Here is the problem. In my humble opinion, Bernie Sanders is clearly the best candidate running for the office of President of the United States of America. His policies are sound, his integrity unimpeachable, his intelligence undeniable. He is also attracting tremendous crowds, and raising significant funds while bypassing (as did Howard Dean before him) the tradition of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours kowtowing to moneyed interests. This signals, it seems, a groundswell of support for progressive and/or left-populist politics among the citizenry, a new coalition of middle-class, working-class (not the same thing), and marginalized Americans hell-bent on “speaking truth to power.” Or so it seems…

The problem here is that the act of voting, not necessarily but here in the US and now in 2015, involves not only considering who you think to be the best of the bunch, but your estimate of what others will think to be the best of the bunch, placed in the context of the problems affecting the nation, which are dire: rampant inequality, the rise of the surveillance state, global climate change, war, guns, violence, and the spectre of fascism in the remarks of a Republican candidate (or two, or three). This complicates things considerably, although not in the way that the established media punditry thinks.

Look at it this way, too: the mainstream media are hell-bent on marginalizing Sanders as unelectable. (They say the same about Donald Trump, but because their commercial thirst for ratings and filthy lucre have led them to publicize his campaign to ridiculous proportions, I suspect they fairly salivate at the prospect that he will seize the Republican nomination, against their better natures if they still possess them. More on this in a later post.)  I think that evidence contradicts the media’s dismissal of Sanders’s prospects (e.g., Truman in 1948, Obama in 2008). But optics matter, and if enough people with media presence say that Sanders is unelectable, the electorate might eventually come to see him as unelectable. And this is also not irrelevant to one’s own deliberations as a voter and citizen.

Consider three statements that I myself take to be the case: 1) Sanders is clearly the best candidate running now. 2) Sanders may or may not be unelectable, given what transpires among the electorate between now and November 2016. 3) A Republican victory in 2016 would be not just sub-optimal but catastrophic. Of course the variable is 2) — that’s the unknown that should not of itself determine who I should support, but is certainly a factor not to be entirely ignored. How should one vote? For the best candidate as such? For the best candidate that is electable? For the best candidate that is (presumably) seen to be electable? For the least-worst candidate that is electable/seen-to-be-electable? Etc., ad nauseam.

The American political process does, thankfully, give one some breathing room: the primaries. The received wisdom is: vote for the candidate you think is the best in the primaries; vote for whomever your party nominates in the general election (or, if you are an independent, whomever you think is the better or the two, or the “lesser of two evils.”). But this only adds another deliberative layer into the vetting process. What if “your candidate” loses in the primaries? What if this loss throws you into a “lesser of two evils” quandary that you cannot resolve, because you think neither “evil” option in the general election is acceptable? (A dilemma that many Sanders supporters are debating in the blogosphere.) And before you pull the lever in the primaries, ask yourself: might you be sacrificing the good for the sake of the perfect?  Or, conversely, and just as bad, might you be settling for second-best without sound reason?

If this sounds vaguely familiar, well, it is. In Game Theory it is called “the Prisoner’s Dilemma” and its’ paradigm case is a situation where two individuals, acting independently to maximize their outcomes but with knowledge that the other is also acting independently to maximize their outcomes, wind up choosing a situation that is not catastrophic but not good for either of them.

Here is the dilemma in its classic form. A and B are taken captive by police on suspicion of robbery. The interrogator says to A “Look, as it stands, we only have enough evidence to convict you of breaking and entering. If neither of you defects and that’s all we can convict you of, both of you will get a maximum of 5 years. But if you defect on your partner by confessing and saying that he robbed the house with you and pulled a gun on the owner, he will be charged and convicted of armed robbery and get 20 years; you, having turned state’s evidence, will go free courtesy the witness protection program. Of course, if you stay mum and he defects, you will get 20 years and he will go free. If you both defect, we can convict you both of 2nd degree robbery (since we cannot ascertain who actually pulled the gun) and you will both get 10 years when convicted. So choose, and do what’s best for you.”

What would be the right way to choose? If you are A, you might be tempted to choose to defect on your partner. But if that’s how you are choosing, you can assume that B will choose likewise, with the result that both of you will get 10 years.  If you remain silent and B defects, as you suspect B will because that’d be to B’s best advantage, you get 20 years — not a good thing. If you both remain silent, then you’d get 5 years each — not great, but a lot better than 10 or 20 — but you have no reason to suppose that B would do that, since it is in his interest to defect. So you go on the assumption that B will defect anyway, because if he did not he would get a “sucker’s payoff” of at least 5 years (not as good as 0 years if he defected and you did not) and at most 10 (if both he defected and you did). So, A defects. And so does B. And both A and B get 10 years — which is twice as bad as the 5 years each would get if neither defected. So, individuals acting “rationally” in Prisoner’s Dilemma situations must not only think about what is in their own interests, but on how their counterparts construe their own interests, and how that in itself affects one’s own interests. You have to continually look over your shoulder, and that ultimately determines your choice. And that choice, as long as you assume people will act “rationally”, will pretty much always result in something pretty bad, if not catastrophic.


