Unity2020 wants to outflank the Democrat vs Republican system; if it works it would be a first, but the USA is a nation of firsts.
Things feel settled until they don’t; America and other nations and people have found success by embracing system-level change, rather than denying or preventing it. The idea that the law of two-parties is akin to that of gravity is part of the enduring strength of such systems; if people believe it, the system has a better chance of continuing, and once confidence is revoked, there emerges great opportunity.
I’m writing this post in response to the Unity2020 plan. I’ll explain further later in this piece, but, suffice it to say that the plan proposes to draft patriotic, capable and courageous candidates from the center left and center right, and to have those individuals run for office, and run the country as a team.
The intention of this plan is to replace the closed shop of two-party politics, and put forward candidates whose prime facets are virtues like courage and patriotism rather than party loyalty. The most common challenge to this proposal is that the two major parties — the Democrats and the Republicans — are too entrenched in the social system, that people won’t trust a new political force or are to habituated to change.
Of course there is a large status quo advantage here, but things do change: in politics, the USA once had a Whig party, which was an important political force until Abraham Lincoln’s presidency; in the UK, the Liberal Party was hugely important, returning some of the nation’s most important prime ministers — now it is of minor political relevance.
More recently, and as I explore in my post on the topic, we were just so sure that the Coronavirus was not dangerous, that masks didn’t work, that we should carry on as usual. Meanwhile, if it went the other way and everything turned out fine, would the people saying business as usual say they told us so? Or admit that it was close? Would they have a sense that it could have gone the other way?
The question is: how can we tell which scenario we are in? The common moments in which the status quo endures, or one of the rare moments wherein it is overturned? What about the moments where we see change coming, such as the Liberals’ slow defeat in Parliament, or wherein we are hit with one of Nassim Taleb’s Black Swans, events that are definitionally unpredictable.
The follow-up is: how does this perception affect the system itself?
The writer and trader Nassim Taleb devotes a significant proportion of his words to rare events. These events, he claims, have a disproportionate impact on history and crop up more frequently than most intuit.
One of my favourite of Taleb’s coinages, the “Ludic Fallacy”, denotes an erroneous focus on the game-like facets of a particular system, at the expense of potentially more important factors outside it. Taleb narrates how, conducting a risk-analysis on a casino, he and colleagues found that the establishment’s greatest loses came from events off the table: ransoms, unpaid taxes and disgruntled employees, etc.
Meanwhile, such off the table or even Black Swan events needn’t be perilous or even bad news: Taleb himself points to the Internet and the fall of the Soviet Union.
People can get too focused on the game, such as Democrat versus Republican, and not on the larger system. Systems that feel stable and enduring aren’t, though we feel secure and our actions, perhaps, might even feel conservative, right up until things change.
Given this insight, at least two courses of action seem warranted: 1. orient ourselves so as to benefit from that which surprises us, 2. expand our perception of what is at play.
What is Unity2020? Here is a description, from the project’s site:
We the people draft two candidates: one from the center-left, one from the center-right.
Once elected, they agree to govern as a team. All decisions and appointments will be made jointly in the interests of the American public. Only when they cannot reach agreement, or when a decision does not allow for consultation, does the President decide independently. A coin flip determines which candidate runs at the top of the ticket.
The ideal candidates will fulfil three criteria:
- They must be patriotic
- They must be highly capable
- They must be courageous
After four years in office, the order reverses for the next election. This continues until the American public chooses an alternative administration or one of the members of the team cannot run for re-election, at which point a new patriot would replace them.
The Unity Ticket represents our shared values and vision for the future. Cooperation and necessary compromise pave the path to a functioning and productive government that serves all citizens.
There are two built-in failsafes, meanwhile:
1. It’s common to fear that if one were previously going to vote Republican, voting Unity might take votes from the Republicans and, in doing so, make it more likely for the Democrats to win. The plan avoids this in that Unity draws equal support from left and right.
2. If it seems that Unity2020 really does have no chance, the campaign will pull the plug, thereby avoiding any sense that voters might have “wasted” their vote on something that didn’t go anywhere.
What sort of chance does it have?
America and Change, Entrepreneurship
An appreciation of radical change and of doing things for the first time is very American. The Constitution, though not the first of its type, was the first to outline individual rights, separation of powers, due process, in a way that mattered in the long term.
It’s easy to forget how advanced is was. Meanwhile, it could have gone a number of ways, many of them making much less progress. During the Constitutional Convention, for example, the founding father Alexander Hamilton advocated for a sort of “president for life”-style executive — which would have made the Presidency more like dictatorship. The best comparison might be to the music of Bach, which remains advanced by modern standards, left work for us to do to get to the present, with work remaining, still.
