Is America Suffering from Survivor Bias?

The view from the U.S. House of Representatives Speaker’s balcony. Photo by John Bordeaux

By John Bordeaux and David Shlapak

The U.S. is undoubtedly a successful experiment in representative democracy. Americans like to think of it as the ongoing product of an unbroken 250-year history stretching back to the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, and George Washington — 1776 and all that. But many who celebrate the success of American democracy are ignoring the times it nearly failed, and in doing so fall victim to a dangerous cognitive bias. Because, the American experiment was at the breaking point at least twice before. But it’s worked so well since, we don’t really remember it that way. And not remembering how it broke before may make it harder to tell if it’s happening once again.

American democracy very nearly failed in its cradle, when the Articles of Confederation proved woefully inadequate to bind the 13 colonies together into an effective national whole, leading to a crisis of governance that threatened the new country’s survival.

Ultimately collapse was averted when an essentially new nation, joined together now by the much stronger ties written into the Constitution, emerged. But this system itself failed catastrophically in 1861, when the crisis of slavery led to four years of bloody Civil War that claimed the lives of 750,000 men, more than two percent of population and the equivalent of over six million deaths today. Once again a new country, forged for a second time in the fires of war, emerged.

Since then, the U.S. has confronted many challenges: Two world wars, the Great Depression, the civil rights revolution, and so on. It has survived them all — albeit in some cases, not without trauma, violence, and death. With the 150 years since 1865 a seeming eternity in terms of human generations, this has led to an unspoken, unarticulated, but foundational assumption within the American body politic that the U.S., whatever its flaws, and however it may behave, will always pull through.

In cognitive theory, this is referred to as “survivor bias:” the human tendency to perceive success stories as the result of an inevitable chain of events rather than a sequence of decisions and contingencies that easily could have taken another course. The best example may be in biology, where the notion that people are the ultimate goal and expression of life’s evolution ignores the sheer improbability of us being here after, for example, the Permian extinction — only one of five “great dyings” that have culled life on Earth — killed off 96 percent of all species on our planet. Only happenstance — not inevitability — allowed our ancestors to survive each of these catastrophes. Our existence to type and read these words is the result of an enormously improbable tightrope walk across time.

Survivor bias can afflict political thinking as well. Ultimately, most political systems fail, and with one near-collapse and one catastrophic failure already in its past, the U.S. is by no means a sure thing to survive. America’s polarized politics, which shun the mechanisms of compromise that have always served as the system’s shock absorber, and the surrounding post-factual debate, do not auger well. Yet we proceed as if nothing we can do — no irresponsible policy choices, no deliberate rejection of facts in our political discourse, no unnecessarily zero-sum competitions between Teams Red and Blue — can bring us down. This is hubris. This is survivor bias.

There is no predetermined future. There is no guarantee that the U.S. must survive. It has failed before, and it could well fail again. If it does, there is no guarantee it would recover in a recognizable form. Indeed, given how survivor bias distorts our understanding of our past and narrows our imagining of our future, we may well be on a path to breakdown, and not recognize it.

Americans are not used to thinking about a very different United States, one in which a functioning democratic republic is replaced with something other. Americans’ survivor bias allows them to view the present through rose tinted glasses that might obscure serious risks ahead. The fate of the Union today is no more guaranteed than it was in 1861.

Follow John Bordeaux on Twitter as @jbordeaux, and David Shlapak as @dashlapak