Curiosity has always served me well, as long as I don’t take it as far the proverbial dead cat. As in “curiosity killed the cat.” I was once asked if I were to get a tattoo what would it be? For me, a simple question mark would suffice.

Today, two questions recur more than others in my mind. Why doesn’t  ____ work anymore in America? And, who will win? The first question has manifested as a genre of frustrating dreams that visit me in the night. I call them “nothing works” dreams. Not nightmares (at least not yet) inasmuch as they are highly farcical (at least so far). Themes include travel, or interfacing with our healthcare system, or financial system, or most anything where we are connected to a digital interface or still-slightly-human-soon-to-be-robot like a gate agent or TSA agent in an airport.

I now pine for the days when I was frustrated trying to understand the call center attendee (a human!) located in Mumbai. Now, whatever digital interface I connect to rarely understands me. In a dystopic terminus of this genre of dreams, I wonder if someday we will just have to pull all these plugs and start over. Disconnect. Like, completely. Do we really need toasters to notify us when we are running low on bread? If we do have to disconnect, I snicker at the prospect that only people over sixty years of age will be able to function.

However, for this post, I will set aside the “nothing works” question and focus on the second question: who will win?   Russia? Ukraine? Democrats? Republicans? Trump? Biden? Democracy? Fascism? Climate deniers or activists? The list of questions is long. The consequences are not just enormous, they are existential. The fate of democracy, freedom, self-determination, the environment, and even humanity hangs in the balance.

Yes, we live in proverbial interesting times. Perplexing times. Scary times. Pivotal times. Prevailing will take all of our courage, our empathy, our ingenuity, our resources, and our willpower. We must address each day with calm resolve and determination with truth and love as our guiding lights. Like-minded folks must lock arms and move forward, one step after another.

About four decades ago, my little mind settled on a formula/methodology that has endured over all these years to organize strategies and predict winners in any competition or conflict. I share it for your benefit to at least make sense of what may happen and inform what to do.

In shorthand it is R, I, W where R=RESOURCES; I=INTELLIGENCE; and W=WILLPOWER. Resources include money, materials (from natural resources to weapons), and human capital. Intelligence are things like knowledge, data, computing capacity, learning skills, leadership, and decision-making skills. Willpower is courage, drive, and passion. My thesis, which has been proven time and again, holds that in any competition or conflict the winning side must capture two of three flags, one of which must be W. Resources and intelligence are not sufficient; it takes either one of those plus W to prevail. W is essential. Of course, capturing all three flags produces overwhelming victories, but that seldom happens in the real, hotly contested, world.

It doesn’t matter if it is Russia v. Ukraine, Appalachian State v. Texas A&M, or David v. Goliath, if you have W on your side, you have a realistic shot at victory.

In late February, Russia had both R and I on their side. They had vastly larger R and, because they knew what, where, and when they would attack, and airborne reconnaissance to support them, they had I on their side as well. But they never had W. Russia was in the necessary-but-not-sufficient box when it comes to a winning combination. Ukraine has always owned the W flag. Since February, Ukraine has been able (with the support of allies) to draw even if not ahead in I, and because of depletions of Russia’s R and Ukraine’s acquisition of more R, Russia is now on its heels. Ukraine has advanced (at least relatively) in R.

If these trends continue, and Ukraine can capture either R or I flags, they should prevail since it is unlikely they will ever lose W. Putin would be wise to make a deal sooner than later. Will he? Highly doubtful. Pride and ego are dangerous things. He may even reach for nuclear Rs as a last hope of winning. He loves showing off his pecs, why not his nukes? Eventually, the conflict will probably succumb (as most wars do) to mutual fatigue with Ukraine badly wounded but with its borders largely intact. Putin will be humiliated and perhaps deposed, and Russia will take generations to recover while it endures its new dependency on China.

So, what about American politics? Dems, Reps, Trump, Biden, et al? Now you know that the most essential question is: who has the W flag? All sides will deploy ridiculous amounts of R. I, too, should be a tossup. Let’s look at W. Inasmuch as this is the squishy/qualitative (not easily measured) factor, it is more difficult to assess.

In 2016, Trump and the Reps owned W. Trump did a masterful job of stoking W through the deployment of fear, anger, and racism. (W can be fostered through either positive or negative levers.) His supporters turned rabid in their W. Meanwhile, Clinton conveyed a snarky sense of entitlement and dismissed Trump supporters as “deplorables,” which only intensified their W. Really dumb. And, yes, (for my Dem friends) I know she won the popular vote, but she didn’t win the presidency, period. She never had the W.

In 2020, Biden had a narrow margin in W and the outcome reflected this margin. His W was largely garnered by his supporters’ outrage at Trump. Trump’s W waned a bit as is often the case for incumbents; his supporters had it their way for four years (unlike coming off the Obama presidency in 2016) and W dipped. (Voter turnout is one measure/proxy for W; fundraising is another—albeit both lagging indicators. Voter registration is a leading indicator, but may also be affected by other realities.)

In this year’s midterms, history suggests it will be a wipeout for Dems. But keep an eye on W. If the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade produces as much W as it did in the abortion vote in Kansas, it could be an ahistorical election. It is also possible that disdain for Trump’s antics with his many legal problems among former Trump voters will diminish his W. This may be combined with further waning W among historical Trump voters due to his overexposure and status as a quasi-incumbent. (Incidentally, Reps are well ahead of Dems in voter registration, but that may be just an administrative/capacity advantage that may not translate to W.) Remember, relativity counts. R and I held equal, the relative winner of W should prevail.

In 2024? Who knows. It is too early to get a sense of W. And, W can shift much faster than R or I. As of today, neither Trump nor Biden have captured the 2024 W flag. Whichever candidate or party do the best job of stoking W (positively or negatively) will have the upper hand. And now, let me give you the proverbial joker-in-the-deck.

R, I, W predicts winners when the playing field fundamentally and fairly follows the rules of the market, nature, norms, or laws. Which is probably why the Reps are attempting to rig the game with voter suppression, gerrymandering, and otherwise manipulating the vote of the people, including allowing secretaries of state and legislatures to ignore voting outcomes. In this case, W doesn’t matter (and neither do R or I). That’s why they call it a rigged game. We know this about MAGA world: they will do anything to win before, during, or after election day. Norms and laws be damned. It will take many heroes-of-democracy across America to assure this does not happen.

Play with this back-of-the-napkin methodology in making your own predictions or guiding your own strategies. It is basic, but also has proven itself a very useful tool. On climate change, for instance, W is a big problem. Disasters may help stoke W, but thus far, consequences have been too remote to affect W. Of course, by the time it does it will likely be too late. (Argh!) Environmental activists have also been out-resourced by corporate coffers. Polluting interests own the R flag. I? Yes, environmentalists have that on their side, but without W few seem to engage with their I (or at least not enough). Millions do indeed have climate-change-W but, unfortunately, it takes billions. Such a mess. But, understandable in the context of R, I, W.

Hang in there. It is going to be a wild ride. Oh, and Happy Equinox (Thursday).