What Counts as Failure?

I spent several hours yesterday in the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the huge hall in which Republican delegates will confer their official blessing upon Mitt Romney later this week. It was an odd day. It was to have been the first full day of conference activities, but the media succeeded in whipping up public hysteria about the weather to such an extent that RNC chairman Reince Priebus decided to err on the side of caution and to reschedule most of Monday’s speeches later in the week.

The result was that yesterday had a sort of half-holiday feel to it. The Forum was a bustling hive of activity. Musicians were rehearsing their acts -- the national anthem, rock songs about virtue and freedom, etc. -- and conference planners and journalists hummed up and down the rows of empty seats. I was in one of several small groups who were given a tour backstage to view the magic workshops in which the spectacle of the convention was being forged, rehearsed, planned, and plotted. The miles of digital cabling, run along metal trays hung from the ceiling, reinforced the sense of technological bravura that is behind a contemporary political spectacle. The long corridors with their honeycomb of rehearsal suites and green rooms, the LED glow of the control room, and hurrying minions clutching sheafs of paper as they jabbered into their iPhones all reinforced the sense that one was deep in the bowels of a battleship preparing for general quarters. This event was being planned down to the last placard and cue-the-applause option. The thousands upon thousands of red, white, and blue balloons congregated grape-like in nets in the rafters of the great hall all but trembled with anticipation. At the appointed moment, someone would push a button or pull a string and they would all come cascading down in cheerful triumph. What I was witnessing were the final touches in preparation for a great piece of political choreography. How many hundreds of people were involved in putting this together? How many thousands of man-hours were required to synchronize all the moving parts, the speeches, the audience, the music, the look and feel of the stage, the auditorium? Even the preparations constituted an impressive performance.

It was no ordinary performance, however. A big opera at the Met requires a lot of planning and rehearsal of a not dissimilar sort. But the end of that performance is a couple hours of aesthetic delectation. The end of the preparations I was witnessing is the future of America.

That sounds portentous, but only because the stakes in this election are so high. I have never been particularly impressed by Karl Popper’s idea that a theory must be “falsifiable” in order to be genuinely scientific. I won’t go into the reasons for my skepticism now (though the curious will find more on the subject here) other than to say that binding the pursuit of truth to the presence of untruth is a mug’s game. Still, despite my reservations about Popper’s theory, I do believe that it touches upon a key insight that is applicable not only to “the logic of scientific discovery” (as Popper put it) but also to everyday empirical reality. For example, when we ask whether a certain policy has been a success, we often begin by observing the ways in which it has failed to live up to expectations. Our criteria for success are at least in part organized around our definition of failure.