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Feedback, back, back

There’s an idea that has come up in a couple of conversations recently that I am not sure I am articulating very well, so I think I’ll have a go at it here.

We don’t have very many Presidential elections in this country. Once every four years. Not a lot. A lot can happen—a lot always does happen between elections.

I have friends who believe quite strongly that the determining factor in presidential elections is the candidates themselves. I have other friends who believe quite strongly that the candidates themselves have nothing to do with the results, because the deciding factors are bigger than the individuals. I have a lot of sympathy for each view. As examples, I think that whoever the Democrats chose in 1976 would have beaten Gerald Ford, whoever the Republicans chose in 1980 would have beaten Jimmy Carter, and whoever the Democrats chose in 1984 would have lost to Ronald Reagan. I don’t think that any Democrat would have got more votes in 2000 than Al Gore, or that any Democrat would have turfed Our Only President in 2004. Probably. In hindsight.

On the other hand, there’s substantial feedback in the system. Why was Bill Clinton unbeatable in 1996? Partly, of course, because he was an incumbent president in what were perceived to be prosperous times. But we perceived them to be prosperous times, in part, because of the force of Bill Clinton’s personality. In fact, I could make an argument that the actual prosperity was in large part due to the force of Bill Clinton’s personality, both because of the change in feeling he inspired in the country and because of (some of) the policies he nudged through with the force of that personality. And then he was able to nudge a few more things through because of the prosperity, and that made his personality seem more forceful, and around again.

Also, there’s this: in 1992, for some reason millions of Americans looking for leadership, vaddevah dat means, found it in H. Ross Perot. Some of those millions of people found leadership eight years later in George W. Bush. Was it because they are both Texans? No, it’s because our ideas of what leadership is change, and they change in large part due to things like the relative perceived prosperity of the country, like foreign wars and crises, like changing social norms. Eight years—and even four years—is plenty of time for a few million of us to decide (possibly subconsciously) that resolve is less wonderful an aspect of leadership than judgement. Or that fidelity is more integral to leadership than vision. Or that a short man can be a leader, or an old man, or a thrice-married man, or a Mormon, or a Catholic, or a Jew, or a black man, or a woman, or a latino, or a war hero, or a draft-dodger, or a polio-crippled patrician with a high-pitched voice. Any of those could be inconceivable in one Presidential cycle, win the Presidency the next cycle, be tossed out the following one and then be inconceivable again by the cycle after that.

I have said here in this Tohu Bohu that the next President will be an exception. That’s always true. Some Presidents make their own exceptions, and some have exceptions thrust upon them. Perhaps it’s comforting, as we build up speed in this cycle, that sixteen years from now it will have been inevitable, whatever happens.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,