The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Before the Cascade

I was thinking of an old post about "preference cascades" (linked here but the original seems to be gone):

This illustrates, in a mild way, the reason why totalitarian regimes collapse so suddenly. (Click here for a more complex analysis of this and related issues). Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don't realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it - but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.

This works until something breaks the spell, and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers - or even to the citizens themselves. Claims after the fact that many people who seemed like loyal apparatchiks really loathed the regime are often self-serving, of course. But they're also often true: Even if one loathes the regime, few people have the force of will to stage one-man revolutions, and when preferences are sufficiently falsified, each dissident may feel that he or she is the only one, or at least part of a minority too small to make any difference.

[Emphasis mine.]
Thi is relevant to the present environment, and to the nascent "Tea Party " protests. Publicizing one's distaste for the government is not punishable by imprisonment or vanishment, as it was in the Warsaw Pact; but it is very difficult logistically. This makes preference falsification possible. The Bulk Media's role in preference falsification is to provide the appearance of a complete source of news, thus deterring truth-seeking individuals from investigating more widely.

If this model is correct, then the realization that you are not alone, that most around you feel the same way, will come suddenly and near-simultaneously to much of the country. The immediate result will be a vocal and energetic population; but this is not a guarantee of any lasting gains.

Chris Dodd, for example, is confident of being re-elected in 2010, despite the minor tempest stirred by his systematically corrupt dealings and despite polls showing he would lose a snap election now. November 2010 is a long way off, and there is no reason to expect that the voters' ire will be any match for Mr. Dodd's venality in a test of endurance.

A brief and passionate storm in, say, June of 2009 will lead to no systemic reform whatsoever. The Tea Party protests are beginning to roll the first loose pebbles of an avalanche; but what message will the participants learn and retain?

For my own part, I have little to offer here. I would like to add one slogan (inspired by the famous quote here) --
Don't you wish you'd known?