Let’s talk about conspiracies and coincidences.
First, we need to get clear about conspiracies, and Seth Godin’s recent podcast on “Industry and its Discontents” is a great place to start.
In brief, the idea is that the most titillating conspiracies — the lizard people who run the world, the mind-altering chemicals falling from jet exhaust, who killed JFK — probably aren’t real. But the really big ones that happen out in the open are the ones that get us. Apple and Samsung, locked in apparently fierce rivalry, actually depend on each other: they just don’t want any other alternatives to enter the market for phones. (Besides, how could Apple be the premium product for smart people if there was nowhere else to go?)
Ditto Apple and Google when it comes to mobile operating systems. They can tell great war stories about competition for marginal customer acquisition, but both companies can live very happily with over a billion people interacting with them every day. [Take a look at Android’s numbers.]
Now it’s time to point out two of the strangest bedfellows I’ve ever encountered: legendary Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter and Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, assault-rifle-toting militias.
The idea of a duopoly in U.S. politics first crossed my radar (in those explicit terms) in a Freakonomics podcast. The episode is based on a 2017 paper published by Porter and Katherine Gehl, through HBS, called “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America.” Harvard Business School might send a lot of people to Apple and Google, but it’s not exactly a hotbed of crackpot conspiracy theorizing.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, Leah Sottile profiled one of the scariest conspiracies in the United States for the New York Times Magazine (another thoroughly mainstream publication). Lo and behold, the group explicitly cites “the duopoly” — the very one that Porter and Gehl described in their paper — as one of its raisons d’être.
Naturally, Porter and Gehl come to different conclusions about what to do than the survivalist anarchists, but it’s fascinating that the same conclusions about the nature of the problem are being reached in the halls of HBS and in underground bunkers. I would much rather reform our political system than embrace some sort of Hobbesian nihilism — though the unbelievable jump in firearms purchases this spring indicates a lot of people are hedging their bets.
We face a real and important choice this November. But the thing to work toward, before and after Election Day, is to put a lot more and better choices on the menu.
If you want to better understand how we got to here — and what on earth is happening with militias — the two seasons of Bundyville, which Leah Sottile hosted, are well worth your time.
And if you want to understand just how narrow our current options and processes are, and how we might begin to think about moving forward, listen here.