I spent the first 30 years of my life not worried enough about things I could control. And the last 10, too worried about things I have almost no control over. That’s accelerated over the past few weeks, but there’s a silver lining: I’ve been so fucking freaked out over the Middle East that, for the first time, I’m genuinely concerned, anxious even, about something other than me and the people closest to me. Anyway, that’s my way of apologizing for the geopolitical posts. I’d like to think they have some relevance to marketing and business, but it’s really just therapy. My knowledge and appreciation for stoicism (the ability to recognize what you can and cannot control) has increased with age, but my ability to practice it has declined.
Next week we’re all business … I promise. OK, back to the post.
Stories & Principles
Humans love stories of principled people who stand up for their beliefs in the face of risk and resistance. “Flip flopper” is an insult; it likely garnered W a second term in the midst of a failed war. We admire — or claim we admire — honesty and forthrightness in other people. But in some instances, bullish consistency is less effective than agility. And the power to make (or prevent) change is a function of circumstance more than conviction. Many of the world’s problems can be traced back to people with alarmingly steadfast convictions and principles. Increasingly, our elected officials use “principled” to wallpaper over “feckless.” Our elected representatives embody the inability to discern between being right and being effective.
In next year’s U.S. presidential election, the most important of our lifetime since the last (or next) one, tens of thousands of staffers and volunteers will work up to election day, as their campaigns spend several billion dollars molesting our media and mailboxes. Over 150 million Americans will cast a ballot, and thousands of bureaucrats and lawyers will fight over how to count them.
But hardly any of that will matter, because 44 states have (effectively) already voted — no amount of electioneering in 2024 is going to swing California to the GOP nominee or Texas to the Democrat. And even in the swing states, most voters have already decided. In sum, out of 330 million Americans, a few tens of thousand soccer moms in the Philadelphia and Detroit suburbs will, again, choose the leader of the free world. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe.
Democracies Gonna Democracy
Maybe it (i.e., democracy) is working. There are billionaires in California who will have less impact on 2024 than a charismatic substitute teacher in a Wisconsin focus group. If you want to watch the most powerful people in the world plan the future, don’t venture to Davos or the Oval Office, just click here: 2023 Swing Voter Focus Groups.
Ironically, it’s the data analysis that campaigns gleaned from billionaire tech bros that has undercut the influence of big donors. The parties have fine-tuned their platforms and messaging on the issues to a nearly perfect 50/50 split of the electorate, and they’ve invested in voter data that tells them house by house where each persuadable voter is and what might sway them. Pro tip: Buy a media outlet in a swing district; every four years you will register an unnatural surge in revenue that has nothing to do with your product.
Every presidential hopeful clears their calendar for CPAC or a summit hosted by a tech influencer/billionaire, but the real Hajj would be to this yet-to-be-formed PAC, a PAC yielding more power than any political group in U.S. history: A coalition of suburban moms and voters under the age of 25 in swing states, blue-collar workers in the Rust Belt, and Latinos in Arizona bound together under the banner of a “Swing PAC” or “SPAC.” First off, SPAC is a brand ripe for the taking right now, but that’s another post.
If Reid Hoffman, Marc Cuban, Rick Wilson (Lincoln Project), David Axelrod, and Frank Luntz want to build, and sit on, an Iron Couch, they will organize these groups. SPAC would organize an agora in a purple state (e.g., Georgia) for a robust discussion of the issues and commit to voting as a block. If this group of maybe 10,000 people, representing just 100,000 voters, assembled and coordinated, they would have singular control over who leads the free world and his/her legislative agenda. The PAC to end all PACs.
It’s not just in presidential elections. Justice Anthony Kennedy spent two decades as arguably the most powerful person in America, sitting between four more liberal and four more conservative colleagues on the Supreme Court. In the last decade of his tenure, Kennedy was in the majority in more than three-quarters of the 5-4 decisions taken by the court, including some of its most important. From the power of the EPA to the limits of the death penalty, one man held sway over our Constitution, not because he was smarter or more principled, but because he was the swing vote.
The poster children of swing-vote investing are the retail investors, inspired by Reddit, who brought down multibillion-dollar hedge funds shorting GameStop stock. They coordinated to buy shares and options, driving up the shares exponentially and severing the tether between a company’s market capitalization and its intrinsic value. This was the ultimate market flex, David bringing down boomer hedge funds, and it spawned an obvious question: Now what? The answer was the ever-present gravitational pull of fundamentals, which forced a crash landing for these stocks. GameStop peaked at $483; today it sits at $12.
Still, the options value on meme stocks has a built-in premium, as there is a new species of great white in the financial market waters: retail investors who coordinate. The swing vote in the markets used to be institutional investors in emerging markets and activists. However, the billionaire who experienced childhood trauma and writes poison-pen letters to management in a futile grasp for his father’s approval has been replaced by a millennial with a mobile device, RobinHood account, and dearth of mating opportunities. I’m especially proud of the previous sentence.
With 37 million people, Saudi Arabia is the 40th most populous country, trailing Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Morocco. The ocean of accessible oil beneath its desert makes it arguably the greatest swing vote in the world. Venezuela has greater reserves, and Iran and Canada are in the same class, but the Saudis’ wealth carries more weight. They understand they sit at the pivot point — able to swing east or west.
The most visible facet of their strategy is the normalization of relations with Iran in the face of proxy wars in Syria and Yemen while edging closer to diplomatic relations with Israel. The Iran connection was facilitated by China, with whom the Saudis are forging closer ties. (China is the largest importer of Saudi oil.) All the while, the Kingdom is still maintaining its tight relationship with the United States.
The measured, steady liberalization of Saudi Arabia, which MBS is undertaking at some risk to his power within the ruling family, is, I believe, a deft foreign policy maneuver. MBS didn’t spend $250 billion to win the 2034 World Cup, but to become the world’s soccer mom. The Kingdom is gaining influence, and the U.S. would be well served to counter China’s rapidly improving ties with Saudi — just as the Kingdom’s best post-Gaza move would be to normalize relations with Israel. That this is even feasible (it was in the works pre-October 7) is a function of MBS’s pivot from Islamism to capitalism. Like him or not, MBS might be one of the best things to happen to the West in a decade.
The Kingdom is not alone. Turkey has emerged as Europe’s swing player in recent years, extracting concessions on its priorities to accept Finland and Sweden into NATO, even as it buys Russian military equipment. Turkey’s stance in the pivot comes naturally; it is the geographic and cultural bridge between Europe and the Middle East. Istanbul also boasts a great Soho House. But I digress.
In my home, I’m the swing vote. Just as America decides once every two years that what Latinos in Arizona think is important, the rest of my house periodically turns to me to settle a tie. Mostly though, we live in a hegemony that rivals the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan (i.e., mom). Admittedly, when it comes to TV shows or restaurants, dad is elevated from influencer to decision-maker. I’m away from and at home enough to get along reasonably well with all parties. Also, when things break down, I mean collapse (screaming, etc.), they turn to me. Though there’s usually a steady stream of eye-rolling and consensus that I’m wrong before I open my mouth. I listen, ask questions, and empathize. I’m the bridge between east (mom) and west (boys) and offer a solution neither party is happy with … but both accept.
They listen to me not because, as in geopolitics, I have power … I don’t. But because I love them, they love me, and they love each other. When things get really bad, I matter. I’m dad, the swing vote.
Life is so rich,
P.S. Predictions 2024 is coming on Dec. 12. Last year, 11,000 people heard me predict that AI would be tech of the year, Meta would be the best performing stock of ’24 and Disney would acquire Roblox. Sign up here, and I’ll see you in December.