Luck and fate in politics

There’s a lot of luck[1] in politics. If a handful of events had gone differently in 2016, we’d probably be discussing President Clinton’s second term right now. If the Brexit referendum had been held a few weeks earlier, Remain would probably have won, and David Cameron might still be PM. A few lucky breaks and Labor would have won the 2019 Australian election. And if things had gone slightly differently in Georgia (with the Repubs falling just short in the first round, then losing both runoffs), the prospects for a Biden Administration would be greatly worse than they are.

The first three of these events were unexpected wins for the Trumpist right. And while nobody much pays attention to Australia, the first two were interpreted by Trumpists as much more than lucky breaks. They fed a whole set of beliefs which built up to an expectation that, no matter how bad things looked, their side was destined (for a lot of Trumpists, divinely ordained) for victory.

It’s not surprising then, that Trump’s supporters expected victory in November, and were willing to believe, without any evidence that their victory had been stolen. But as it became more and more evident that the election results were not going to be overturned, cognitive dissonance started to set in. The options were to accept that, fairly or not, they had lost, or to embrace the apocalyptic vision of QAnon and the far right, manifested in the Capitol last week. From the polling evidence, it looks as if the Republican base split down the middle on this.

Now that the insurrection has failed, and Biden’s inauguration is about to take place, the choice gets even sharper. As those who rejected the election result and tried to overturn it are increasingly ostracised and increasingly forced to recant[2], there’s no middle ground between accepting defeat, at least this time around, and going all the way down the insurrectionist rabbit hole and into rightwing terrorism.

From the politics as usual viewpoint of someone like Mitch McConnell, the advisability of the first course of action is obvious. But to the extent that the energy of the Trumpists was built on faith in inevitable victory, that may be difficult to sustain[3].

As for rightwing terrorism, it’s bound to keep on happening. The history of events like the Beer Hall Putsch shows that clownish initial failure does not guarantee defeat (no inevitability, again). We have to hope that, having been directly and personally threatened by the terrorists, the Democrats won’t shrink from the responses necessary to suppress them and the Republicans won’t be willing to defend them.

fn1. My friend, fellow-economist and now politician Andrew Leigh has a great little book called The Luck of Politics It’s mostly about luck as it affects individual political careers, where the same point applies: a bit of good luck is often the difference between being revered and being reviled.

fn2. In this context, the coverage by the Washington Times is just as significant as the apology extracted from American Thinker. The story includes, as background, the observation that

Mr. Trump and some fellow Republicans pushed false claims and conspiracy theories to justify the election’s outcome prior to mobs of the president’s supporters raiding the U.S. Capitol last week, including baseless allegations involving Dominion and its machines.

Republicans will have to get used to reading this kind of thing, even in reliably rightwing media.

fn3. The 20th century debates within Marxism about the inevitability of socialism illustrate this, as do even older debates about predestination within Christianity. Logically, you might expect a belief in inevitability to discourage costly action (why work hard for a cause that is going to win anyway?), but in practice, the feeling of being on the winning side has always won out.

8 thoughts on “Luck and fate in politics

  1. The last 4 years have been terrible and we’ve escaped disaster by the skin of our teeth. But your mention of the alternative history of President Clinton’s second term brings up the possibility she may not have got a second term. If she had won in 2016 she would not have had control of the House or the Senate, and the Republicans would not have let her get anything of significance through the Congress. So she might well have come into 2020 being seen as a loser president. There is the possibility that COVID may have saved her, given the way leaders who show even minimal competence have their reputations enhanced during a severe pandemic. But she may well have lost the 2020 election and possibly even lost it to Trump! So who knows what the fickle wheel of Fate may have given us.

  2. The pity is, the US Right seems lost in a fantasy world. If Trump was to be voted out, why not on the vicious mix of economic, legal and social policies he fathered over his four years and the allegations of corruption flying thick and fast?

    Not that we should laugh.

    After all, wasn’t it the Baboon level intellect of the Australian public that showed the way by re electing out home grown Trump, Morrison and his Rocky Horror friends?

    As for the Brits, just let’s not go there…

  3. John Goss,
    You state: “The last 4 years have been terrible and we’ve escaped disaster by the skin of our teeth.”

    It depends on who “we” are. Some have “escaped disaster”… so far – hundreds of thousands in the US haven’t. Millions haven’t around the world.

    Per Johns Hopkins data, as at 15 Jan 2021, total cumulative COVID-19 deaths in the USA was at least 392,100.

    At least 3,744 new coronavirus deaths and 241,104 new cases were reported in the United States on Jan 15.

    I’d suggest it has been a disaster for many US families, and Trump’s defining legacy of incompetence on dealing with COVID is not over yet.

    It’s all a matter of perspective, and who’s lucky, and who isn’t:

    “I mean, you can’t deny that many people are better off.”
    –Kellyanne Conway

    “Well, they’re not better off now! A lot of them are dead.”
    –Bill Maher

    Meanwhile, it seems higher oil prices are coming. US petroleum geologist Art Berman recently stated:

    “It doesn’t matter whether wells are newly drilled and completed or DUCs—there are simply too few wells being added to maintain present levels of production.”

