Erik Larson

Oct 30, 2008

The Semantics of Change

The mantra on the campaign trail is change. Obama is the change candidate; McCain is the maverick. Neither want to be aligned with the last eight years. Change is a good message, and certainly is a part of the American psyche at this moment, but I think I think we’re all using “change” in an idiosyncratic way; it’s use on the campaign trail and among the American voters has a meaning much closer, it seems to me, to “stability”, paradoxical as this may be.

The Credit Crisis hurt McCain so much because it steered discussion away from national defense, but it also hurt him because it connected, with voters, the current economic instability with the Republican administration. Who can make this unstable situation stable? This was the question posed to McCain, and one in which he needed, being an encumbent, a rabbit-out-of-the-hat response. He didn’t provide any magic (far from it), and so sunk in the polls.

The reality is, the world is dangerous today on many fronts: we continue to persist in an assymetric war climate in which terrorist groups can exact massive damage to our people, our infrastructure, and our sense of self-confidence in spite of the large size of our military. We are immersed also in a global economy that has become increasingly complex, resistant to traditional “protectionist” close-the-doors solutions, and less and less controllable by the actions of central governments. Information was once disseminated in libraries; now we have the Web. Same shift I think with economies, and the shape of violent conflicts. Notwithstanding the wars we’re fighting in quasi-conventional fashion, the assymetric nature of terror threats has never gone away. (It’s morbid, but after Sept. 11 I’ve been inescapably impressed with the notion that we’re on a countdown to the day when a suitcase sized nuclear device detonates in a major city.) The world is a scary place. But what we’ve discovered in the wake of the Credit Crisis is that it can be scary in many ways. A terrorist attack, or the collapse of the economy; it’s all instability.

Part of what makes the modern world feel so perpetually unstable is that it’s seemingly impervious to prediction, more now than ever. We’re all bottom-up today, distributed, and not centrally controllable. It’s not a recipe for prediction. In spite of the exhilarating progress of modern science, somehow we can’t tell what’s going to happen next . Forget the Enlightenment, we may as well be back in the Middle Ages, only with more differential equations (that don’t apply to complex systems), and High Definition TVs. Arguably (and I think actually), our perpetual failure to predict what comes next is why true innovation is still possible (more on this in some other post). But no one can pretend to have their thumb over it anymore. It happens out there , apart from central government control. The 700 billion bail-out was a throw-back to such central control, but I suspect it will have less effect than we hoped, and at any rate, the increasing interdependence of the global economy will make such Hail Mary maneuvers less and less effective. It’s a Scary New World . But we’re all in it together.

So I think our current change candidates are really only succeeding with voters when they strike chords of stability , in spite of the continual use of the word change. The average voter, whatever he says outwardly, seems to be saying inwardly: The world is currently unstable; give me a President that will make it more stable. It’s Obama’s election to win, for sure. McCain has the Sisyphusian task of pushing the Rebublican rock back up the hill. He must be the “change” (read: return stability ) candidate in spite of the fact that he’s the encumbent. His folks have been in charge, and mostly we’re not happy with the result.

Which is why, to descend into partisan politics, McCain shouldn’t have chosen Palin. He chose her on “change”, but apparently failed to recognize that “change” in this election really means “stability”. Disasterous. She represents an unknown quantity in high office, whatever her appeal to the Republican base might be. McCain needed a stability veep, and one with the calming effect of a person of gravitas, good judgement, and experience. (I wanted Lieberman, personally, as we would get all of the above, as well as a strong case that McCain does indeed eschew party-line politics in favor of solving problems across the isle as needed.) Oh well. This election is all about stability, and as much as conservatives try to paper over the obvious problems, McCain’s campaign has not instilled it.