engage in escalating levels of violence as our culture continues to fracture completely into two different sectors.
Through this the left has been programming a separate society, with values utterly fractured from mainstream, conservative America. What BDS, Black Lives Matter and Occupy provide is quite compelling to a segment of young people who fear being ostracized from the left’s cultural community. That’s hard to replace in the short-term, although there are pathways. We are failing to provide a competitive product to the left’s cultural community and enforcement mechanisms (ostracization from your peers on campus or in the workplace, for example).
My personal opinion? That competitive product is, frankly, faith in God. My one takeaway from all my research over the years is that this is the best and only way to reunite the fractured culture.DONATE
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