  4. I have a problem with using luck as a catchall determinant JQ. What of kismet & serendipity? Control? Power?

    Would my new term – ICAFF – “initial conditions” + “context “+ “agency” + “fortune” = Fate ICCAF Index at + – (100)  to show “luck fate condition context – be more nuanced and allow for the blinkered, consequentialists and libertarians to accept your arguments without too much cognitive dissonance? Why not a more detailed, less ambiguous concept than luck & fate?

    An example of cognitive dissonace I felt reading your interesting op is “A few lucky breaks and Labor would have won”. Hmmm…

    3 studies, one a rebuttal. And – worse luck! teh donald agrees!

    “On Luck and Modality

    By Jesse Hill

    The modal account of luck is the predominant account of luck in epistemology and ethics. In the first half of this paper, I discuss three possible interpretations of the modal account (proportional, distance, and density-based views) and raise objections to each. I then raise an objection to all plausible versions of the modal account, that is, that whether an event is lucky or the extent to which it is a matter of luck will depend on what initial conditions or features of the event one holds constant across nearby possible worlds.

    “However, there is often reasonable disagreement about what the relevant initial conditions of an event are, and the modal account of luck has no means of determining which description of the event is correct.

    “As such, the modal account is subject to a kind of reference class problem, and the view cannot actually tell us the extent to which certain events are a matter of luck.”

    Hill, J. On Luck and Modality. Erkenn (2020).

    What Luck is Not

    Jennifer Lackey

    In this paper, I critically examine the two dominant views of the concept of luck in the current literature: lack of control accounts and modal accounts. In particular, I argue that the conditions proposed by such views—that is, a lack of control and the absence of counterfactual robustness—are neither necessary nor sufficient for an event’s being lucky. Hence, I conclude that the two main accounts in the current literature both fail to capture what is distinctive of, and central to, the concept of luck.”

    What, and Where, Luck is: A Response to Jennifer Lackey

    Neil Levy

    In ‘What Luck Is Not’, Lackey presents counterexamples to the two most prominent accounts of luck: the absence of control account and the modal account. I offer an account of luck that conjoins absence of control to a modal condition. I then show that Lackey’s counterexamples mislocate the luck: the agents in her cases are lucky, but the luck precedes the event upon which Lackey focuses, and that event is itself only fortunate, not lucky. Finally I offer an account of fortune. Fortune is luck-involving, and therefore easily confused with luck, but it is not itself lucky.”

    Luck as a word – I assume the concept has roots in english society though, yet hardly used in English, until 1800, but the word ‘luck’ was ..
    …” not found in Old English, probably … a word of unknown origin. It has cognates in Modern Dutch geluk, Middle High German g(e)lücke, German Glück”fortune, good luck.”

    “Perhaps first borrowed in English as a gambling term. … but the expression itself is older:
        “A gentleman was lately walking through St Giles’s, where a levelling citizen attempting to pick his pocket of a handkerchief, which the gentleman caught in time, and secured, observing to the fellow, that he had missed his aim, the latter, with perfect sang-froid, answered, “better luck next time master.” [“Monthly Mirror,” London, 1802]

    The Donald I doubt will use my new ICAFF index – he seems to concur re luck & fate (worse luck!):

    “Everything in life is luck.”

    “What separates the winners from the losers is how a person reacts to each new twist of fate.”
    Donald Trump

    From Wikipedia :
    “When asked in an interview if he felt “lucky” to have written the song, Lake responded:

    “I did write “Lucky Man” when I was 12. My mum bought me a guitar and I was very lucky in that sense, the answer was yes instead of no. There was the first bit of luck because had the answer been no, my life would have probably been totally different. “…

    Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Lucky Man

  5. Geoff Miell
    By saying we’ve escaped disaster by the skin of our teeth, I was mostly referring to the possible collapse of US Democracy, a la John Quiggin’s comment of 21 Nov 2020, ‘Even as the future of US democracy remains in the balance ….’ Despite the inadequacies of US democracy as it is normally practiced, its collapse would have had extraordinarily negative consequences for the world.

    As to the overall impact of 2020 on world well-being across all domains of well-being, I am waiting to see what the final data say before I make a judgement as to how bad it was. I think there was a pretty big hit to the flow of well-being, but I’m not so sure as to how much the stock of well-being decreased.

  6. “The history of events like the Beer Hall Putsch shows that clownish initial failure does not guarantee defeat.”

    “Like” is doing a hell of a lot of work in that sentence. In truth, Hitler’s failed 1923 putsch convinced him not to stage any more similar events, but to seek power constitutionally, which he did. There will no doubt continue to be occasional terrorist atrocities in America including some by right-wingers, but it’s an unsustainable stretch to suggest future attempts at insurrection are “bound to happen”. They might, but it’s far from guaranteed.

    I expect Republicans to take back the House in 2022 and return Washington to the dysfunctional gridlock which characterised the last 6 years of the Obama presidency. That suits the right just fine. They don’t want government to actually do anything; they’re happy as long as they can stop the liberal agenda.

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