Times of instability provide valuable lessons for how falling dominoes can drive extensive societal changes in very small periods of time. The past few weeks, and the coming few weeks, have and will illustrate this in exceptional fashion. Those of us who choose to do so have an opportunity to be self-aware as it all happens, and we can learn valuable lessons from observing the process.
The Race for the Democratic Presidential Nomination
Let’s start by looking at the Democratic primary race for the presidential nomination. The early results from Iowa and New Hampshire were clear… the majority of the democratic party was supporting candidates who were more moderate (including Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Biden). On the more progressive side, Sanders ran as a populist progressive, while Warren ran as a pragmatic progressive, trying to appeal to both the center and the left. But even together, the vote for Sanders and Warren didn’t match the vote totals for the more moderate candidates.
As the votes in the early states were counted, several conclusions could be drawn… Sanders was getting the majority of the more progressive vote, and had a chance of getting a plurality of the total vote, but unless the rest of America turned out to be substantially more liberal than Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders’ only path to a nomination was if the more moderate vote remained divided between many candidates.
At the time, I privately predicted that on or about Super Tuesday we would see a coalescing of the more moderate votes behind a single candidate. It seemed then that the momentum was clearly favoring that candidate being Pete Buttigieg. Mayor Pete had weaknesses related to his relative inexperience and his lack of awareness and appeal among minorities, but he also ran a brilliant campaign that looked at the root causes of why America was embracing Trumpism in a way none of the other candidates seemed to consistently articulate. People seemed to be supporting new ideas of and a vision for moving America forward from Trumpism that went beyond any specific policies being offered by the candidates.
But two factors came into play in the final days before Super Tuesday that shifted the winds away from Buttigieg and towards Biden, and it is indeed ironic that neither of those things were of Biden’s own doing. Biden was the unexpected benefactor of an unlikely series of events that accrued to his favor… in plain, non-Vulcan English, he got lucky!
I’ve watched the pundits on CNN and other networks marvel at Biden’s amazing comeback, but the few explanations for it that they have given just don’t hold water as being credible. And that’s because they were not watching the dominoes fall closely enough.
The first factor that led to Buttigieg’s loss of momentum was all the money being spent by Michael Bloomberg. If just getting past Biden to take the centrist vote was the primary obstacle that Pete was facing, then the dominoes could have continued to fall in Buttigieg’s direction. But once it became clear that even if he got past Biden, Pete was also going to have to battle Bloomberg and all of his money, Pete’s path became far murkier, at a time in which people were looking for closure and a united front for challenging Trump.
And then came the coronavirus. The virus scares people, and Trump’s irrational and disinformative response to the situation created even more fear. People were already scared because of Trump… he is a criminal, a sociopath, and a Russian asset… and much of America has come to recognize the strong probability that if Trump wins re-election, democracy and the rule of law will be lost to America for the foreseeable future. The virus took that fear and multiplied it in a scenario where reality denial has dire repercussions that are immediate rather than years in the future.
When people get scared, they head in the direction of safety. Biden is safe. Biden is known. Biden may not be terribly inspiring in the way that other candidates were, but at least he doesn’t scare people. I think that Sanders or any of the other Democratic candidates could have beaten Trump if it came down to it, but Sanders scares much of America in a way that Biden doesn’t. Sanders divides where Biden unifies. Right now, America just doesn’t want to be scared anymore. People wanted closure and not more fighting, and making Biden the nominee was the easiest, safest and most direct way to make that happen.
So in the final days before the South Carolina primary, we saw support coalesce in the direction of the safest path forward, and Biden won by a landslide. Buttigieg, and then Klobuchar, showed incredible insight and courage by reading the dominoes and pulling out then and there so that the more moderate vote could come together behind a single candidate on Super Tuesday. Once Bloomberg pulled out the day following, the race for the democratic nomination was effectively over. Barring a bizarre gaffe or tragedy related to Biden, no other candidate has a credible path to the nomination remaining. I won’t be surprised if Sanders continues to challenge Biden until he has no mathematical chance of winning, but Biden is now effectively the presumptive nominee, and is running against Trump now, not Sanders.
The non-cult population of America is now able to focus on moving forward in unity to bring America back to a path of sanity, decency and democracy. In four more years… perhaps America will be ready to be more progressive, but today, America just wants to be safe, and to make all the crazy end.
The Viral Pandemic
The fear around COVID-19 (which does, indeed, pose real risks to those who are elderly or immune system compromised) is vastly exacerbated by the dual combination of basic ineptitude from the Trump administration coupled with disinformation and reality denial coming directly from President Trump himself. In such a scenario, the repercussions will multiply far beyond the reasonable impact of a virus which in most instances is not significantly more dangerous than the flu.