Today, and I know that I’m at great risk of oversimplifying, large parts of America are devoted to change: PayPal’s Peter Thiel opens his startup manual, Zero to One, by asking you if there’s something that you know to be true but about which most people would disagree — what facility do you have that will let you do something first or, even better, best?
This level of openness to unexpected change facilitates innovation and investment. Conversely, its over-reach can turn into a detachment from reality: the person that believes any wild idea and considers the possibility of everything has a low bank balance and high stress levels.
However, the person that can tell the difference between laws of reality and fragile systems has an advantage: gravity is a law; that America has two parties, red and blue, is a system and it, like all systems, has a finite lifespan. You can benefit to the square of this mindset by looking, Taleb-style, beyond what most people consider the bounds of what is at play. For example, see how Tim Berners-Lee describes how he invented the the URL, HTTP and the Web (emphasis mine):
I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and—ta-da!—the World Wide Web … Creating the web was really an act of desperation, because the situation without it was very difficult when I was working at CERN later. Most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together. It was a step of generalising, going to a higher level of abstraction, thinking about all the documentation systems out there as being possibly part of a larger imaginary documentation system.
This sort of changing the rules of the game action is what Unity2020 is asking for. We’re being told that the process of politics is a decision between red and blue; this precludes the possible innovations originating from 1. additional colors, 2. combinations of colors, 3. picking something other than a color and 4. changes to the incentive structures that motivate people who act in the system.
One must remember, meanwhile, that events like this have already happened in American history, and, given that systems change, that victories like that of Unity2020 improbable but inevitable.
Improbable, But Inevitable
I discussed this issue briefly with an American friend, and found that they weren’t aware that America isn’t just on a two-party system, rather that it’s cycled through (some would say) five party systems.
The rather nice graphic above shows this work in action, with new parties emerging through time and, in the middle of the 20th century, the Democrats and Republicans altering their policies drastically. For those who don’t know, and (again) oversimplifying, the Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans had a strong progressive bent and Jackson’s Democrats were famous for Southern segregation, but by 2008 the Democrats returned America’s first black president.
The graph below shows United Kingdom election by share of the vote, with the Conservatives in Blue, Liberals and their successor parties in yellow, and Labour in red. You’ll see that very recently the Labour Party sprang into relevance, not least as a result of expanding the franchise to all adults (not just land owners).
And there’s more to the story: before 1820 where the graph begins on the left, the UK had Whig and Tory parties, which the Liberals and Conservatives replaced.
Fundamental changes to party politics aren’t unheard of. The only thing we of which we really can be certain is that complex systems will change. Furthermore, such changes often accompany other social events: like the Civil War in the USA and the expansion of the franchise in the UK. It certainly feels like such a moment, globally: plague, economic turmoil and, in the States, civil unrest.
Preference Falsification and Undiscovered Preferences
I learned about the concept of preference falsification via Timur Koran’s interview on The Portal podcast with Eric Weinstein. Koran theorizes that people routinely mislead others about their preferences, even in situations such as polling where, in theory, their opinions are private.
Koran remarks how, visiting Eastern Bloc countries, the same people who praised the socialist governments before their fall became strong critics afterwards. This raises the question: how strong actually is support for the two main parties, when “voting 3rd party” practically outs oneself as a crank or crazy.
In one of my favorite Simpsons moments, Homer reveals how the candidates from each party have been replaced by tentacled, drooling space Aliens — voting for a third party won’t help, the Aliens explain: that’s would be throwing away your vote.
Furthermore, the discussion is so focused within the narrow rules of the game that many people don’t even consider alternatives — they might prefer a different approach, but haven’t had a chance to form this preference. For example, before personal computers people had no desire for them: once available and publicised, the technology became very popular. One might call this an undiscovered preference: one that emerges only after we realize that the choice is available to us.
Old, calcified systems like the American two-party system endure not least because of a cluster of supporting beliefs on the part of individual voters: 1. Voting for something else is pointless or even counter-productive; 2. This is just the way the system is; 3.There isn’t a viable way to do things better; 4. Everybody else supports one of the two parties, so even if I want change, it doesn’t stand a chance.
I hope, dear reader, you see how vulnerable and self-perpetuating these beliefs are.
- Voting for something else is pointless until it isn’t, such as in 1945 in the UK when Labour won it’s first full majority.
- This is the way the system is until we change it, such change can be total (like creating the Constitution) or progressive (like changing the voting system).
- Profound innovations often seem non-viable until they work, such examples include hypertext, the personal computer, etc.
- Maybe there are more of you than you realize.
So, please make up your own mind. I hope I’ve done enough to argue you into expanding your conception of what is possible such that, which ever way things go, you won’t be blind-sided by what happens.