Joe Biden and the Common Knowledge Game

Common knowledge is what everyone knows that everyone knows.

Common knowledge is why coronations and executions are held in public – not so a crowd can see the new king or the hanged man, but so a crowd can see a crowd seeing the new king or the hanged man. Common knowledge is why sitcoms have laugh tracks, why American Idol has a live studio audience, and why professional sports teams pipe in crowd noise. Common knowledge is why the Egyptian government fell in 2011 after a televised protest in Tahrir Square, why the Romanian government fell in 1989 after a televised protest in Palace Square, and why the Chinese government will arrest you today if you distribute pictures of a 35-year-old protest in Tiananmen Square. Common knowledge is why inflation has been non-transitory and persistent, why the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was a fiasco, and why the US response to Covid was so heavy-handed and ineffective. Common knowledge is also why the 2024 Biden/Harris campaign has collapsed.

Make no mistake about it, the Biden campaign HAS collapsed in the wake of Thursday’s ‘debate’, even if – like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off – it continues to run around for a few weeks or months. At some point, whether from bad internal polls or donations drying up or the next inevitable gaffe or maybe even the November vote, the carcass falls to the ground. But the moment of death was 9:05pm EDT on Thursday, June 27th. That’s the moment where we all saw what we all saw, that Joe Biden is not mentally competent to be president of the United States.

This isn’t about Trump. This isn’t a political comparison or a performance comparison or any other sort of comparison. For the record, I think Trump was and will be a disastrous, profoundly un-American president. Since 2016, when I wrote that I thought Trump would defeat Clinton, I’ve been very clear that I think Trump breaks us. I think it’s very clear that Trump conspired to overturn a legitimate 2020 election that he lost. I think it’s very clear that Trump is always and in all ways About The Money. But this isn’t about Trump. This is about the moment in time that irrevocably changed what we all know that we all know about Joe Biden.

The dynamics of common knowledge formation are called the common knowledge game. Like all games it has rules. Like all games it has an equilibrium, which is a ten-dollar word that means it has a stopping point. Maybe not an end but a stopping point. Let me review those rules so you can see why I say the stopping point for this chapter in the common knowledge game we call American politics is the collapse of the 2024 Biden/Harris campaign.

You already know how the common knowledge game works, probably from the Hans Christian Anderson story about the Emperor’s New Clothes, maybe from the John Maynard Keynes story about the Newspaper Beauty Contest. The purest version of the common knowledge game is the story of the Island of the Green-Eyed Tribe, which I’ve written about four times at Epsilon Theory, starting in the original Manifesto and continuing in A Game of Sentiment, When Does the Story Break, and Sheep Logic. But I think it’s the real-life examples of the common knowledge game that really make it come alive, like I wrote about in Harvey Weinstein and the Common Knowledge Game.

Pretty much everyone in Hollywood knew that Harvey Weinstein was a rapist and a really bad guy, including his wife and his business partners and all the actors who wanted a role in one of his movies. It was widespread private knowledge, verging on public knowledge. I mean, if you’re making jokes about it on 30 Rock, it’s out there.

But it didn’t matter that everyone in Hollywood knew that Harvey Weinstein was a rapist. No one’s behavior changed. No one shunned the guy. No actor turned down a role. No politician turned down a donation. His wife didn’t leave him, and his business partners just upped the D&O insurance and paid out settlements. They all knew, and I’m sure they cared a little and shook their heads in a tsk-tsk sort of way, but they didn’t care enough to change their transactional relationships with Harvey Weinstein. Because that’s the thing about private information, no matter how widespread. Even if everyone in the world believes a certain piece of private information, no one will alter their behavior. Behavior changes ONLY when we believe that everyone else believes the information. THAT’S what changes behavior.

Just like with the Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone in the crowd possesses the same private information — the Emperor is walking around as naked as a jaybird. But no one’s behavior changes just because the private information is so widespread and so public. Nor does behavior change just because a couple of people whisper their doubts to each other. No, the only thing that changes behavior is when the little girl (what game theory would call a Missionary) announces the Emperor’s nakedness SO loudly that the entire crowd believes that everyone else in the crowd heard the news. That’s when behavior changes.

