You hear the phrase all the time in Washington. ISIS burns a Jordanian pilot alive and a Republican congressman jumps onto Fox News to declare the atrocity a “game-changer” for the administration. Pundits use the line like punctuation, a couple of words that italicize, underline and boldface whatever point they want to make. President Barack Obama even dragged it out last month at Pellissippi State Community College in Tennessee. His new proposal to make community colleges more accessible to low-income students is, yes, “a game-changer,” he said.
The expression is used so frequently that it undermines the very uniqueness it’s meant to convey, but the problem with it is far more than a semantic annoyance. It reflects the intersection of two trends that undermine our capacity to understand and make sense of the world around us: a breathless 24/7 non-stop media onslaught that elevates almost every development to a level of earth-shattering and groundbreaking and game-changing significance, and the lack of perspective that can only come from a willful determination to ignore history, which ought to put the events in perspective.
The phrase itself is actually defined much less sensationally than the way it’s usually deployed. Merriam Webster dubs it “a newly introduced element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way.” That’s reasonable enough. Its first known use dates back to 1993. But by 2008, then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had elevated it in the national media by saying that if she won the Democratic primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, it would be a “game changer.” The phrase continued its rise to prominence with the publication of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s 2010 book Game Change and its sequel Double Down: Game Change 2012.
Today when the word is used it implies not just a significant change in a given situation, but something far more fundamental. And much of the time, that dramatic change deemed to be so consequential, determinative and far-reaching ends up being far less so. Indeed, with the benefit of time we see the game really doesn’t change that much at all.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Hillary Clinton, in Hard Choices, characterized the Sunni tribal leaders’ split from al Qaeda during the Sunni Awakening as a “game changer.” It clearly led to the success of the surge. But on balance, looking back today on events in Iraq, what really changed? In fact, if anything, Sunnis in Iraq feel as marginalized and disenfranchised from the central government as they did then; and what’s more they’re even more vulnerable to jihadi persuasions, this time not by al Qaeda but by ISIS.
In March and April 2013, President Obama twice referred to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons as a game changer. Some might argue that Obama made certain it would not be when he failed to respect the red line he’d drawn himself. But there’s absolutely no reason to believe that with limited U.S. military strikes against the regime (which was all that even the most pro-interventionist figures in the administration were prepared to do) the course of the Syrian civil war would have changed significantly, much less fundamentally.
Other examples reflect the breathlessness and lack of perspective with which the phrase is deployed: former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni describing Secretary of State John Kerry as “a game changer” in the peace process and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul characterizing the downing of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine last summer as a game changer in that brutal war.
So, apart from an alien invasion of Earth, what might we acceptably, realistically call “game changers” on the global scene?
One would be for Iran and the six powers negotiating with it, including the United States, to reach a nuclear accord that even Jerusalem and Riyadh could rally behind, and one that would lead to an amelioration in regional tensions, too. Another would be a conflict-ending solution to the Israeli/Palestinian issue. Another would be the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy.
Where could we use a lot more perspective? The game-change mentality is driven partly by the breathlessness of our media, our focus on headlines rather than trend lines, and the lack of context that only history, even recent history, can provide.
The concern about Ebola in the United States was quite legitimate. But let’s not forget that the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu—an airborne virus—killed between 3 and 6 percent of the world’s population, including more than 600,000 Americans. And notwithstanding the rise of ISIS and resurgence of AQAP, in 2013 terrorist attacks claimed the lives of 16 Americans (out of 17,898 global fatalities). Thirty-three Americans died that year in lightning strikes.
Game-changers notwithstanding, study history, calm down, and then let's get on with the real, painstaking work of making this world a better, safer place to live.