Some see conspiracy. I don’t. I see the expected reaction to a paradigm shift — a complete change in the concepts we use to make sense of our politics and culture.
An excellent illustration of the power of a “paradigm” is the Perceptions of Incongruity experiment that was conducted at Harvard in 1949.
In this experiment, subjects were shown playing cards and asked to call out what they saw. They would consistently identify the cards correctly. After a while, however, the experimenters would slip in “incongruous cards” in which the colors red and black were switched, such as black hearts or diamonds and red clubs or spades.
What did the subjects see when shown those incongruous cards? They did not see the incongruous cards, but normal playing cards — the cards they were expecting to see, without noticing the incongruity. For example, when shown a black six of hearts, they might call out simply “six of hearts” or “six of spades” — neither of which was correct. The subjects didn’t misunderstand or misinterpret anything — they actually misperceived something according to the paradigm in which they were operating — in this case, “the playing card paradigm,” comprising everything they already knew (wrongly) about the cards they were looking at.
Subjects continued to fail to notice the incongruous cards. Eventually, they would exhibit a physiological reaction of discomfort, knowing that something was wrong, but not being conscious of what. Only when they had been forced to look at many incongruous cards for very long times did they “get” what was going on and see what they were looking at. Suddenly, they realized that “the playing card paradigm” did not apply. They finally knew that reality included non-traditional cards. They thus adopted a new paradigm (that included black hearts etc.), and thereafter saw what was in front of their eyes.
As Goethe said, “We see only what we know.”
So what do we know about American politics? We “know” that there are two opposing ideologies, Left and Right. We know they are largely staked out by two established parties, Democrats and Republicans. We know that all political positions that are “reasonable” or “mainstream” are represented by them. The trends in American politics can be identified by listening just to them: other views are held by so few that they can be ignored because they can have no significant impact.
All this “knowledge” is false, but it comprises the prevailing paradigm, so we know it nonetheless.
Any paradigm worthy of the name — such as this American political paradigm — lasts for a long time and is hard to unlearn.
But when it is about to collapse, a few things happen.
A) Most people ignore or try to “explain away” the data that threaten the old paradigm. B) The old paradigm becomes stretched in increasingly artificial ways to fit all the threatening data. This is called, “saving the phenomenon.” C) More parochially, people with a career interest in the old paradigm fight for it with increasing dogmatism.
“Saving the phenomenon” is particularly interesting, and history (as well as everyday life) provides many clear examples. Consider the cosmological paradigm that prevailed for centuries. To a first approximation, heaven is perfect; circles (actually spheres) are perfect; planets are bodies in heaven, and so being perfect, they move around circular paths.
Thus, for centuries the motions of the planets were explained… until enough people made enough observations of planetary orbits that were not, in fact, circular: the circles were actually squashed. But since an entire theology — and an entire political establishment — were based on the idea of heavenly bodies’ following the particular divine design that was endorsed by society’s paradigm makers, the data could not be allowed to make the paradigm false. The “phenomenon had to be saved.” Clever men worked out that if the center of a small circle was imagined to travel around a large circle, and a heavenly body traveled around that small circle, then the body would appear not to be traveling around a circle, but the motions would really all still be circular: circles on circles are still circles, and the old paradigm is still correct!
More data had to come in, and people with especially open minds apply themselves to the problem, before observers could actually perceive what they were observing: that heavenly bodies travel in ellipses. When they did, the paradigm shifted: Kepler was then able to formulate his law of planetary motion, political power throughout Europe was redistributed, and soon Newton would formulate gravity.
Admittedly, changes in a prevailing political paradigm are, unlike planets, hard to observe directly if they occur in people’s heads, but many important political and cultural changes of our time are much more visible.
For example, the average adult under 30 is expected to feel that there’s not much point in engaging in politics because she can’t make much of a difference. Politicians are not rock stars and their ideas don’t inspire young people to congregate in their thousands in stadiums to get high on old-fashioned ideas like liberty or abstruse concerns like monetary policy, chanting their favorite lines from their candidate’s “greatest hits” (unless of course, that candidate has already been nominated as his party’s presidential candidate). People certainly don’t make computer games out their favorite candidate’s favorite positions. Hundreds of them don’t spend hours writing songs and recording high-quality videos about political issues that turn them on. And, usually, people who read books about the history of central banking for fun don’t number in the hundreds of thousands. In short, it’s been several decades since so many people became more inspired by politics than by anything else in their lives, and felt so able to make a difference. It also used to be that most politically active, educated and non-religious under-30s voted Democratic, while the number of Americans who were politically active but felt completely unrepresented by either main party was too small to matter.
But the media are people too… and so, like everyone else, they do not see what their current paradigm does not allow.
That is why cable TV has not even considered the extraordinary rise of Independent political registration, the decline of party-political thinking, the upsurge of interest in America’s political and historical identity, kids’ climbing trees to hear an old white politician tell a story that no mass political movement, let alone party, has told for generations, or the remarkable scenes that are playing out in GOP caucuses around the country as the party breaks its own rules to ensure that those who don’t like its anointed candidate cannot choose their own.
It is why the rEVOLution has not been televised.
But it will be.
The very fact that the prevailing paradigm cannot accommodate the cultural and political changes in the USA, or even the GOP, is evidence that those changes are radical enough to establish a new one.
Eventually, when the gap between what is so and what everyone “knows” becomes too large, it becomes impossible to carry on everyday life without seeing it, admitting it, and dealing with it. That point may finally be in sight.
This week, some people who both operate in, and shape, the prevailing paradigm came up against that impossibility for the first time. Two cable networks — Fox andMSNBC — discretely acknowledged that Ron Paul was now winning states (IA, MN etc.) and that it was likely (Fox actually ventured “inevitable”) that he would win enough states to be on the ballot with Romney at the GOP convention for the presidential nomination.
Whether that happens is much less important than the paradigm shift that has led to it, for when paradigms shift, history is made.
We may not yet have a new narrative. But the old one just cracked.