Over thirty years ago, the astute political observer Hunter S. Thompson wrote: “One of the basic laws of politics is that Action Moves Away from the Center. The middle of the road is only popular when nothing is happening.” Well, something is happening or happened in Washington politics today and President Obama’s ratings are on the downswing. It isn’t because he is leading and so unpopular – quite the opposite. It is because while he played chess with the Republicans in Congress, they were playing hardball to win. Chess is not a game in which you lead – even if it is multidimensional as some of the President’s people claim. Chess takes a careful, often subtle approach – usually too subtle for the opponent to notice. Hardball is played in the dirt and besides strategy, sometimes requires brute strength to hit one out of the park. Chess and baseball have something in common though – both are zero sum games. Winners and losers emerge. The problem with games though is that in the end, no one is really better off for the experience. To misquote UCLA football coach Henry Sanders – winning is the only thing.
The alternative to the zero sum game is a non-zero sum outcome. In these matchups, we can all be winners. We are better off for the experience and hopefully – a synergetic relationship that results in benefits for everyone.
The zero sum/non-zero sum perspective in politics is a dilemma. On one hand, we need a winner in the process – and a loser. A classic zero sum solution. On the other hand, we can’t function as a society when one half stridently disagrees with the other half and no one seems willing to compromise. Traditionally, we look to our political leaders, victorious from a hard fought but substantive election, for affirmation of societal goals hoping that a rising tide will lift all our ships – a non-zero sum solution. It is the difference between Thomas Hobbs’ “war of all men against all men” or Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” and Robert Kennedy’s “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” The first two are inherently zero sum, the second non zero.
The problem is, of course, modern elections are not substantive in nature and great political ideas are not much discussed. It appears to most outsiders that politics is a game without end, without rules, and where everyone seems to lose. How did we get to a place where party identification defines “the other”. Originally a Hegelian term, Edward Said refers to it as the act of emphasizing perceived differences for use in marginalizing people in power relationships. “Othering” can be done with any racial, ethnic, religious, or geographically-defined category of people; the other is different than us. The vitriolic flack columist Conor Friedersdorf, an associate editor at The Atlantic, caught from supporters of Sarah Palin after he reviewed the movie is a case in point (see comments here). Friedersdorf, a young libertarian, should be a natural ally of Palin. Instead, he was mindlessly castigated by her admirers as an “enemy of the state (of Palin)”. The attack was aimed not to move the political dialogue forward but to put down an insurrection. This is the politics of zero sum.
The debt limit debacle is the most serious case in point. Set aside the weeks of dithering and deal making. A look at the final vote reveals a pattern of…… not much. Long time Senators, those who should represent leadership, voted for and against the bill in no discernable pattern except the competiveness of their seat in the next election, freshmen voted for and against, tea party members – the contemporary protectors of the values of our founders, expressed a mixed voting pattern as well; it seems that TP members exhibit the same flexibility in policy positions as other, less principled politicians. Consistency will only take you so far in politics. Fully one quarter of the Senate found a reason to vote against a deal that will supposedly save the republic from foreclosure by China. We can hopefully look forward to some in depth analysis by David Parker on this site soon.
debate mess is classic zero sum. In this case in particular, as evidenced by a poll from CNN – no one liked watching it and no one feels better. Let’s hope for better as we move into the fall campaign season.