“Schrödinger’s Cat.” In quantum physics, a famous thought experiment describing a cat that might be both alive and dead in a box; in politics, shorthand for someone or something caught in a strangely paradoxical situation.
As Vice President Joe Biden ponders whether to enter the presidential race, FiveThirtyEight.com statistician and political analyst Nate Silver has observed that Biden while could be an attractive candidate, he would have serious logistical difficulties to overcome. But, he said, Biden can’t really enter the race until it becomes clear that Hillary Clinton’s effort is doomed.
“Biden is left running a Schrödinger’s cat campaign, neither wholly in the race or wholly out of it,” Silver concluded.
Meanwhile, government-secrecy expert Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists recently weighed in on the scandal surrounding Clinton over whether she ever sent or received classified e-mails.
“There is a Schrödinger’s Cat aspect to classification. In other words, there is a lot of government information that is neither classified nor unclassified until somebody actually looks at it and makes a determination one way or another,” Aftergood told Foreign Policy. “The argument seems to be that [Clinton] did not knowingly or negligently mishandle classified information.”
Both ends of the political spectrum have appropriated it for their own ends. Left-leaning blogger Josh Sager charged that the experiment applied to the entire Republican Party policy platform.
“The GOP adopts ideas and policies that it portrays as the alternative to the Democrats’ proposals, yet they will turn on a dime and decry their own ideas as soon as the Democrats agree to them – in this, the GOP simultaneously agrees and disagrees with its own policies, depending upon whether the Democrats decide to compromise (their policy positions exist in a state of superposition),” he wrote.
Meanwhile, on the conservative blog RedState, contributor Moe Lane in 2011 made fun in a headline of the Obama administration’s efforts to pass a jobs bill that had not yet been written: “Democrats: Pass the Schrödinger’s Job Bill!”
More recently, political humorist Alexandra Petri used the phrase to reference to a media-insider joke – “crucial Waukesha County,” a Wisconsin place where, on two separate occasions, votes came in that ended up switching the previously thought-of result in a race. In a mock list of political-campaign laws of physics, Petri referred to “Schrödinger’s Rule: Campaign is both alive and dead until the votes from crucial Waukesha County have been observed.”
Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.