Game Theory, Democrats, and the Failure of Leadership

I don't want to write another post about how the Democratic Party leadership is fumbling things today -- so I won't. Actually, I've been pondering why they keep fumbling things. As the party rank and file continues to bemoan their leadership's failure to aggressively defend its values, those leaders insist they are defending the tradition of bipartisanship and consensus.

In reality, what the Democratic Party insiders are really defending is a 'game' that their opponents have redefined, and which they're destined to continue losing. (Sure, this year they'll have the ineptness of Bush and the Abramoff scandal, which will help them pick up some seats. But if they keep acting this way, their only gains will be ones their opponents hand them.)

Life Is A Cabaret

I was prompted to think about this after reading of Barack Obama's appearance at the increasingly tasteless Gridiron Dinner. The Gridiron's an event which now only serves to illustrate the amorality of our political and journalistic leadership, and their collective marginalization from the impact their actions have on the rest of the country.

Writing about the Gridiron itself would have posed all sorts of problems, like: What's the better metaphor, Marie Antoinette or Joel Gray in Cabaret? And it would have missed the larger, more important question, which for me is: why do Democrats continue to behave like this? Why can't they see how radically the Republicans have changed the rules of the game, and respond accordingly?

To sing, dance, and clown with deceivers and torture advocates is to endorse their behavior as socially acceptable. That is in itself a failure of Democratic leadership, and will weaken their effectiveness when they decry Republicans as 'corrupt' in the '06 elections. "If they're so corrupt," voters will think, "why were you partying with them?"

The unwillingness of future Presidential candidates like Clinton, Kerry, and Edwards to vote against the Patriot Act is another such failure, both ethically (the Act is un-American in the truest meaning of the word) and tactically (this vote will hamstring their future credibility and further weaken their election prospects, as Kerry's Iraq War vote did in 2004).

Mind Games

Why does this keep happening?

Some clues to the Democratic leadership's ineffectiveness, and the mind-set behind it, can be found in "game theory." Many readers will know that game theory became a popular tool for modeling human behavior after it was developed by mathematician John von Neumann, and will recognize John Nash's game theory work through the book and film "A Beautiful Mind." While it has its limitations and its detractors, game theory has been successfully used in economics, warfare, and negotiation support.

One of the simplest and most popular examples of game theory is 'cut the cake': Two people agree to share a piece of cake. One will cut it, and the other will then pick whichever piece he wants, presumably the larger one.

As long as the rules of the game are followed, everyone is satisfied. The incentives of each 'player' have been balanced peacefully: the cutter wants to slice the cake as evenly as possible, to make sure he gets half of it. The chooser wants as much of the cake as possible, but she accepts the fact that the cutter will try to get as close to half of it as possible.

Cut the Cake

But what if the cutter cuts the cake unevenly, grabs the bigger piece, and stomps away? And when the chooser objects, the thief simply says "I've changed the rules"? Game theory addresses that possibility, too. Morgenstern and Von Neuman wrote, in their Theory of Games and Economic Behavior:

Imagine that we have discovered a set of rules for all participants -- to be termed "optimal" or "rational" -- each of which is indeed optimal provided that the other participants conform. (emphasis mine)

If (breaking the rules) should turn out to be advantageous for (the rule breakers)- and, quite particularly, disadvantageous to the conformists -- then the above solution (i.e. sticking with the "old agreement") would seem very questionable.

In other words, if the "non-conformists" break the rules and yet are repeatedly rewarded with success, there's no reason for them to stop. So why would any rational person continue to act as if the situation hasn't changed, and keep behaving in a way that's proven so unsuccessful (as rank-and-file Democrats continue to ask)?

All In The Game

One explanation is cognitive - that Democratic leaders simply cannot accept and internalize the new and highly brutalized rules of the game. These rules include lying to the press (and using the press to lie), rigging elections, intimidating the judiciary ... oh, hell, you know what they are. The reality is too harsh for them to accept, even if you can, because they have more emotional investment in the system as it once worked.

Another explanation is personality. Democrats, particularly those who serve in the House or Senate, are temperamentally suited to dialog, debate, and the free exchange of ideas. For many years Congress and politics in general was a hospitable place for them. Their denial helps them cling to a way of life that is gone, at least for the present (and as long as Karl Rove is in charge).

A Mother's Love

Then there is the concept of "asymmetric games," as demonstrated by the game of "chicken vs. bully." William Poundstone (in his excellent introductory book Prisoner's Dilemma) uses the tale of King Solomon to illustrate games in which one player is a "bully" and the other is a "chicken."

You remember the story, where two women both claim to be the mother of the same child so Solomon proposes splitting the child in half. The mother who truly loves the child offers to give it up, at which point Solomon awards the baby to her. Says Poundstone:

In other words, the true mother has the preferences of a chicken player ... The real mother most wants to prevail ... The imposter ... would rather see the child killed than have it go to her rival.

Without the power and wisdom of Solomon, the "bully" player will always prevail. So it's possible to view the Democratic leadership as the "chicken" player who fails because, time and time again, they would rather lose than destroy the political process which they value and believe is still functioning as it did before the GOP changed the rules.

The Republicans in this analogy are the "bully" player, of course. And what about our democratic system of government -- including the popular vote, checks and balances, and the bipartisan nature of legislative process? It's the baby.

Life During Wartime

The problem is that the democratic system -- at least the bipartisanship part of it -- is already gone, and the rest of it is being hurriedly dismantled. Maybe someday that spirit of bipartisanship will return, and both parties will work together to repair the democratic process, but that won't happen under the GOP's present political leadership.

So the question for progressives and their fellow-travelers should be: What sort of relationship should we have with the Democratic Party structure? Do we need to develop new institutions? Redefine the old ones? Both?

The progressive/liberal/pro-change coalition needs to define a new strategy. My position would be that such a coalition should be prepared to ally itself tactically with the Democratic Party, and be prepared to use it as a tool. I would not suggest, however, that a coalition of this kind should look to the Democratic Party for true leadership.

Game theory, at least, says that just isn't going to happen.