Things that have never happened before, happen all the time.Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety
After unprecedented events occur, humans rationalize what they have experienced. Through the clarity of hindsight, they imagine a narrative to explain events. Facts that were unknown or ignored prior to the event are give new significance and meaning. This allows humans to rationalize and reinterpret events creating narratives we can live with, but not always learn from.
Every year in politics, people are surprised when something unexpected happens. In 2006, the Mark Foley scandal was an unforeseen drag on the GOP ticket and contributed to the GOP losing control of Congress. In 2010, the House of Representatives and state legislatures across the country flipped with a GOP wave. Both these events were largely unexpected a year before. The unexpected, and perhaps unprecedented, happened twice in four years.
No where is the unforeseen and volatility more evident than in financial markets. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a successful Wall Street trader and academic, presents a compelling case that unexpected events are common. In The Black Swan, Taleb recalls the discovery of Australia and the European sighting of a black swan. Until that time, it was commonly understood that swans past, present and future, were white. The sighting of the first black swan fundamentally altered a near universal belief. In complex systems, unexpected events are black swans, forever changing long held theories and beliefs.
In politics and in life, we underestimate the role unexpected events play in the ultimate results. There are numerous examples of this. In the 2008 election, an otherwise non-descript man on a rope line became “Joe the Plumber” with the video tape of his questions to then candidate Obama. His name wasn’t even Joe, but that’s what’s remembered. Later in that same campaign, an Alaskan governor was rocketed from obscurity to Vice Presidential candidate. This is the way politics goes. It’s hard, it’s messy and people who pretend to give concrete predictions are full of crap.
There’s too much randomness in a complicated political system to allow for accurate long term predictions. After the 2004 elections, Democrats worried of a permanent minority with a GOP lock on future elections. Two years later, they took the House and Senate. In December 2008, just about every news organization ran columns about the death of the GOP. Two years later, they took back the House, and State Legislatures and governors’ mansions in some of the bluest of states. This is not the result of careful planning. This is the result of many forces beyond anyone’s control contributing to the ultimate outcome.
In the lead up to the 2010 election, Republicans felt it would be a good election. No one knew how good it would be. In the lead up to the 2012 election, many Republicans felt Mitt Romney had won. No President had ever been re-elected with such a bad economy and approval rating…until President Obama was re-elected. Who could have predicted a hurricane striking New Jersey, giving the president days of near exclusive media coverage in the last weeks before the election.
Coping with Unpredictable Events
There is no accurate long term planning when it comes to this period in US politics. As candidates you must plan your campaign. A successful plan must include a significant degree of flexibility to cope with a changing reality. As D-Day commander and later President Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”
Continual adaptation may best be explained by those who have survived the unimaginable. In the Vietnam war, the highest ranking prisoner of war was Rear Admiral James Stockdale. In Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, he discusses what he called the Stockdale Paradox.
When Collins asked Stockdale how he was able to survive years as a POW, Stockdale said,
“I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
Collins followed up by asking who where the people who did the worst in the POW camps?
As Republicans we must always have faith that we will prevail in the end. But let’s not sugarcoat some of the difficulties we face today.
Is it the worst it’s ever been? No.
Is it worst than it’s been in a while? Perhaps.
But let’s be honest. Public opinion shifts over long and short periods of time. This is the nature of popular opinion. To say our party is out of the mainstream, is to extrapolate the views of a brief snapshot on the entire future. This sort of analysis is dangerous because it does not account for major unexpected events that change opinions and perceptions. The further you predict the more inaccurate you become.
Since September 11, 2001, we have seen two wars, several devastating hurricanes, a real estate boom and bust, a financial crisis, the worst economy since the Depression, Obamacare, the Arab Spring, and the US debt crisis. The unexpected happens all the time.
If change is the only guarantee in life, we must continually analyze and adapt to the changing landscapes. As candidates, your response to the unexpected might be your greatest asset.
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