MJD 58,855

This entry is part 3 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

When I was a kid, several of my friends owned a kind of toy remote control car with only one control: forward/backward. These cars had three wheels, and the third rear wheel was a caster. The car went forward in a straight line, but backwards in a circle. You steered by backing up to reorient, then going forward again. The caster was either left or right-handed, so backing up always turned you in a consistent direction. To go the other way, you’d have to back up more than 180 degrees.

Governance is like this car: progress is the unsteered forward mode, while politics is the reactionary steering mode. The metaphor suggests that all politics is necessarily reactionary, an idea I am very sympathetic to since it’s hard to see ideology being oriented towards anything other than a historic condition. Unlike economics, politics lacks the sort of natural accommodation for technological innovation that would allow it to be pulled forward by a new possibility, rather than backwards by an old concern. This is not necessarily a bad thing, “reactionary” in this broad, pluralistic sense is not the same “reactionary” in any given narrow sense. So long as a polity contains cars with various right/left reversing biases, and smaller and larger turning circles (corresponding to extremism and moderation), it has the potential to reorient in any direction, with any degree of rapidity. The challenge of democracy is picking the right backward-steering car for a given environment.

The metaphor also suggests that the idea of a centrist politics is a myth because the only way to steer is go backwards, and going backward necessarily steers you in a particular direction, left or right. If the rear wheel is not a caster with a bias, it cannot steer or reorient at all. This implication also pleases me, since centrists annoy me with their holier-than-thou sermonizing and ineffectual posturing.

A richer metaphor illuminates why centrism might be somewhere between a bad-faith myth and clueless wishful thinking: the dynamics of bowling in cricket.

In cricket, there are two ways to get the ball to turn. You can impart a spin to it with your fingers as you pitch it (spin bowling), which causes it to change direction upon bouncing off the pitch, or you can use the orientation of the seam (a great circle on a cricket ball) and uneven wear on the two hemispheres to create movement in the air (seam and swing bowling).

With a new ball, orienting the seam one way or the other off the vertical causes it to swing one way or the other (this is also referred to as seam bowling for that reason). With an old ball, uneven wear dominates the swinging effect, and the ball can even swing in the opposite direction to the one suggested by the orientation of the seam (this is called a reverse swing, and is a late-1980s innovation by Pakistani bowlers that was very disorienting to batsmen initially). Late-swing tendencies can be amplified by polishing one side between deliveries and letting the other side get naturally scuffed up as the game progresses. Cheats accelerate the process by surreptitiously scuffing up one side using something like a concealed bottle top or paperclip (unsurprisingly, the pioneers of reverse swing also pioneered the most recent advances in such ball tampering).

In both new and old-ball swing bowling, sufficient speed through the air is required to generate swing, so both are practiced by fast bowlers. Spin bowling, which relies on the bounce, is practiced by slow bowlers (who also require a somewhat worn pitch to work with, and are therefore typically brought on after the new-ball seam bowlers have battered the pitch a bit in the early part of the game). Typically, fast bowlers open and close the innings, while slow bowlers carry the middle.

In the cricket ball metaphor, spin bowling corresponds ideologies with explicit and declared left or right leanings, since there is active wrist and finger movement. Not surprisingly, spin bowlers are in fact classified by their “directional” ideology as either off spinners or leg spinners (corresponding to right and left for a right-handed spinner). Leg-spinning is the rarer skill, since the finger/wrist movements are more difficult to master. By contrast, good swing bowlers can get the ball to swing in both directions, since they rely on speed and the release-orientation of the ball, and the wear condition, rather than finger/wrist action.

As in regular partisan politics, deception and guile play a big role in spin bowling. To surprise the batsman, you have to disguise your finger and wrist movements. The batsman knows the rough direction of the turn to expect from your style, so surprise relies on the sharpness and speed of the turn, and the location of the bounce.

Centrism in practice is like swing bowling with an unevenly worn ball, but a nominally vertical seam There are no new balls in politics, so there is always uneven wear. You could claim a nominally neutral/centrist position (a vertical seam) but still end up swinging predictably one way or the other.

Idealized centrism corresponds to zero-swing bowling with a new ball, on a new pitch. It is a fragile, short-lived early-game situation in cricket, and an impossible one in politics. This is why I believe it is either bad faith or cluelessness to claim it.

The swing bowling metaphor illuminates two modes of failed centrism particularly well: preferentially criticizing one side while remaining silent on the other, and bothsidesism/false equivalences. The former is the equivalent of polishing one side of the ball only, and letting wear do its work on the other. The latter is the equivalent of pretending the ball is equally worn on both sides, and rejecting proposals to orient the seam the other way to compensate appropriately.

In both metaphors — the backwards-steering car and the unevenly worn cricket ball — the underlying abstract physics mechanism is the same. The system is what control engineers refer to as “underactuated” (with fewer modes of control than desired) and must rely on structural asymmetries interacting with an unbiased environment in a biased way, to generate steering authority.

It is fair to speculate whether the assumption of under-actuation is in fact warranted. Can we not actively steer politics, through that much loved mechanism fetishized by wannabe centrists, debate? Can reasonable people who disagree not debate matters in a reasonable way, and arrive at collective decisions to steer left or right in a given situation?

I don’t believe this is possible in a democracy. In a democracy, political representatives are bound by the static, identity-locked expectations of their constituents, lack the level of mutual trust necessary for debate, and are generally dealing with problems that are too uncertain and open for debate to be efficiently convergent at all. On average, constituents don’t change their mind often enough, or radically enough, to creating steering authority. Arguably, only generational shifts in attitudes actually move population-level beliefs. That’s why finely balanced two-party systems tend to evolve. Even systems with designed structural biases, such as the US with its electoral college system, tend to end up in such equilibria. Under normal circumstances, the effectively random flip-flopping of a minority of undecideds evenly rotates steering authority among different factions over time. Under abnormally polarized circumstances, undecideds lose their leverage to weirdly unpredictable coalition dynamics.

There is a strong form of the mental model of steering-by-reaction, which is reactionary-as-default. Forward progress depends on a sufficiently rapid rate of innovation, and this is not something that can be deterministically generated by even the most enlightened of policies. This means when innovation slows, politics goes from irrelevant to highly consequential, and a contest to steer and reorient before the next burst of innovation gets underway. Once innovation accelerates enough, differences among political ideologies again become irrelevant. They cannot steer while the system is moving forward. All they can do is try and massage the narrative to improve their chances of claiming the next steering opportunity.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Hi Venkatesh,
    Like you, I also grew up in Bihar during the Lalu administration, which you referred to in your post 2016 post. I take issue with your proposal that innovation restarts as a natural, intrinsic fact.

    “This means when innovation slows, politics goes from irrelevant to highly consequential, and a contest to steer and reorient before the next burst of innovation gets underway.” — It’s quite clear that certain political regime can permanently freeze innovative capacities of societies, and by consequence, the only thing to fight over are leftover crumbs of government benefits, contracts and jobs. Bihar is a shining example, where even today, the most prestigious job is becoming a local bureaucrat.