Our research leads us to believe that the past four years are not only a predictable reflection of long-standing changes in US politics. Rather, they illustrate something that pundits and political scientists have a harder time understanding than historians and complexity scientists: Fortuitous events – things that might have happened differently under slightly different circumstances – can have something to do with it. great consequences in politics. And that makes us fear an underrated long-term trend in American democracy: The United States is moving in a way that magnifies the consequences of seemingly random events.
Politics depends on random events – but not randomly
Chance plays a big role in all areas of life. However, certain types of organizational structures can make chance even more important. In situations with many independent actors, individual differences disappear, making the results predictable. Life insurance companies can predict how many people in a given category will die prematurely, although they cannot predict which person will die when. But where everyone is linked in tightly integrated organizations, certain fortuitous events can have great consequences.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the lucky assignment of a Soviet submarine to a particular ship helped avoid nuclear weapons exchange. Likewise, the American Civil War might have unfolded differently in 1862 if General Robert E. Lee Special order 191 not been lost and later recovered by Union soldiers, ruining Confederate campaign plans.
This principle helps to explain politics as well as war. The election of Donald Trump was not inevitable. If other Republican candidates had realized in time that he could win, they could have coordinated against him. But Trump is a outlier on several dimensions identified by the now standard five-factor framework of personality psychology. As president, his surprisingly low degree of consciousness (that is, the diligence and internalization of rules and standards) and the unprecedented encouragement of civil unrest have had massive consequences.
Random shocks are becoming more and more important
The long-term tendencies of our system make it more vulnerable to disruption due to fortuitous events such as the election of Trump.
Second, the polarized media environment and the electoral strategy to restrict voting access facilitate the victory of aberrant cases if they reach the general. As other pointed out, voters who consume partisan media are more likely to be misinformed – and maybe less aware failures of their party’s candidates. Making it harder to vote could increase the influence of staunch supporters, again making it easier for politicians who break long-established norms to win.
Finally, the electoral college has become an institution fortuitous event amplifier. Only a few voters can overturn the presidential elections. Trump’s 2016 victory by 80,000 votes in three states surprised most pollsters and election forecasters. His loss was also a random matter. Biden’s victories in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin were based on 45,000 votes. Without these states, each candidate would have obtained 269 electoral votes, sending the contest to the House, with unforeseeable consequences.
Let’s not forget, a 60,000-vote swing in Ohio in 2004 would have given John F. Kerry a victory – even if he would have lost the popular vote by 3 million votes. And in 2000, barely hundreds of votes in Florida gave George W. Bush the presidency, a likely result. motivated by the particular design of the ballot used in a county of Florida.
Four of the last six elections could easily have …
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