DEATH BY A THOUSAND CUTS
It is troubling to think that one half of the American electorate might be playing by a different set of rules than the other half. We all have the same needs: we all need better paying jobs as Kamala Harris says; we all need better and more affordable healthcare as Bernie Sanders says; and we all need more income equality as Elizabeth Warren says. Then why aren’t these policy proposals resonating with the vast majority of Republicans? Democrats are fighting for their lives, while the Republicans are merely fighting for their next win. What explains the idea that Republicans engage in climate denial while rising seas lap at their doors and 1,000-year storms flatten their neighborhoods? What explains their support for the right of anyone to own an assault rifle, even as gun violence continues to result in the massacre of grade-schoolers, maybe even their own children? And what could possibly explain their support of tax legislation that robs them of prosperity so that the wealthy are given the fruits of everyone else’s labor?
American politics have always been an exercise in strategic decision-making, but it has largely been played by the same set of rules. But what happens when one party starts to play by different rules? In that event, Game Theory is an enlightening door to open. Game Theory explains why Putin was able to take Ukraine and why Israel doesn’t just carpet-bomb Gaza into submission after a missile attack. Nancy Pelosi played a version of the game with great aplomb during the mid-terms, and the payoff was winning back the House of Representatives for the Democrats. Donald Trump, despite his feigned naiveté and child-like impulsivity, plays versions of the game like a world champion gamer. Robert Mueller instructed us in Game Theory when he employed one of its most famous examples: The Prisoner’s Dilemma, and we delighted as he succeeded in getting Trump associates like Michael Cohen and Michael Flynn to flip by using its tactics.
There are many games to play within Game Theory, and all of them are routinely used in business, international relations, and politics. They go by names such as: Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), or Hawk-Dove – a strategy Donald Trump used to take out his opponents during the 2016 nomination. He gave his opponents disparaging nicknames and dared them to stand up to him. It was a game of Chicken, and they each folded. Most recently, Elizabeth Warren succumbed to this Trump Hawk-Dove tactic in her Pocahontas/DNA defense. This might look like kids’ stuff, but it’s not. This is classic brinkmanship, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it’s being played by Trump and the Republican Party to the max.
For the last 50 years, we have conducted elections on the basis of the game theory tactic known as Tit-For-Tat. The strategy succeeds when one player cooperates with the other player in the very first interaction and then mimics their subsequent moves. Donald Trump plays tit-for-tat with Vladimir Putin. Putin compliments him, and he compliments him back. Both know that the other is a dangerous adversary, but direct conflict has been avoided during Trump’s first term, and a degree of stability ha been achieved. In the Israel/Gaza conflict, Tit-For-Tat is known as the Doctrine of Proportionality where, as Michael Newton, says, “If someone punches you in the nose, you don’t burn their house down.” – even if you could.
All these tactics rely on a pay-off matrix where how you play the game determines whether you win or lose – and by how much. So, while the Democrats play Tit-For-Tat with the Republicans and perform political triage by offering increasingly bigger chickens in every pot, Donald Trump and the Republicans are intent on playing Hawk-Dove – and sometimes they win.
Think back to the last budget crisis where the Republicans chose to shut down the government in spite of the fact that this tactic has come back to bite them in the past. Think of the threats to withdraw from NATO, close the border with Mexico, enable oil drilling in national parks, deny climate change, enact reverse Robin Hood tax policy, and a mind-numbing list of other bizarre policies. Sometimes they win. They have created an endless supply of social dilemmas that are intended to leave Democrats numb and, most importantly, willing to negotiate. We complain that they are moving the goal post – and surprise – they are.
Republicans haven’t lost their minds; they’re just playing a different game. Their game is to dismantle American democracy by deconstructing the administrative state. The game they’re playing will deliver the assets of the United States to a ruling plutocracy. So, while Democrats scuttle around arguing among themselves about what the perfect minimum wage is, and the best way to deliver healthcare for all – the Republicans are using Hawk-Dove brinkmanship to get what they want. They have opened national parks to oil drilling; they have withdrawn from the Paris Accords; they have scuttled the Iran nuclear deal to the delight of the Saudis; and they have paid their campaign donors off with a tax cut that belonged to the American middle class.
If Democrats intend to have their progressive policies survive, they have to stop playing Tit-For-Tat with the GOP and start playing Chicken. We have to call their bluff. We need to ask every Republican why they would want to vote Republican if it means kidnapping children at the border and imprisoning them in cages; or denying healthcare to 20 million citizens; or if climate change denial means destroying the only planet we have in order to enhance corporate profitability.
Once, just once, let’s put it back on the people who vote Republican and tell them that – even if sometimes they win – they’re committing suicide and taking us with them.
Image: BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons.
Deborah Long is a Principal at Development Management Group, Inc. and founder of several non-profit charitable organizations. If you find her perspectives interesting, controversial, or provocative, follow her at: https://www.facebook.com/debby.long.98499?ref=br_rs