Just like with Harvey Weinstein. Rose McGowan shouted out his evil so loudly and so publicly that everyone in Hollywood knew that everyone else knew, too. Harvey-Weinstein-is-a-rapist became common knowledge. And once that common knowledge was created, once all the private holders of all of Weinstein’s dirty secrets believed that everyone else believed that he was a rapist, then everyone’s behavior changed on a dime. His publicists and lawyers and partners and colleagues and board of directors and wife were shocked … shocked! … to hear of his behavior, and certainly would no longer be representing him or working with him or associating with him or married to him ever again, even though NOTHING had changed in the information they already possessed. Ditto with Weinstein’s other victims. Their behavior changed, as well. That’s not a knock or a slam on them. In the absence of common knowledge, staying quiet  whether you’re an abettor or a victim — is the rational thing to do. In fact, this is what Weinstein and his abettors count on, that their threats and shaming and bribes will set up a Hobson’s Choice for victims. Sure you can go public, but no one will believe you and then we will ruin you. So yeah, go ahead. It’s your choice. Of course no one goes public, because a Hobson’s Choice is not a real choice. Only a victim with Missionary power (and that’s a really rare thing) has the option to not just go public with the story — because simply going public is not enough to change behavior — but to create common knowledge with the story by going SO public and SO loud.

Joe Biden was his own Missionary. Joe Biden was his own little girl who yells out SO loudly that the Emperor has no clothes.

Honestly, I think Biden is the only person with enough juice to pull it off. Maybe Obama. No one else could have been the Missionary here.

It was hard to watch, wasn’t it? Excruciating, really, because we all knew exactly what we were seeing. We’ve all had parents or grandparents where we’ve seen exactly this sort of decline, and there’s no lecturing us about a ‘raspy voice’ or ‘a cold’ that can make us deny our own lived experience with our own loved ones. We know Joe Biden has a stutter. We also know that this wasn’t that. Politicians love to talk about ‘folks’ who ‘sit around their kitchen table’ and have a ‘real talk about what matters’. Well, all us folks have had that real talk about a failing parent or grandparent. We’ve all been there.

Two things turned this shared perception into common knowledge formation.

First, we all knew that we were part of an enormous crowd watching this debacle on TV, and most of us watched the television performance as part of a small crowd of family or friends.

Josh Edelson, AFP Via Getty Images, Detroit Free Press

Second, we immediately started hearing the crowds, large and small, roar their anguish and shock.

Maybe you heard the crowd respond on Twitter or whatever your social media of choice might be. Maybe you started to get texts like “hey, are you watching this?”. Maybe you heard your watch party start to murmur and squirm. Maybe you got the immediate feedback post-debate from the CNN panel, leading off with John King saying what we were all thinking.

By the way, those panel conversations on CNN are highly scripted and meticulously produced. Everyone on set knew what John King was going to say and how he was going to say it. And did you notice how he said it? It wasn’t what he personally thought, but was a recounting of the reactions of the people who were texting and DMing him. It’s always the crowd watching the crowd that changes what everyone knows that everyone knows.

And once that common knowledge is formed … well, I can’t emphasize this next point strongly enough.

Common knowledge formation is an equilibrium outcome. It is impossible to unring this bell.  

This poll will never get better. Never. It will only get worse.

I mean, when you lose Brian Stelter …

You cannot ‘restore confidence’ by reading a speech off a freakin’ teleprompter! There is no ‘confidence’ to be restored!

Everything Joe Biden does for the rest of his life will be seen through the lens of last Thursday night. Every step in public, every word spoken in public, every facial expression in public … everything he does in public for the rest of his life will be watched and examined and measured for signs of increasing decrepitude. Can you imagine? It’s already happening, like with the CNN cameras lingering after the debate concluded to look for a frail moment as he left the stage. Do you think that was an accident, that the cameras stayed on? And of course Biden delivered the frail moment. Of course he did. Because that’s who he is now. There will be another disaster moment. You know it. I know it. Everyone knows that everyone knows it. This isn’t a John Fetterman thing where you can imagine a future where his health improves. This only gets worse from here.

