BCG Henderson Institute

Our binary political system is blowing up, argues Thomas L. Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, best-selling author, and New York Times foreign affairs columnist. Just as classical computing was built on a system of zeros and ones, our traditional political system has been built on the left and the right. But in a time of upheaval from globalization, new technology, and climate change, binary politics is insufficient. We need a system that’s more adaptive, and that’s what we’re seeing in the shift to what Friedman calls quantum politics, in which people are not at either pole but multiple places at once.

Martin Reeves, BCG managing director and senior partner, and chairman of the BCG Henderson Institute, spoke with Friedman at the 2020 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, about the move from the binary to the quantum—in computing and in politics—and what it takes for communities, companies, and countries to adapt and survive. Below is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

Tom, what’s your assessment of how politics works today?

I think what we have today can be best understood by watching what is disappearing. And what’s disappearing, you may have noticed, is that every major political party in the OECD has blown up in the last six or seven years. They’ve either splintered or they’ve been gutted. They’ve kept their shell, their brand name, but inside they’ve become completely different, or they’ve just disappeared. Something’s in the water… What’s going on?

I would argue that the parties we have today were all basically a response to the last great “energy release.” They were all responses to the moment when capitalism met the industrial revolution. A moment that was beautifully described by Marx and Engels, a moment when “all that was solid melted into air,” and basically “all fixed, fast-frozen relations,” as Marx and Engels said in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, became unstuck. And what politics was about for the next 100 years, basically, was how do you get the best out of that “climate change,” and how do you cushion the worst?

It took us a while to figure it out, and we went through two wars and a lot of ideas, communism, fascism, socialism, and imperialism, before we settled on the response. And the response was the welfare state. Our version of it was the New Deal, the European version of it was social democracy. The Middle East, Latin America, and Asia had their derivations of it. And what the social welfare state said was, we’re going to install these walls and these floors to get the most out of this release of energy and to cushion the worst. And what politics became about was a very binary division between how high you think the walls should be and how thick you think the floor should be. And that became known as left and right.

We ended up with a very stable binary grid that we call left and right. That was capital versus labor on how thick your floors should be and how high your walls should be. It was big government, high regulation or small government, low regulation. It was open to immigration or closed to immigration. Open to trade or closed to trade. Open to new social norms–gay marriage, transgender rights–or closed to new social norms. And in recent years, green versus growth.

Sources & Notes