If you saw the last Presidential debate in Boca or have been have been watching any television at all for the last two years you know that politics in this country are more polarized today than we have been since the end of the US Civil War in 1879. In fact, we have been becoming increasingly more polarized and deadlocked for over 30 years now. Which means today our leaders can agree on almost nothing.
And you probably think, well, yea, that’s how it works – that’s how it’s always been. It’s just the nature of politics. But the fact is that if you look back at voting patterns over a couple of hundred years or so you see it’s not how it’s always been, and in fact in the past we enjoyed many decades of effective non-partisan consensus-based problem-solving – and were actually able to fix problems in this country.
But not today. Today we’re on the verge of serious trouble …And this is happening at a time when our deficit is increasing by $4.2 billion a day, millions of Americans are in desperate need of jobs, food and housing, and our education system is in a free-fall. Yet our leaders and our country are too divided to even talk to each other about these issues.
And you know why? Well we don’t really know. So about 15 years ago I set out to study these kinds of stuck conflicts by reading everything I could get my hands on in the science of intractable conflict….and frankly I didn’t get very far…because all the studies seem to provide different pieces of the puzzle but no puzzle… so I put together a team of very talented, brilliant, somewhat crazy and wonderful complex systems scientists – physicists, psychologists, anthropologists, political scientists, mathematicians…I even moved to Poland for a while to work with some of them…And we collected all kinds of data on stuck conflicts through archives, case studies, lab experiments, computer modeling…And we found some interesting things about these kinds of conflicts.
Particularly about what applied mathematics – and the notion of attractors – or patterns mathematicians see in data when they track something across time which settle in and resist change – have to tell us about why we are so stuck and what and I can do about it. Because we think that attractor dynamics can help reveal the essence why we have been so stuck for decades.
When very complicated problem sets start interacting and spreading and then collapse into over-simplified patterns that last for years – they are known as attractors.
They call them attractors because they in fact attract us in. And draw us into very simple ways of thinking or feeling or acting that can feel impossible to change.
We see attractor patterns like this when people get stuck in an addiction cycle and can’t kick it, or with chronic traffic jams in cities, unending wars, and even in planetary orbits. In Washington, Florida and across the country, we are stuck in patterns of how we think and feel about THEM – the BLUES or the REDS who are what’s wrong with this country.
But its important to understand that these attractors are NOT CREATED BY ANY ONE THING, but by many things but more importantly by how all of these things come together to form powerful constraints on how we think, feel and act. It’s like we are trapped in the gravity of an attractor.
But we’ve learned some interesting things about where attractor conflicts come from that can help: What we call The 10 year Rule.
This comes from research by Paul Diehl & Gary Goetz on the Correlates of War Data Base which has data on wars from 1816-2001 on 915 cases of international conflict. And we’ve found that about 5% of these got stuck for decades despite many good faith attempts at peacemaking. The study of the these stuck conflicts tells us something fascinating - 95% of them erupted within 10 years of a major political shock to the system (like the over-throw of a government, or an assassination).
Some major destabilizing event occurs and then 10 years later we see the beginning of these conflicts. But this is not how we typically think, right? A war breaks out and we look to see what triggered it, but the reality is that something had set the stage for it a decade before.
So for example, what happened about ten years before the “Arab Spring” erupted in 2011?
9/11 shocked the world, and on its heels the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Now did 9/11 and the wars cause the Arab Spring? Of course not! But they set the stage – they destabilized the region sufficiently so that regimes that had been in control for decades were suddenly overthrown – 10 years later - by young people with Twitter!
Similarly, pundits in this country often suggest that today’s political quagmire began with the Reagan administration. But if you look back at the political shocks that occurred in the US 10 years before Regan, we see a more likely cause:
1968 Summer of Love (Sex and Drugs),
1968 MLK & Bobby Kennedy assassinations
1968 My Lai Massacre & Anti-Vietnam movement
1970 Kent State shootings
1970 EPA, OSHA, PBS founded
1971 Pentagon papers released
1972 Watergate scandal
1973 Roe V. Wade decision
We see a series of major political shocks that - 10 years later - ruptured our unity and tore us apart into the Blues and Reds we are trapped in today.
So How Can all this Help us Change our Situation?
The bad news is we can’t force such attractors to change – there are too many components that are keeping them stuck. But we can begin to do some things today to decrease the probabilities that things will remain stuck or get worse over time, and increase the probabilities that our leaders return to more constructive problem-solving.
But first it’s important to understand WHEN THEY CHANGE. Because not only do 95% of enduring conflicts begin within 10 years of a political shock, but 75% of them also end within 10 years of shocks.
For instance, if you look again at polarization graph, you can see that in 1924 –exactly 10 years after the shock of World War I –Congress came together and enjoyed an uncommonly high level of stable consensus-based problem-solving for over 50 years!
This means shocks – like the recent world financial and economic crises – can also rupture patterns of polarization – and create the conditions for positive change.
But we may not see major changes for 10 years. And they do not ensure positive change; they only create the conditions.
So, another thing that mathematics tells us helps determine the direction we take after a political shock is what they call the power of initial conditions.
That is, the first actions taken in the early stages a newly developed system largely determine its future trajectory. This means that whoever wins the election this week will have a unique but small window of opportunity to reset our course. Our country is stuck and in decline and we need our leaders to break the mold. This is exactly leaders like FDR and Nelson Mandela did in the wake of extraordinary crises. They reframed the debate.
So What If on Wednesday November 7th - the day after the election – our next elected President called for a radical new approach to governing where the President and Congress govern according to a shared vision, mission and objectives they come together to agree to within the first 100 days in office? Just rid ourselves of governance through opinion polling and lobbyist control and require our leaders to work together. If they don't agree, then the President (by Executive order) triggers government shut down. Can you imagine that?
It would take advantage of our destabilizing financial and economic crisis by setting a new course!
But what about Us? What can we do to break the mold? It is critical to recognize that the hostile attractor we are trapped in as a nation was created and is maintained by all of us. Our words and deeds in our homes and communities do much to contribute to the current climate of contempt.
But even small changes in what we call control parameters – like our most basic rules of behavior can have enormous emergent effects on a system. If each of us made one change in how we act in our daily lives, we could make a difference.
Complicate. For example, by recognizing that the more serious problems we face today in economics, security, health and education are immensely complicated. Because this complexity makes us anxious we are comforted by simplistic solutions. But solutions to these problems will always be mixed - with both good and bad outcomes. Recognizing this from the beginning forces us to demand solutions that are more feasible and sustainable.
Concentrate. Or by simply paying closer attention. Science tells us that over 90% of our daily behaviors are automatic - things we do every day without thinking (like driving a car or reacting to our kids or coworkers). Many of these behaviors contribute to our divisions.
When was the last time you MSNBCers watched Bill O’Reilly just to learn something new? Not to scowl or ridicule, but just to try to discover new ideas? Or when did you Foxers last tune-in to PBS?
These actions may seem trivial, but they add up and can help us break out of being stuck and deadlocked. The good news is that we are in crisis! So ask not what your country can do for you...but what you can do with the rare opportunity of this crisis.
Peter T. Coleman, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University.