John Nash, of A Beautiful Mind fame, and whose haunted expression has always been enough to convince me that mental illness is no picnic, proved famously that a large class of formal games and strategic interactions have at least one equilibrium, even if often that equilibrium involves a fair amount of chance: sometimes the best you can do is to flip a coin. The behavioral ecologists who applied Nashian game theory to the evolution and steady states of animal behavior, found similarly that in practice the equilibria that prevailed were often not pure strategies, but mixtures of multiple behavioral strategies. The small frogs who waited in secret for another larger frog to lure a female with his sonorous Ribbit, the fish who flipped from male to female as the sex ratio of their pond community warranted, the marine crustaceans to mimic female forms while remaining male, each could be part of a stable equilibrium only so long as another behavioral strategy also persisted. Different strokes for different folks- it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.
So the unstable situations in strategic interactions often tend to be those where everyone is doing exactly the same thing.
This past summer, there was what I perceived to be an unstable equilibrium, where respectable journalists simply wouldn’t discuss many obvious weaknesses of Hillary’s campaign, most obviously her near absence from public appearances for the month prior to her Labor Day coughing fits and September 11th collapse. You could read about these weaknesses on right wing sites, but my perception was that relative to previous elections, relatively obvious factors hampering Hillary were completely overlooked by the mainstream press, possibly interfering with the campaign’s own ability to recognize weakness.
This could have been a simple failure in perception by journalists, but I don’t think that’s terribly likely. More likely there was a perception that Hillary was definitely going to win, and that any journalist who had been perceived to be disloyal during the campaign would be punished afterwards, either through social exclusion or through denial of access. Cooperation in the prisoner’s dilemma isn’t an equilibrium…unless retaliation is allowed later on. The wildly disproportionate anger towards Michael Tracey, a previously unknown, vaguely left leaning freelance journalist, who gained significant fame by publicizing the WikiLeaks revelations and criticizing Hillary prior to the election, suggests a expectation of retaliation (albeit one made rather toothless by the election’s actual results) was in fact what was keeping journalists in line, along with their own sense, intensified by the harassment they were receiving from Trump supporters, that the nation was facing world-historical catastrophe rather than an ordinary political choice.
The Internet in someways pushes towards pure strategy equilibria, in other ways towards mixed strategies. On the one hand, it has obviously never been easier in some ways for individuals to make their opinions and perceptions known, shared instantaneously and internationally with relatively little fear of reprisal (for those under the cloak of anonymity at any rate.) On the other hand, the fact that statements are not only public but also shared in an entirely shared information market, without local enclaves, allows for more easy coordination and retaliation against offenders, most particularly those speaking under their own name. While I don’t think anonymous alt right trolls delivered the election to Trump, they were certainly part of a broader dynamic in which speaking under your own name was much easier for advocates of one candidate than the other.
Needless to say, many are now and have been sounding the alarm from the other direction, claiming with some reason that Trump’s administration will exert authoritarian constraint over journalists and their ability to speak and write freely. Assuming the Constitution stays mostly what it is, it seems unlikely to me that this will be very much the case. Trump can limit access to disfavored journalists and his critics will likely get an extra share of hate mail, but you can hope it will stop mostly at that. It was, after all, not fear of direct retaliation but of Bush’s popularity after 9/11 that encouraged widespread coordination and credulity among journalists in the lead up to Iraq.
Some might respond that in some cases, pluralism of belief or speech simply isn’t beneficial at all; this has clearly been the position of climate change activists who have sought legal consequences for climate change skeptics. And which kinds of equilibria prevail are inevitably a result of available technology as much as politics: Dostoyevsky was sentenced to mock-execution and hard labor in Siberia by the tsarist government largely for conspiring to build a hand-crank printing press that wouldn’t be subject to the official censors, suggesting that limiting the samizdat was easier when samizdat was harder to produce. It could be that the emergence of Minority Report-style means of inspecting the contents of the human heart will make it easier for governments to maintain what would otherwise be an unstable pure-strategy equilibrium. Or, even better for them, they could determine ex ante which forms of dissent are without real danger for them, and establish the mixed strategy equilibrium that is evolutionarily stable, resistant to invasion by another behavioral form, offering a neutered pluralism without pluralism’s threats.