The uprisings in the Arab World show that powerful forces can come out of nowhere and turn traditional assumptions on their heads.
The game-changing events were triggered by a “black swan,” Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who decided he had enough. When Bouazizi set himself on fire, he sparked a movement for political and economic reform that toppled one regime and left Hosni Mubarak teetering on the brink.
National Journal columnist Charlie Cook recently wrote:
The events that have transpired recently in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East should remind all of us about the danger of pretending that we know how the 2012 presidential election will unfold. We can study polls, historical election data, the Electoral College map, the growth in the gross domestic product, the stubborn unemployment rate, and changes in real disposable income all we want, but we have to recognize that unexpected events will happen.
In a 2007 book, Lebanese philosopher and mathematician Nassim Taleb postulated that most great events and discoveries can't be predicted, only explained in retrospect. He called the concept the “black swan” theory since no one would expect to see such a bird. “First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”
Too often, people are focused on the “October surprise,” an incredibly cynical view most often found among extreme partisans on both sides who assume that there is absolutely nothing that those in the other party wouldn’t do, no depth they wouldn’t stoop to, if they think it will win the election. This view assumes that strategists can control events and how they are perceived, a very bold assumption, in my view. My advice is to forget the October surprise and fear the black swan.