Lessons from the multiverse


by Ben Resnik

For Democrats, it was one of the most gleefully Schadenfreude-filled moments of election night. With one swing state after another falling into the blue column, including a surprising comeback in Florida, the conservative punditverse seemed unable to process what was going on. Then, as Fox News called all-important Ohio in Obama’s favor, Karl Rove snapped.

The architect of President George W. Bush’s two-term presidency and co-founder of super PAC American Crossroads desperately declared that Ohio was still up in the air and in fact favoring Mitt Romney. Things culminated in an awkward, impromptu interview with the Fox analysts who had made the call, and a talking down of Rove that left hosts and guest alike uncomfortable. It was a dream for Democrats, an implosion of the Other Team that made their election night wins feel even more like a vindication.

The talking heads and Tea Partiers were not the only ones who had failed to foresee President Obama’s considerable victory. Within the Romney campaign itself, advisors and staffers marveled at a level of defeat they had thought impossible, not just out of hope or faith, but because of the reassurance of numbers they had seen which prophesized their own victory. This cycle, when confronted with numbers that boded ill for Republicans, conservative stalwarts just changed the numbers to compensate what they saw as a vast, almost conspiratorial overestimation of President Obama’s chances in the swing states. These numbers became the main basis of the argument for Governor Romney’s chances, and their pseudo-logic worked the way up the chain of command until even the campaigns, which had access to internal polls telling them the opposite situation was the case, believed them.

None of this had to be the case. Members of the Republican elite were warned. But they dismissed the claims of pollsters and statisticians like FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver as slaves to a liberal agenda, and the vehemence of their faith allowed them to believe precisely what they wanted to believe.

Conservatives are not the only ones to fall victim to their own half-logic — few Democrats were willing to predict the blowout that was the 2010 midterm election. They dismissed members of the Tea Party as lunatics and cited President Obama’s accomplishments thus far as proof that Democrats were in the right and would be rewarded in the polls. It didn’t work out.

It has become common knowledge that the American electorate, and their government, has become more polarized and ideological than ever. But those mourning the dead art of compromise are usually hesitant to explain why the change has happened in the first place because, honestly, the answer is not something that either party wants to hear: At the end of the day, Democrats and Republicans need each other, and in their ideological isolation, both parties have gone, to varying extents, insane.

In physics, there is a concept called the multiverse, which is an infinite collection of different universes fundamentally unlike our own.  In one, gravity might push instead of pull, for instance, or lead might be light enough to float in water. Over the past several decades, a political multiverse has formed — diverging realities where Michigan is a swing state or the Tea Party is nothing to pay attention to. This multiverse has many causes: The advent of niche media has allowed audience-members to hear whatever they want while shutting out ideas (or facts) they disagree with, and politicians have framed their every proposal as heaven-sent and their every detractor as not just wrong but as actively trying to hurt America.

But these and other explanations all have a common root. Those attempting to resuscitate compromise must first bring back another dead art: conversation. In a two-party republic like ours, the combat of the extremes drives the discourse toward the center. But, contrary to how it appears, the Democrats and the Republicans have stopped fighting, because fighting implies that each side adjusts to the other’s blows and strategy, and that is clearly not happening here. The failure is on both sides — Republicans are to blame for shamefully perverting science for their own gratification, and Democrats are to blame for letting them. Conversation is a give and take, and both sides have ceased taking, be it criticism, advice, or a simple moment of pause. The result is the series of opposed and incompatible universes that exist only in their creators’ heads and that are tended at the expense and neglect of the one real one.

The fact is that this is one nation and everyone in it is forced to live in the same universe, which precludes either party from always or even mostly being right. The Republicans need the Democrats to keep them from being delusional. The Democrats need the Republicans to keep them in touch with the real world.

Until each party is willing to drag and be dragged kicking and screaming from their own comfortable realities, both sides will be constantly surprised each election season when their elaborate worlds come crashing down.


photo of Rachel Maddow by Robert Gray, photo of Glenn Beck by Gage Skidmore