And not only will every future public action be put under a microscope, with the entire world waiting for the accident to happen, but all of Biden’s past public actions will be put under renewed scrutiny.

You think Attorney General Merrick Garland hasn’t compared the audio recording of Biden’s deposition with special prosecutor Robert Hur to the written transcript? You think there might be some … ummmm … discrepancies between the audio recording and the transcript? You think Garland is feeling all warm and fuzzy right now about his very public vouching for Biden’s mental acuity? LOL. Biden’s cabinet officers are now in exactly the same spot as Harvey Weinstein’s business partners. Of course they knew. But now they know that everyone knows, and that puts their careers in danger. They can’t be seen as the courtiers insisting that the Emperor is wearing a fine suit of clothes now that we all know that we all know he’s naked, but they also can’t be seen publicly sticking a knife into Biden’s back. So what do they do? They bail. They distance themselves. They start waffling. They are ‘busy with crucial departmental business’ when the campaign asks for a photo shoot in the Rose Garden. They say nice things about Biden to his face, and in private they start talking on background to disavow him.

Like this guy.

Obama saying it was a ‘bad night’ is a classic limited hangout, where you confess truthfully to a small thing to stop the questioning on a big thing. Obama can’t be seen as the guy with the knife, but he can absolutely give his boys Jon Favreau and Ben Rhodes the green light to, if not stab away, then at least to distance themselves, their social media and their fundraising from the Biden campaign.

No Democrat who sees a future for themselves in politics is going to commit wholeheartedly to the Biden/Harris campaign now. It’s the Hillary 2016 campaign all over again. It’s empty virtue signaling just as far as the eye can see, with the Obamas and the Newsoms and the Whitmers and the Warnocks of the world all licking their chops for 2028, secure in the knowledge that Kamala and Pete are going to be permanently damaged from their proximity to this radioactive campaign. It’s the entirely rational way to play the game.

All that remains is the cope.

I knew Heather Cox Richardson when we were in grad school at Harvard. To see her descend to this level of party apparatchik cope at this point in our lives … ugh. Jeff Sonnenfeld is a professor and dean at the Yale Business School. He also runs an ‘executive leadership’ company that’s affiliated with Yale, sort of a WEF wannabe thing. Barf. But if you think the cope and the recriminations are bad now, just wait until after the election. Man, it’s going to be QAnon-level stuff flowing from the true-believers.

Could the Democrats actually jettison Biden and run a mentally competent candidate for president of the United States at this stage in the electoral process? I dunno. You’d think Biden would also have to resign as president today if he does that, and hand over the reins to Kamala for 6 months in a caretaker role. Which actually isn’t a crazy idea. Let Harris be the first woman president as a consolation prize for not being the 2024 candidate, allowing her to position herself for a 2028 run? I think that could work, actually. But it also requires the political leadership of the Democratic Party to have at least a couple of people who aren’t high-functioning sociopaths, who would actually put the country above party and above ego. Sadly, I am certain that it’s a solid bloc of high-functioning sociopaths at the top of the Republican Party, and I strongly suspect that’s the case with the Dems, too. So in all likelihood we’re going to get a chicken-with-its-head-cut-off of a campaign running around for a few weeks or months before it finally collapses in a heap, at which point it really will be too late to do anything about it. I hope I’m wrong. I hope that non-sociopathic leaders emerge who recognize the dynamics of the common knowledge game and the fact that this disastrous situation does not and cannot ever get better. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

For the past few months I’ve been writing about the Great Ravine that lies before us.

The Great Ravine is the end of an age. It is the end of the cheap money and cheap labor of easy globalization. It is the end of the unipolar moment of American dominance and its wars of choice and drone. It is the end of trust in our most crucial institutions – all of them! – charged with the core social functions of public health, public education, public finance and public safety.

The Great Ravine is the return of our worst impulses. It is the return of man-abetted if not man-made pestilence, famine and drought. It is the return of inflation. It is the return of Total War. It is the return of the Strong Man. It is the return of the mob.

