Don't get too excited by the title of this blog post, fans of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. I'm not capable of arguing how it is that these guys could buck the odds and become President of the United States.
(As we'll see, nobody is.)
Rather, I want to share some passages from a chapter, "The Secret of Success," in historian Yuval Noah Harari's fascinating book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, that remind us how unwise it is to think that anything is impossible in this wild and wacky chaotic world of ours.
I read the chapter this morning. Soon after, my daily Internet browsing led me to a story that would have blown my mind more, if Harari hadn't already prepared it to be blown.
Over on the Washington Post web site, I marveled at "That new CNN poll is about Trump's lead solidifying, not growing. Yet."
If you compare Trump's favorability among groups in the two CNN polls, you can see two big changes. His net favorability (those who view him favorably minus those who don't) surged with Republicans, and dipped among independents. (The graphs below use registered voter responses.) For all of the discussion about Trump potentially losing ground among women -- there wasn't much ground to lose.
What's stunning, though, is how this compares to Jeb Bush. Donald Trump's net favorability among all voters is higher than Jeb Bush's. Margins of error, etc., but for Pete's sake. Tell someone in March that Donald Trump would be leading the Republican field by double digits and they'd roll their eyes. Tell them that Trump would be viewed as or more favorably than Bush and they'd have had you committed.
Pundits have kept on predicting that after this or that gaffe by Trump, his presidential ambitions are over. Finished. Gone. Flushed down the political toilet.
And the pundits keep on being wrong. As they usually are. About everything. Just as almost everyone is who tries to predict the future.
Harari explains why in his usual clear style. Speaking of when Constantine chose Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, he says:
In fact, the people who knew the period best -- those alive at the time -- were the most clueless of all. For the average Roman in Constantine's time, the future was a fog. It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time.
Today is no different.
Are we out of the global economic crisis, or is the worst still to come? Will China continue growing until it becomes the leading superpower? Will the United States lose its hegemony? Is the upsurge of monotheistic fundamentalism the wave of the future or a local whirlpool of little long-term significance? Are we headed toward ecological disaster or technological paradise?
There are good arguments to be made for all of these outcomes, but no way of knowing for sure. In a few decades, people will look back and think that the answers to all of these questions were obvious.
It is particularly important to stress that possibilities which seem very unlikely to contemporaries often get realised. When Constantine assumed the throne in 306, Christianity was little more than an esoteric Eastern sect. If you were to suggest then that it was about to become the Roman state religion, you'd have been laughed out of the room just as you would be today if you were to suggest that by the year 2050 Hare Krishna would be the state religion of the USA.
...Not that everything is possible. Geographical, biological, and economic forces create constraints. yet these constraints leave ample room for surprising developments, which do not seem bound by any deterministic laws.
This conclusion disappoints many people, who prefer history to be deterministic. Determinism is appealing because it implies that our world and our beliefs are a natural and inevitable product of history. It is natural and inevitable that we live in nation states, organise our economy along capitalist principles, and fervently believe in human rights.
To acknowledge that history is not deterministic is to acknowledge that it is just a coincidence that most people today believe in nationalism, capitalism, and human rights.
History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic. So many forces are at work and their interactions are so complex that extremely small variations in the strength of the forces and the way they interact produce huge differences in outcomes.
Not only that, but history is what is called a 'level two' chaotic system. Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. The weather, for example, is a level one chaotic system. Though it is influenced by myriad factors, we can build computer models that take more and more of them into consideration, and produce better and better weather forecasts.
Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately. Markets, for example, are a level two chaotic system. What will happen if we develop a computer program that forecasts with 100 per cent accuracy the price of oil tomorrow? The price of oil will immediately react to the forecast, which would consequently fail to materialise.
...Politics, too, is a second-order chaotic system. Many people criticize Sovietologists for failing to predict the 1989 revolutions and castigate Middle East experts for not anticipating the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. This is unfair. Revolutions are, by definition, unpredictable. A predictable revolution never happens.
...So why study history? Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.
Yikes! Like a Donald Trump GOP presidential nomination, and maybe even winning of the presidency. Or, of Bernie Sanders doing the same on the Democratic side.
Hard to believe. But then, all of history is hard to believe until after it happens. Then it appears inevitable. Just like our own personal lives.
The lesson is, it's fine to make plans for a certain sort of future. Just don't be surprised when things turn our very differently. Such is the way of the world.