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Chaos Theory Is the Future of American Politics
A website changes its algorithm and a game show host becomes president.
1. A Butterfly Flaps Its Wings in Peking . . .
I’ve pointed you to the Margins before and I’m going to do it again with this essay from Ranjan Roy about Reddit.
But it’s not really about Reddit. It’s about how small changes to one part of the world can result in big changes some other place that is seemingly unconnected.
I’ll let Professor Malcolm explain:
Chaos theory is what you get with complex systems, such as fluid dynamics. Well, the internet basically turned human civilization into a fluid more or less overnight. The result has been the introduction of orders of magnitude more complexity. And so the potential for much, much more chaos.
So here’s Roy giving you the short history of Reddit:
[Reddit] was part of the first YC batch, pretty quickly was sold to Advance Publications (the parent company of Condé Nast) for $10 million. . . .
For years, Reddit lived this kind of utopian commercial-pressure-free existence. The post-ranking and voting mechanisms that generated amazing discussions never really evolved from the early days, but they didn’t really need to. It worked. The site grew to hundreds of millions of monthly pageviews, with barely any advertising revenue goals or a concerted push for engagement or growth. It didn’t work as a business but as a digital gathering place . . . there wasn't even a proper mobile app . . .
It was only in October 2014 that the utopia ended. Reddit became a standalone commercial entity, raising a $50 million round.
It was in 2017 that things really started picking up on. Reddit raised a $200 million round (including money from very professional money like Coatue) at a $1.8 billion valuation. Armed with institutional money and credibility, Reddit started making serious moves. It started with a major redesign . . .
You’re with me so far, I hope. Reddit only happens because it’s early to Y-Combinator. It’s lucky to get bought by Condé at a time when Condé is still swimming in money. When it gets spun off, it’s at a tiny valuation. And when it finally gets a serious valuation in 2017, that’s when the company decides to change the U/X purely as a response to the valuation. Because the VC round is so big, the company feels like it has to grow. And getting growth means changing the site.
In 2018, Reddit hires Jen Wong as COO; her goal is to triple the monthly users. But that’s only possible by pivoting to images and video. So the site starts pushing visual content and simultaneously promoting posts, with the idea of chasing Facebook’s engagement machine.
This constant promotion grows Reddit and pulls in lots of highly engaged users. And one of the communities they form is the subreddit r/wallstreetbets.
And the creation of r/wallstreetbets in turn creates the memestock economy.
When Reddit raised a ton of money and hired a media growth legend, I’m sure sending AMC to the moon was never on anyone’s mind. But as we slowly try to make sense of what’s happened in the financial markets over the past year, it’s worth remembering how a redirection in a business model and UX tweaks can create massive outsized behavioral changes that make the world a lot weirder and harder to understand.
A tech company gets a big VC round, which leads them to redesign their site and prioritize growth—and suddenly big parts of the stock market become irrational and we get a massive wealth transfer.
And this is not the only way in which the internet is creating chaos. @Jack wants a text-based version of CB radios and the media and political systems get upended. Mark Zuckerberg wants to let Harvard kids hook up more easily and the entire news business blows up.
The chaos is all around us. And it’s going to keep increasing as the complexity of our world keeps increasing.
When people tell you that this or that can’t happen—a reality show host can’t become president; if there were a violent insurrection, the Republican party would put its foot down; no Congress would ever set aside certified vote totals to pick a president of their own power—these are just wishes and hopes. And failures of imagination.
The future is chaos. And we will either fight it with our eyes open, or give in to it with our heads in the sand.
The failure of imagination is a necessary precondition to the toppling of democracy.
2. The Real Bad Guys
If you haven’t seen the full, “official” John Eastman memo yet, you should. The pdf version is here.
I don’t think it’s too strong to say that Professor Eastman was explicitly advocating, in writing, for the executive branch to overthrow the democratically elected government of the United States.
But who’s the real villain? Work with me for a minute, because I’d argue that it’s not Eastman. Here’s CNN:
Peril, which will be released Tuesday, details how Eastman's memo was sent to GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and how Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani tried to convince fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina of election fraud. But both Lee and Graham scoffed at the arguments and found they had no merit.
So two United States senators saw this thing and didn’t make it public.