What we all felt last Thursday night – the sadness, the shock, the disbelieving that this was actually happening, the familiarity of a private tragedy being played out in public on the greatest of stages, the wave of new common knowledge emanating like an earthquake from that studio in Atlanta – this is what the descent into the Great Ravine feels like.

We will feel this many more times in the very near future.

The only way out is through, and the only way through is together. Not from above through a political party, but from below through a community.

Find your Pack.

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  1. Are you guys seeing any shift in the overall market narratives as a result of the debate? for June The Story was NVDA and recession/dovish economy needing some fiscal stimulus rate lowering. There wasn’t really any strong narrative elsewhere.

    We know the narrative politically has shifted to the Emperor has No Clothes. A quick glance at the headlines today doesn’t show much cohesion anywhere to me. I would have thought there’d be some huge market narratives when everyone suddenly realized there was and has been no Commander in Chief.

  2. Avatar for KCP KCP says:

    This is simply - well written. It would have taken me a long time to both assemble and construct such a succinct, impactful essay.

    I suppose this event is no different than the football team that puts in that old qb, who the owner/coach thinks is up for the game, until he throws 2 picks directly to the open receiver - on the other team.

    On another note the beauty of the Common Knowledge Cycle is the resulting humor/comedy. The humor/comedy that is created from the wonderfully brilliant spin and deflection of the both reality of the event and the embarrassment of the inner circle, into some other reality…and selling the talking heads to SELL IT.

    What a terribly shitty job that would be…PT Barnum would even become indisposed!

  3. Avatar for drrms drrms says:

    Great piece Ben. Thank you.

    For me the Common Knowledge collapse was more than just Biden. It was the presidency itself - it was the two-party system and its corporate pillars.

    Biden was shocking - and it just collapsed any confidence that the current administration has been telling us the truth about anything.

    Trump was shocking - and it was confirmation that this man is unmoored and just cruel.

    A “debate” hosted by a media corporation (CNN) with no audience and a format so tightly scripted that it left no room for anything resembling authenticity was shocking.

    It was a total collapse.

  4. “High-functioning sociopaths” atop both parties.

    I’m in the middle of Robert Caro’s epic biography of LBJ and last night I was wondering what percentage of politicians fit this category today.


    I’ll add this about Trump breaking us…

    We are already broken or he wouldn’t have such widespread appeal. If Trump is a dictator in waiting - a strongman as Ben would say. Healthy democracy’s shed people like that off. No-- they only arrive and have appeal when things are broken.

  6. My personal theory is that we ceased functioning as a democratic republic a while ago. I’m not sure when exactly, but we have been governed by a loud minority for several years now, with their power only growing exponentially in the last decade or so. Our two-party duopoly gives us “elections” where we get to choose from a long list of two extremely expensive and highly underqualified candidates. I hope Ben is wrong, but I doubt that he is.

  7. A couple of decades ago we had a candidate that promised to fundamentally transform the United States.

    He won.

    Maybe he succeeded.

    Here was the state of Presidential politics before that fundamental transformation.

    Edit: Google pictures from the 2024 Presidential debate —none come up with that vacant stare Biden had for most of the night. The only reason I looked is because I thought that the picture Ben used was not that indicative of the true state he was in for 90 minutes.

    Here we go again!

  8. When he got elected I began to think Joe Biden will go down in history as a Chester A. Arthur among men. A party hack who stumbled into the role because nobody else was around that fit at that moment. Maybe it will turn out to be worse than that for the Dems but probably only if Trump truly destroys the entire Republican party as well…what’s the chance of that?..40, 45%? I dunno, sure ain’t zero. But as bad as it seems for Dems right now I am not at all sure it isn’t just the process we have to go through to reject all these self-serving SOB’s for a new crop of less tranparently awful SOBs.

  9. Biden’s cabinet officers are now in exactly the same spot as Harvey Weinstein’s business partners. Of course they knew. But now they know that everyone knows, and that puts their careers in danger. They can’t be seen as the courtiers insisting that the Emperor is wearing a fine suit of clothes now that we all know that we all know he’s naked, but they also can’t be seen publicly sticking a knife into Biden’s back. So what do they do? They bail. They distance themselves.

    Virtue Signaling as everyone covers their own ass.

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