I am not an alarmist, nor would I be considered a chicken little. In fact, I tend to think systems self-regulate and maintain an equilibrium.
However, for the first time, I am starting to ponder is America’s current two party system heading towards collapse?
Over the weekend, I made the mistake of peering down the rabbit hole of the study of complexity and complex systems.
My over-simplified definition of a complex system? A complex systems is comprised of many, diverse actors who have interdependent relationships providing feedback that operate in an adapting, ever changing landscape.
This field is study’s grandfather could be considered Thomas Schelling. His nobel prize winning economic work is summarized in Micromotives and Macrobehavior. You are familiar with his work if you have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point.
A basic point is micro level behavior and preferences can and often will differ from macro level results. These macro level results “emerge” from the microlevel actors, meaning no central actor is conducting.
I think we all can agree, the american political system could be described as a complex system.
The Collapse of Complex Systems
When we look at complex systems, they are remarkably tolerant systems, because as we defined them, they adapt….to a point.
However, our current political system is suffering fundamentally in two requirements for a healthy complex system:
Diversity in a Complex System
One of the requirements of a complex system is diversity. Not diversity of just the commonly discussed race and gender, but diversity of thought.
Diversity is a sign of the robustness of a system and its ability to adapt.
Making the concept simple: the more robust (diverse) a system, the more likely of optimizing a outcome.
When a system is reduced to homogeneous actors, the system loses robustness and heads towards catastrophic failure.
A lake is a large, complex, diverse and robust system. You put nitrogen run-off into a lake, a lake can adjust and adapt. No big deal.
You continue to add more nitrogen, a lake will continue to adjust, but its diversity is being reduced. It is still a healthy lake, but the complex system is undergoing stress.
You continue to add nitrogen to a lake, and at some critical point there is little to no diversity and BAM! you hit a tipping point and we are left with a slimy mess, a eutrophic lake.
Feedback in Complex Systems
Complex systems have cascading effects leading to tipping points. One of those cascading causing effects is when feedback loops tip too far to positive only or negative only.
With the lack of diversity in both parties and the curating of news, we observe epistemic closure skyrocketing in our political system.
Epistemic closure is not new, it was first talked about in the 1960s. More recently David Frum, former Bush speechwriter, was warning us about closed feedback loops in 2010 in his NYT piece, Post-Tea-Party Nation.
We observe feedback loops becoming less diverse, reinforced with epistemic closure, further affecting the feedback loop. It is a death spiral.
Observation of Current System
We would be hard-pressed to find a single thinking American that is satisfied with the current state of America’s political system.
The political system is less diverse thanks to gerrymandered districts and ideological purges. The feedback loops are closing (if not closed for some) thanks to epistemic closure.
Both factors are accelerating to magnitudes we have not observed due to catalysts such as technology (Internet) and money (super PACS).
This is observed in Gallup’s recent findings that NEITHER the Democratic Party nor the Republican party exceeds a 40% favorability rating. This is a historical finding: BOTH parties have NEVER been below 40% at the same time in Gallup’s poll.
Another observation of change in complex systems and its modeling is the speed at which massive change happens.
Let’s return to the lake example. A little disfunction is tolerated, but once cascades happen the change is inexorable, and change happens with a violent suddenness. Recent examples? the fall of the USSR and the US financial meltdown.
The USSR and the world financial markets were both systems similar to the lake. You could observe the signs of stress, but no one predicted the rate or size of change.
The current system of 2 party dominance is under tremendous stress.
- Congress’ approval rating is near an all-time low of 15%.
- BOTH parties favorabilities are at historic lows.
- Citizens have lost faith in government’s ability to do its basic job.
When I look at our country’s current two party system, I see signs of collapse and cascades.
There are questions remaining:
- Can we interject enough diversity back into the complex system to increase the likelihood of the system adapting? I see little to no evidence of that.
- Have we already passed the tipping point towards collapse?
- If we have not reached a tipping point towards collapse, will the system adapt and experience a realignment like we have seen in the past? V. O. Key, Jr. wrote about such realignments – Whigs, FDR, Nixon, Reagan, etc.
- If we have reached a tipping point, what would a collapse of the current political system look like? A third party and the death of one or both of the established parties? A radical redesign of the governmental system towards a multi-party governance?
I have always tended to believe that our 200 year old system of government is extremely robust and will adapt. I have previously thought we could and should expect a realignment.
However, with the acceleration of purges and closed feedback loops, I fear the system is now barreling towards collapse.
What I am becoming is more convinced daily that our complex system of governance will undergo a massive change in a relatively short period of time.
This massive change will take the form of a major realignment of the two major political parties or a collapse of our governing system. I hope it is the first.
As with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Duke leading up to World War 1, in complex systems, a small spark can cause a massive, cascading change.
One possible spark? The electoral college advantage of the Democrats leading to the election of Hillary Clinton to the Presidency of the United States.
Additional Reading on Complexity