The relevance of all this to 2016 electoral politics is this: while it makes sense to consider what others in the electorate think when voting, doing so almost always has the result of perpetuating “the lesser of two evils.” In my opinion, that would be a Hillary Clinton administration, perpetuating the reign of neoliberal DLC “corporate Democrats” of which she and her husband are paradigm cases. A bad outcome. But you clearly could do worse, e.g., the victory of any of the Republican candidates. (Donald Trump is an exceptional case in a class by himself. I do not think he believes strongly in anything he says – although his supporters do. What he does value is money, power, and above all attention, for himself and himself only. His election would herald not only the collapse of the republic but the extinction of what little admirable American culture we can claim. Think Chauncey Gardiner in Jerzy Kozinski’s Being There. Only worse. Much worse.)

There is, given the Prisoner’s Dilemma of American politics, temptation to hold one’s nose and vote for the “electable” candidate right off the bat. But this is a temptation, I shall argue, that must at all costs be resisted — and a recognition that resisting it is not only, or even primarily, a matter of voting for the best candidate that the system can accomodate. It is a matter of changing the system in such a way that “the Prisoner’s Dilemma” will evaporate.

Notice that, when I spoke of “rational” choice in the context of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, I put “rational” in scare quotes. That was intentional. The kind of rationality epitomized in Prisoner’s Dilemmas is, above all and exclusively, strategic. One takes one’s ends as a given (i.e., one’s self-interest in keeping jail time to a minimum), and adjusts them in accord with the ends others take to be given (i.e., keeping their jail time to a minimum). But strategic rationality is not the only kind of rationality there is. Max Weber parsed this difference as that between Zweckrationalität (calculative rationality) and Wertrationalität (value rationality, thinking about the worthiness of ends themselves). Jürgen Habermas expanded on this by identifying three “cognitive interests”: the technical (effective means to pre-given ends, prediction, causal explanation), the practical (interpretation, understanding, communication), and the emancipatory (reflective criticism, aiming at a re-valuation of ends). For Habermas and Weber (not to mention very different philosophers such as Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre), the idea of rationality embodied in both the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a mainstay of game theory and institutions that exemplify Prisoner’s Dilemmas (whether designed that way or not), is far too constricted. Choosing rationally in the political arena is a matter not of reasoning instrumentally or strategically but of reasoning about ends and their worthiness.

Thus Game Theory as the guiding model of politics is constricted, self-defeating, and paltry. But it is what we have. To go along with this model is to give it tacit consent, which is something that I, as a citizen, could not in good conscience do. So I have re-registered as a Democrat and vote for Sanders in the primaries. If he wins the primaries I will vote for him in the general election, and if he loses I will vote for Hillary Clinton. There is nothing strategic in any of this. It is practical and emancipatory reason that guides me. I do not want to think of myself as part of an amorphous electorate whose other members I am constantly watching, suspiciously, over my shoulder. It is crass, and frankly, takes too much time and energy.  If one votes at all one should vote as a citizen, not a populace. If one doesn’t one really has no business voting at all.

But if the US political arena follows a game-theoretic model, it is important not only to vote for the right candidates within that model, but to vote for candidates who will change the model itself, and to try to change it yourself regardless of the candidates who you support. It is a common failing among those who pass for “the left” in the USA to think that electing “one of ours” will solve the problem all by itself: call it the “Camelot” fantasy. The problem is more deep seated than making sure “the Republican clown car” runs out of gas before the finish line.

Any liberal democratic republic worthy of the name needs to cultivate citizens who put strategizing on the sidelines and deliberate in common about the common good. Participatory politics is urgently needed, rather than the spectatorial horse race that American politics, as portrayed and molded by the media, has devolved into. Whether Bernie Sanders or anyone else can make that happen is beside the point. Without considerable structural change (a parliamentary system, or voting in ranked-preferences would be a start, if only a start), and more importantly a change in our political culture to something more, well, democratic, none of this will matter much.

Make no mistake: the change being proposed is not minor. It is both structural and cultural. Structural change, in that it goes beyond policies that address, rather than ignore, the problems on our collective plate (money in politics, the massively unjust distribution of wealth and income and the maldistribution of power that follows from it, etc. etc), but involves significant changes in the way democracy functions in the American polity. (When Sanders calls for a “democratic revolution” I am not sure he means a wholesale change in governmental structure, but I think he should mean it.) Cultural change, in that it will involve a genuine commitment to full-throated democratic citizenship, and thus a repudiation of key elements of American political culture: its “possessive individualism”, its equation of citizenship with a type of privacy (the very idea of “private citizen” is oxymoronic), the equation of “the pursuit of happiness” with a kind of comfort that comes from winning in the Hobbesian war of all against all. It will require a thorough re-thinking of “the American Dream”, which should pose a challenge to the left and centrist liberals as well as conservatives and rightists (not the same thing). But real challenges – never a matter of just designing a better “strategy” – are therapeutic and usually good in the long run. Especially if the eminent political theorist George Carlin was right after all: “The reason they call it ‘the American Dream’ is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”


Leave a Reply