In a recent article, Michael Lewis writes about a whole bunch of interactions he had with the Trump Administration in recent months. He attended a press conference, sat down with Steve Bannon (who interestingly is related as having a thought I’ve pondered for years — America is in decline and the elites don’t care), and a few other things.
But what struck me about the article, is the opening paragraph or three. He writes about how so much of our current dynamic and current political debate is based on a zero-sum approach.
Approaching any aspect of life as a zero-sum game has obvious practical costs: Deals that leave some people better off without making anyone else worse off suddenly don’t get done, because making some people better off now, by definition, makes other people worse off. It also comes with some psychological side effects. It cripples your imagination. It blinds and deafens you, as you sort of know what your adversary is going to do or say before they do or say it. Or, rather, you know how you are going to make sense of it: uncharitably.
This is we are today in America. Any victory for one side is viewed as a loss by the other. In such an imagination-free world, compromise is simply not an option. We are crippled, blind and deaf. Lewis states it perfectly.
I am reminded of a Republican leader’s comment early in Obama’s first term that their goal would be to ensure he was a one-term President. To me, this is when the zero-sum approach took root in American politics. Yes, I’m sure Republicans would claim it started before then. Maybe some time during the second Bush Presidency or back in the Reagan years Democrats did something to oppose a Republican initiative.
But here’s the deal, while some Democrats have opposed all Republican policies, there have been enough Democrats motivated by moving forward that those Republican Presidents have been able to get support from both parties for major initiatives. Think the Iraq War. Think GWB’s expanded Medicaid drug benefit. Think a whole lot of things.
Now, think about the Obama Presidency and ask where any of that collaboration was. I’m open for a discussion on this, but to me at least on the national level, the zero-sum approach began with the Republicans. And even now, Democrats are showing they aren’t entirely enraptured of zero-sum.
I don’t mean for this to be a “blame the Republicans” piece. No, one could argue that in the state where I live, the Democrats have essentially done the same thing. Over the last 25 years, what once was a red state turned to purple and then turned entirely blue — at least in terms of control of statewide elected offices and the Legislature. The truth is that there are still large swaths of red and significant numbers of conservatives, just not in numbers sufficient to achieve any power at the statewide level. And what have the Democrats in power done with that — ignored Republicans and conservatives and stripped them of any input on legislation and policy initiatives.
No, this isn’t just a Republican problem. It isn’t just a Democratic program. It is an American problem. Are we going to continue our American decline as we refuse to listen, to talk, to negotiate, and to compromise? Or will we one day put aside the harshest of our differences and recognize our citizenship is one thing we share and one thing that should unite us?
(Side note: it is exactly this zero-sum approach that has come to dominate American politics that has afforded people like Vladimir Putin the ability to meddle in our elections. Just saying.)