And as far as I can tell, John Eastman seems to still be a member of the Federalist Society.
The real danger doesn’t come from the authoritarians. It comes from the elites who willingly cooperate with them.
Aspirational strongmen are always with us. But what has changed in America over the last several years is that the elite members of the conservative movement and the Republican party decided to work with them, to abet them, to cover for them even to the point of insurrection.
The anti-anti-Trump caucus is more sinister—and ultimately more dangerous—than even the authoritarian himself. They are the difference between a figure like Donald Trump being a third-party sideshow and being chief executive of the United States.
For a democracy to fail, it must be sick on many levels. You need the charismatic figure himself. You need a critical mass of the public to be so mobilized against their neighbors that they crave a strongman, and another segment of the public to be so decadent that they can’t muster the will to resist. And you need an elite class so craven that it talks itself into going along with the slide into authoritarianism.
This class can make a number of excuses: The threat isn’t really serious. Someone will stop society from going over the cliff. The strongman doesn’t mean what he says. The other side is worse.
These elites are the circuit breaker, the failsafe that is supposed prevent a popular movement from being able to push an aspirational authoritarian into power.
We have now seen in America that the conservative establishment and the Republican party have failed at this job.
The reaction of the movement to the Eastman memo should have been stark horror and an attempt to sound the alarm for America.
Instead, the anti-anti caucus stayed quiet.
This is how catastrophe happens.
3. How to Lose a War without Losing Everything
War on the Rocks talks about what happens to a volunteer army when it loses a war:
The sudden fall of Afghanistan marks the very first time that the U.S. military has clearly lost a war fought solely by volunteers. This defeat will have many strategic consequences, but it also may have a deeply corrosive effect on the nation’s all-volunteer military. . . .
Institutionally, the U.S. military faces three critical tasks. First, it has both a moral and a practical obligation to dissect what went wrong during the 20 years of war and to demonstrate that it has processed and learned from those hard lessons. Current and future generations of service members ought to have confidence that the hard lessons from Afghanistan were not buried and that harsh critiques of wartime decisions and performance in this war’s aftermath were welcomed in order to better prepare for any future irregular wars. The U.S. military utterly failed to do this after the Vietnam War, as it sought to erase counter-insurgency from its institutional memory instead of insisting on a brutal degree of self-assessment examining how military actions contributed to the defeat. As a result, a new generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines entered their own unconventional wars a quarter century later with no current doctrine or training on fighting insurgents. This should never happen again.
Second, U.S. military leaders ought to clearly identify what went wrong with the disastrous evacuation and take full responsibility for their part in the debacle. The decision to end the war was rightly made by civilian leaders. Their decision may or may not have been strategically wise. But the execution of the withdrawal was clearly a military responsibility, and it was indisputably done poorly. Congress is already scheduling hearings in an effort to establish some accountability for the war’s ghastly final days and for leaving behind so many Afghans who took tremendous personal risks to help the American effort. In recent weeks, we’ve both seen many social media posts about the withdrawal referencing Paul Yingling’s famous observation about recent conflicts — that a private who loses a rifle suffers greater consequences than a general who loses a war. Restoring confidence in the key principles of the warrior ethos requires senior leaders to launch a swift and candid assessment of the bungled conclusion to the war — perhaps by an independent and respected outside body, to ensure its credibility — and to hold themselves accountable for any military failures.
Third, senior leaders of the Department of Defense and the services should guide the force to somehow absorb the loss of the war in Afghanistan constructively. After the rancorous end of the Vietnam War in 1975, many service members and veterans concluded that the war was lost primarily because civilian leaders imposed too many restrictions on military operations, forcing the military to fight with one hand tied behind its back. For some, this led to an insidious belief that the military had been “stabbed in the back” by political leaders, the media, and anti-war protesters who ostensibly undermined the U.S. military on the battlefield and caused the U.S. capitulation. But senior U.S. military leaders, including Gens. Creighton Abrams and Frederick Weyand, sought to stamp out this dangerous interpretation by reinforcing the idea that militaries in the United States and other democratic societies always fight within constraints imposed by elected leaders. The generals ensured that the psychology of blame and defeat never took root within the force, which enabled it to refocus on preparing for the wars of the future.