Stress test: A theory of the 2016 election

Watching me grind through another round of Fallout 4 the other day, my wife mentioned that she’d heard that there were people who get paid to play video games for a living. She wondered if that might be something I’d be interested in.

I told her no, because professional video gaming is not what it sounds like to the uninitiated. It did, however, cause me to have a light-bulb moment about the nature of this year’s presidential election — indeed, about the nature of politics over the past couple of years.

A recurring experience of life in the 21st century has been switching on the news to discover that something “everybody” had always assumed to be impossible has, in fact, occurred. (I have a theory about why this is, but I’ll save it for later.) The American homeland was never supposed to be attacked. A black man was never supposed to be elected president. The housing market was not supposed to crash. Cheap oil was supposed to be a fond memory. You can probably think of your own examples.

What does this have to do with video games? Well, a lot of “professional” video gaming boils down to stress testing. Either you’re looking for weak points for the developer to fix before the game ships, or you’re looking for weaknesses after the game ships that you can exploit when challenging other gamers — weaknesses which occasionally prove so popular that they come to be seen as essential features.

One thing that’s become increasingly clear over the past decade or so is that many of the “old rules” that were pounded into our heads over the years have become obsolete — and that includes the rules of politics. I’m not going to try to puzzle out when this process began, or who’s originally at fault, but I’ll note that this change has come into particularly sharp relief during the Obama administration.

The result is that at some point in the past couple of years, Americans seem to have collectively come to the conclusion that they are no longer playing the game they originally thought they were. In video game terms, they’ve become aware that at some point, with no fanfare, we were all upgraded to the new, 2.0 edition (or, arguably, the 4.0 edition) of the American Political Experiment, with a completely rewritten physics engine, a new ruleset, and even new maps.

Viewed through this lens, the insane recent trajectory of politics becomes clearer: Voters and politicians are like gamers putting a new video game through a gauntlet of stress tests. They’re poking and prodding to see where the new boundaries are, what new bugs or weaknesses they can exploit, and what promising new strategies might pay dividends in this uncertain new world.

Thus, we’ve got voters flocking to guys like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. For my entire life, a Democrat with Sanders’ profile would have been deemed untouchable at the national level, but now he’s become a big force in the Democratic primaries. On the Republican side, Trump seems determined to commit every political sin that the supposedly-expert consultant class has dreamed up since 1980 — and he’s getting away with it.

All of a sudden, approaches and positions that were long assumed to come with a heavy political cost appear to be nearly or entirely cost-free. (This may not bear out over the long term, of course, but for now nobody’s really thinking about that.) This opens up radically new ways of thinking about politics, and particularly the formation of coalitions that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.

Or maybe it will all crash and burn, and the new rules won’t turn out to be all that revolutionary after all. People will revert back to the old, familiar patterns.

One thing’s certain: It promises to be a bumpy ride. If I’m right, it will probably take a few more election cycles, at minimum, for ambitious politicians to construct and test a series of new theses about the nature of this seemingly-new political paradigm, and get a sense of its outlines. Trump- and Sanders-style campaigns might become the new normal for a little while. Or, from a more pessimistic perspective, perhaps we’ve entered a scenario where the upheaval is so great that a stable settlement can only be reached through an exchange of gunfire.

As I told a friend on Facebook the other day: Buckle up, and stock up on ammo.

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