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Black swan events

The Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant have defined the country’s two major political parties for more than 130 years. But, the most important animal may be a black swan. Need to Know’s Jeff Greenfield explains the black swan theory and how it has affected many elections throughout the years.

Finally, it was more than 130 years ago that cartoonist Thomas Nast popularized the symbols that have defined the two parties ever since: the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant. But this year, and in fact back across many election years, the most significant animal may be…a swan. Specifically, a black swan.

As coined by author Nassim Taleb in his books, “Fooled by Randomness” and then “The Black Swan,” it refers to a highly unlikely, unanticipated event that, when it happens produces hugely consequential results.

Like the global financial meltdown just weeks before the 2008 presidential election. That “black swan” had a huge political impact as well. Remember: within two days of each other in September 2008, Lehmann Brothers collapsed; and AIG was saved from extinction by an $85 billion bailout. As a result, the stock market lost hundreds and hundreds of points.

With that, every assumption of the 2008 campaign, every premise that had governed two years of that campaign, was rendered “inoperative.” Many Republicans still believe that, but for that meltdown, McCain might have won–or at least, made it a lot closer.

But it’s hardly the only example. Again and again, random, sometimes shocking events have reshaped campaigns at every level.

Most dramatic was the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, moments after he declared victory in the California primary. We’ll never know if he would have won the nomination or election–but he was clearly in contention; his death made the nomination of Hubert Humphrey inevitable.

Sudden death has reshaped other campaigns: most recently, in 2002, when Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash 11 days before Election Day. Former Vice President Walter Mondale replaced him on the ticket, and lost to Norm Coleman; giving the Republicans a crucial Senate seat.

But it’s not just death that arrives on the Black Swan. Go back to 1960, when Richard Nixon was actively competing for the black vote against John Kennedy. In late October, Martin Luther King, Jr was arrested in Georgia on a highly questionable parole violation, and locked up in a rural jail; fears for his safety rose. On successive days, John Kennedy called King’s wife, and Robert Kennedy called a local judge to ask about bail.

When King was released, his father–an influential black minister who had endorsed Nixon–reportedly because he feared a Catholic in the White House–switched his support to JFK. When you look at how close the vote was in key states with large black populations–one per cent in New Jersey, two per cent in Michigan, a virtual tie in Illinois–it’s not too much to say that those phone calls elected John Kennedy.

What Black Swans might show up this fall? A European economic collapse? A bad stumble on the campaign trail? Something much more grim?

That’s the whole point about black swans…you can’t predict them. But you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em.”



  • hope

    First, thank you for your integrity in airing the 9/11truth program which is being shown out of Colorado!  BIG Kudos to you for this!  It needs to be shown across our nation especially this upcoming week! This is not only important for the families that lost loved ones on that pivotal day but also for the thousands of soldiers who have died in Iraq.
    What you call “Black Swan” events (like they are some sort of out-of-the-sky happenings) can sadly be directly linked to a secret organization that has been running our country since 1913 and who has a “New World Order – NWO” agenda! If you have carefully reviewed the documentation put together by 25,000 professionals who have analyzed what happened on 9/11, you will be able to clearly see what is and has been going on, right before our eyes since the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr, JFK and Bobby Kennedy to name but a few.These killings were not random but done to silence men who were our true patriots!Lastly, please take the time to contact Foster Gamble (from the Proctor and Gamble family) who put together a documentary called, THRIVE after doing a decade of research! You can find this documentary on-line!
    Foster Gamble has the same integrity as PBS!
    The elections in November are so critical to our country’s future and unless more Americans awaken to the truth about what is really going on, we are heading into an era that only the elite will survive!
    PBS has been a voice for the people and at this 11th hour, please do your part to broadcast this critical information that main stream media refuses to even discuss!
    May God protect the true leaders of the UNITED STATES!

  • Vicmorhappy

    I appreciated the Need to Know airing and the mention of the “Black Swan.”  It appears that events are created and staged to instill fear, divert manpower and resources from real issues, and the business at hand.