A Dialogue on Politics as Game

by Charlie Huenemann

Bill: Can you believe these Republicans?! Just four years after swearing up and down that no nominee for the Supreme Court should ever be approved in an election year for the president, and promising on their mothers’ graves that they would never do such a thing, here they are doing exactly that!

Alice: Why are you surprised, Bill?  They are doing exactly what they should be doing. And the Democrats are doing what they should be doing – grandstanding about principles, and declaring that they would never go back on their word, and decrying the demise of American politics, and so forth and so on. Everything is going as it should.

Bill: How can you say that? The Republicans – and, okay, I admit it, the Democrats too, to some extent – are being hypocritical, and just saying whatever they think they need to say to score their own political points.

Alice: Well, yes. Isn’t that their job?

Bill: No! Their job is to govern, and to engage in reasoned discourse about the public good, and vote according to their conscience. I know that sounds naive – but the fact that it sounds naive just shows how far we have drifted from the way things are supposed to be.

Alice: I think you deeply misunderstand the nature of truly liberal democracy. You seem to think that if people just reflect hard enough, and speak to one another in even-tempered tones, there will emerge some sort of consensus that, overall, over the long run, tends to track what is truly good for the public.

Bill: No … well, yes. I suppose I do think that would be the ideal.

Alice: But have you not been paying attention to human history? The fact is that intelligent people, as genuine and reflective as you may wish, will end up with different values and different estimations of what the public good is. That’s what it means to be pluralistic. You value diversity, right, Bill?

Bill: Of course.

Alice: Diversity, on the political scene, just means different visions of what’s right and good. And being “liberal”, in the classical sense, is to deny that any one vision is inherently more authoritative than another. We are free to pursue our own visions of what’s best – “all people are created equal” and all that. The job of politics is to set up some sort of process or procedure – a game, if you like – that generates some sort of livable outcome out of a diverse population.

Bill: Sure, yes, I guess I agree with all that. But what we have these days is a corruption of that liberal vision. Each side is trying to shut down the other, not preserve its voice in an on-going dialogue concerning the good. There’s no reasoned discourse among the various points of view – it is just a game, as you say, in which each side is trying to win, just for the sake of winning.

Alice: But the game is the dialogue, Bill. Take the Supreme Court nomination, for example. Each Republican politician was put into office primarily for exactly this reason – to get more conservatives on the Court. That’s why their voters voted for them. So if they were to step back now, and say, “Oh my goodness, it’s an election year, we can’t possibly proceed with a nomination,” they would be failing in their primary duty.

Bill: But just four years ago, they were singing a very different tune!

Alice: Of course they were! For their job at that time was exactly the same, and they needed to block the nomination of a liberal to the Court. In each case, they are saying and doing what they need to do to get their job done, which is the job of getting re-elected, which means pleasing their voters. The fact that they succeeded four years ago, and are going to succeed now, is because they have a majority in the Senate. And according to the Constitution….

Bill: I know, I know. But what happens to politics if politicians just start saying and doing whatever they need to get re-elected?

Alice: What happens is political justice – or it is, at any rate, if you believe in this form of government. Look, complicated societies need some sort of process to make decisions. They could appeal to priests or a privy council or oracles or shamans or whatever, but somehow, decisions have to get made. The people who founded representative democracy came up with a complicated game to play, one that involves judges and electors and legislators and a president. Here is the game and its rules, they said, and so long as you stay within the rules, anything goes. What results is, by definition, the politically just result, by definition, so long as no rules have been broken.

Bill: But politics isn’t just football, Alice. Yes, there are rules that need to be followed, and that might make you think politics is just a game. But in addition to the rules, there is – don’t laugh, now – the overall spirit of the endeavor. The rules say what can or cannot be done, but in addition to that is the overall vision of the process. There is the game (if you want to call it that), and there is also why we are playing the game. When politicians just resort to game-playing, they are ignoring the reason the game exists in the first place.

Alice: And what is that reason?

Bill: To govern well. To create laws and policies that make our society better, more equal, and more just. To allow for more dialogue, not less. 

Alice: Bill, that’s just lovely. But how realistic is it? Do you have many examples of representative democracies that do or have done what you are saying?

Bill: Sure! The US political system has had its progress in this regard. Consider the Civil Rights Act, and all of the legislative progress that has been made for so many groups that, over history, have not had any voice.

Alice: These are welcome advances, I agree. But how were they achieved? Were they achieved by lawmakers having earnest, philosophical discussions as to the public good, putting their hearts and minds on the line? Or were they achieved through political football?

Bill: Well, sure, football played a role. But the lawmakers were doing a lot more talking to one another back then than they are these days.

Alice: And talking to one another is certainly not forbidden by the rules. But it can’t be counted on, can it? There is always the possibility that conversation will break down, particularly on some issues that people refuse to compromise on, right? 

Bill: Clearly! I read the news.

Alice: And those will be issues about which people feel the strongest. And that’s where the game comes in. When we can’t agree, and can’t even agree to disagree, we need some way of getting the business of government done. The rules tell us what moves can be made, and what can’t be done, so that interests are represented and decisions get made. It’s not perfect. The laws allow for hypocrisy, for lying, and even for limited degrees of skullduggery, threats, bullying, and opportunism. Politics isn’t pretty – and those who don’t want bruises should stay home.

Bill: Okay, okay. But still, it’s better when there is conversation between the parties, and not just point-scoring.

Alice: Yes, it’s another way of getting the job done. But why do you think it’s better

Bill: Duh-doy! It’s better because it leads to more harmony between the parties, more mutual understanding, and less conflict.

Alice: I see you are going back to the pre-liberal view that there is some shared notion of the human good we all respect, and that it should have an authority in politics. We are past that, Bill. We know now that when a group of people in power agree, it is only because they have found some common opponent, or some particular value they happen to share, at least for the time being (“strange bedfellows” and all that). But whether that agreement is “really” good or bad depends on who you are and what values you have. There are no lasting, permanent values we all share; or at any rate that’s the insight that liberal democracy is founded upon. Setting up a game that has explicit rules everyone is held to is the answer to the problem of how to govern when there isn’t a shared conception of the public good.

Bill: But Alice, isn’t this conversation we are having itself a counterexample to your idea? Here we are, exchanging our views, understanding one another, and behaving as civilized people. If what you have been saying were right, we should just sit down to play checkers or arm wrestle to see who wins!

Alice: That’s exactly what we should do, Bill, if our conversation breaks down, and we need to have a “winner” for some reason, and if we both agree to the rules of whatever game or contest we choose to pick a winner. As the world gets more complicated, we should expect more breakdowns in conversation, rather than less. Again: the game of politics is needed not for when we get along amiably, but for when we don’t.

Bill: Thanks for the conversation, Alice. You haven’t convinced me, but you have given me some things to think about, and perhaps we can talk more some other time – if, that is, you will agree that more talking is one thing we can try, in order to reach some agreement!

Alice: I do so agree! Happy to talk with you as always, Bill!