The lack of adequate testing materials in the United States has the likely repercussion of vastly underestimating the current extent of the virus in America. When testing does finally become available over the coming weeks, the number of reported cases will rise dramatically, which will in turn spurn on greater fear and manifestations of mass hysteria. Conferences, festivals and events that involve the aggregation of large numbers of people will be curtailed. Travel and tourism related business will be severely impacted. How long will this last? Judging based on the experience of what happened subsequent to the events of September 11, 2001, the extreme impact on these industries will have a likely duration of at least three months and possibly up to nine months or longer.
Today the Dow Jones Industrial Average experienced a record drop of more than 2,000 points. It is the latest decline in a drop of approximately 20% over the past month. While it is not yet certain that America is in a recession, it does seem clear that the sustained period of recovery and growth that began in the early years of the Obama administration has finally come to an end.
Over the past three years, the economy in America has faced extreme stresses and challenges from factors that are economically detrimental in the long term but in some cases provided short term benefits… much like drinking sugar water can give someone a short term boost in energy but lead to a crash subsequent to the sugar high. These challenges include record setting federal deficits, tax changes focused on benefiting primarily the most wealthy, tariff policies harmful to America consumers and capitalistic free markets, lower than prudent interest rates, and many other policy changes designed to provide non-sustainable short term boosts in productivity but which must inevitably lead to long term declines. The cascade of dominoes related to COVID-19 may be the trigger that finally leads to the markets correcting for the harmful economic policies of the past three years.
The Path Forward
The scare over the virus will get worse but eventually run through a cycle that is measured in terms of months, not years. A recession will in time come to an end… in a time frame likely of a small number of years.
Yet, in this context, we must acknowledge that we as Americans face far greater challenges that have effects measured in terms of generations. Among those challenges, I’d lay out these four as the most serious:
1. Many of the institutions that maintain the rule of law in America have fallen and been corrupted one after another over the past three years, and if Trump wins re-election in November, those remaining institutions that are not yet fully corrupted by him will fall. Democracy will become illiberal, and America will seemingly be on an irreversible path to become a corrupt oligarchy, much like Putin’s Russia.
2. The financial deficit faced by the United States continues to grow even faster under “conservative” administrations than it has under “liberal” ones. The national debt and its ongoing growth is unsustainable and a long term crisis that our children will inherit.
3. The effects of global warming are and will continue to grow exponentially in the degree of economic and environmental calamity and devastation to our planet. The Earth will survive just fine, but the species that inhabit it will not, including mankind. America’s lack of seriousness in attempting to anticipate and mitigate the storm that is coming will surely prove catastrophic, but to what degree can still be reduced by taking meaningful action sooner rather than later.
4. Fifty years ago, America was a country that cherished intelligence, education, and technology, and was making steady progress in providing an environment of equality and equal opportunity regardless of race, creed, gender or color. Today we are a country wallowing in, and in many instances glorifying, ignorance, stupidity, and racism. Our moral compass, as a country, seems gone. Our educational systems, and our social systems, have failed us in dramatic fashion.
America has no right, or reasonable expectation, to survive as a democracy and land of opportunity in the face of these four factors. (See my earlier columns: The Day We Reached for the Stars and Acted With Decency and Let’s Make America Smart Again.) It will only survive if we make a conscious and deliberate decision to do something about it. Getting people out to the polls to support Trump’s defeat, and to elect Democrats who will take majority control of the US Senate, is the first step to putting America on a path that will facilitate effective change. Each of us who want this to happen must be willing to use our voices, our actions and even make sacrifices from our pocketbooks to help support the candidates who will embrace effective change, even if they are outside of our home district or state.
In the meantime, keep in mind The Domino Principles and how they can be used to anticipate and even foster effective change of the future. Of the ten principles, I’d suggest these five are the most important to keep in mind during current times:
Domino Principle #1. Deceptive Perceptions — “You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” — Richard Feynman. “We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.” — attributed to Ayn Rand.
Domino Principle # 4. Distress Potential — Recognize and take advantage of the fact that the greatest opportunities often come out of times of crisis and distress.
Domino Principle #5. Developmental Psychohistory — While one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, one can sometimes apply the laws of statistics to large groups of people to predict the general flow of future events.
Domino Principle #9. Disaster Preparation — Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
Domino Principle #10. Don’t Panic! — Keep your head even if all about you are losing theirs. Don’t sweat the little things, don’t put effort into trying to change things outside of your control, don’t stop believing in yourself, and don’t succumb to dysfunctional paralysis. Never let fear dictate your future.
And finally, I’ll leave you with the wise words of M. Daniel Nickel:
“As in life, when playing dominoes the points of light are what matter, not the surrounding blank. Look for the dots of goodness in the world and an impressive pattern of possibilities emerges. It is here the game is won.”