Can you #lastman the election?

Between FiveThirtyEight coverage of Last Man (here and here) and the ascendancy of a potential President Trump (here and here), it’s become a perfect storm for people inclined to ponder this idea:

This is not a new concept — indeed, it’s addressed in the FAQ, in questions #13 and #20 — but at this point, it probably deserves a more thorough response.

For tl;dr types who just want to know the official Twitter #LastMan League party line, the short answer to the question “Can you #lastman the presidential election?” is: No.

(Or rather: Well, sure, of course you can — you can do what you want; this is America! — but it’s not something we endorse.)

Why not? In 140 characters or less, the fundamental reason is this:

People have been pondering the idea of #LastmanElection for as long as Last Man has been a “thing.” (For example: here, here, here and here from 2013.) And it’s easy to understand why. In American culture, a presidential election is really the only recurring event, aside from the Super Bowl, that meets both of the first two criteria for a truly viable Last Man game: it centrally culminates in a discrete piece of information (i.e., who won) which is culturally ubiquitous (and thus very, very difficult to avoid).

That’s why I tweeted this in 2011 (before I’d fully thought the issue through), and it’s what Jeffrey Drozek-Fitzwater meant when he tweeted this last year. If you’re intrigued by the Last Man concept, #LastmanElection is definitely tempting. Indeed, on the “ubiquity” point, The Knowledge of a presidential election’s outcome would unquestionably be much more difficult to avoid than a Super Bowl’s outcome, considering the winner becomes President of the United States for the next four years. Playing Last Man with the Super Bowl gets easier after a week or so, if you can make it that far, as each year’s Super Bowl result gradually fades from cultural relevance. By contrast, playing Last Man with a presidential election would never get easier. The president is in the news all the time, about everything. In order to match Drozek-Fitzwater’s four-year run, you would need to basically avoid all news for the entirety of the president’s term.

And that nicely illustrates why the answer is “No.” Because, you see, there’s a third criterion for a viable Last Man game. The culturally ubiquitous piece of discrete information at the heart of the game — i.e., “The Knowledge” that you’re trying to avoid — must also be intrinsically unimportant. That is to say, it must “matter” solely for entertainment purposes. It must have no genuine importance.

That’s true of who wins a Super Bowl. It’s not true of who wins a presidential election.

For some, it’s tempting to dispute the intrinsic importance of presidential elections, particularly in the current political climate:

And indeed, the rise of Trump has caused some cracks in the official #lastman “party line” on this question:

But, again, think it through all the way. A game of Last Man, by its nature, has no finish line. The goal of a Knowledge Runner, in theory, is to keep Running forever. So if you sign up for #LastmanElection, you’re signing up for a long-term period of profound ignorance about domestic and world affairs, potentially lasting years. We can’t endorse that as a good idea.

If you think Republicans and Democrats are all the same, and therefore presidential elections don’t matter much, you could perhaps justify trying to avoid “The Knowledge” of who won from Election Day through Inauguration Day. If you make it to Inauguration Day, you “win,” and then you can resume normal media consumption and news awareness. But that wouldn’t really be Last Man, because it would have a finish line, and it wouldn’t be a game that “always ends in a loss, eventually.” The no-finish-line, nobody-wins concept is a fundamental property of Last Man, written into the D.N.A. of the game by its inventor-in-exile, Kyle Whelliston (who, by the way, addressed this question repeatedly, always giving the same answer that I’m giving here).

Alternatively, if you just find the electoral process — the campaign, the ads, the demagoguery, the lies, etc. — intolerably gross and repulsive, you might be tempted to consider playing a game of trying to avoid all election-related news from an arbitrary start date (perhaps tied to the national party conventions) through Election Day. To some, that might sound especially appealing this year, particularly if Trump wins the GOP nomination. But that wouldn’t be a game of Last Man either. (It would be somewhat more akin to the Little Drummer Boy Challenge.) It’s not Last Man for the same reason as stated above (it has a finish line, so you can “win”), and also because you’re not trying to avoid learning a discrete piece of information. Instead, you’re trying to avoid all references to anything and everything that fits within a broad category of information (“election-related news”). There’s no specific binary or multiple-choice piece of Knowledge whose fundamental nature and parameters are known in advance, even though the details are not. Basically, for something to qualify as “The Knowledge” in a Last Man sense, it needs to be the answer to a specific question, and you need to know in advance what the question is, and what the list of possible answers are, without knowing which answer is the correct one.

Moreover, again, ignoring all election news, even just for a few months, necessarily entails choosing a high level of ignorance about things that are important. What if there’s a terrorist attack? What if there’s a major economic shock? What if there’s some major development overseas? Or some big tragedy or other major news domestically? The presidential candidates’ reactions will certainly be in the news. Basically, any major story of national or international significance that happens between now and November will end up being tied to the presidential election in some way. If you played this game in 2008, you would have been ignorant of the financial crisis. If you played in 2004, you would’ve had to tune out news about developments in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you started playing it last fall, trying to #lastman the primaries, you would have needed to largely ignore, among other things, the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks. That’s not the “fun” kind of ignorance; that’s the “not being a responsible, informed citizen” kind.

So… that’s why we don’t condone playing Last Man with a presidential election. Yes, it would be fun, in some ways, and certainly a huge challenge. But it’s not in the spirit of the game of Last Man, and the downsides are too great.

P.S. Before anyone asks, you also can’t play Last Man with the Oscars. As the FAQ explains: “Only the Academy Awards even approaches the Super Bowl in American cultural centrality (and TV ratings) each year. But there is no equivalent single, discrete piece of information that is central to the cultural experience of the Oscars in the way that the Super Bowl’s outcome is central to Super Bowl Sunday.” Put another way: the most talked-about moments at the Oscars aren’t usually tied to the outcome of any particular award. There’s no way to know in advance what the question will be, so you can’t play Last Man regarding the answer to that unknown question. (For instance, in 1999, the question would have been “Will Roberto Benigni jump on a chair and go nuts?” But of course you can’t know that until it happens.)

Moreover, many of the big award categories, in addition to having non-culturally-ubiquitous outcomes, are often foregone conclusions. Playing Last Man with “who won Best Picture?” in a year when there’s an overwhelming Best Picture favorite — i.e., most years — would create major Rule 4 problems. (This is actually also true of many presidential elections, though it’s less serious objection to #LastManElection than the ones I explained above. But if you’d played Last Man with a recent presidential election other than 2000 or 2004, and you started the game just hours or a few days before Election Day, I would argue that you would’ve potentially already had The Knowledge under Rule 4 based on the clear polling and overwhelming odds. Football games and other sports contests have favorites too, of course, but because they are totally self-contained events where the score always starts at 0 to 0, they pretty much never have favorites as overwhelming as, say, Bill Clinton was when Election Day dawned in 1996, or Barack Obama on either of his Election Days.)