Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, urged them to “let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need...” (Eph 4.29ff). I thought about that while watching the run up to the mid term elections, reflecting on the behavior of Congress over the last decade, and their relationship to the polarization we’ve heard so much about.
Political polarization has been a hot topic for books, articles, and columns, including mine, but understanding it may be missing an important element. Maybe it’s not polarization at all, but a virulent game of The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Educators and trainers in group dynamics have long relied on variations of an old game called The Prisoner’s Dilemma developed in 1950 by Flood and Dresher at the RAND Corp. There are many versions, but the basic idea is that two people, or teams, who cooperate with each other will always out perform the same who betray each other. However, the way society offers rewards and punishment irresistibly entices them into tactical betrayals intended to benefit one at the cost of loss to the other. The inevitable result is, at best, poor performance for both, and more likely, defeat for both. These days we hear it talked about as zero sum games in which there are only winners and losers. The truth is, zero sum games produce losers and losers.
Congress likes to play the game. It always has. But for much of the last 100 years, competent leadership has found a way to bring competing sides together for something that approximated a partial win for most everyone. That ended some time ago. Blame it on whomever you want. I take special aim at the tea party movement and its congressional freedom caucus whose strategy is to win by causing others to lose everything. Failing that, no one gets to win anything. They’ve been aided and abetted in the senate by Mitch McConnell, for reasons that elude me. Former leadership who figured that ‘we can work this out’ have been replaced by zero sum politicians producing losers and losers.
The game has not been played out of public view. It’s been under the floodlights of media calling the play by play and offering color commentary, but since 2016 the floodlights have been replaced by a spotlight on one person who proudly claims to be the world heavy weight champion of The Prisoner’s Dilemma. No teams for him. He plays it alone, one on one with everybody and anybody: his wives, business associates, opponents in the presidential primaries, the general election, with congress, world leaders, everybody. He has only two moves in his repertoire: first, feign cooperation; second, betray and defeat. If not successful in round one, repeat until the other gives up. I’ve thrown in a lot of sports analogies so might as well go for one more. For him, life is a version of the game best defined by pro wrestling, of which he is said to be a fan. Fighting to win by defeating the other is the whole purpose of life. It’s the only game there is. There is no other. Rigging the fight in advance is in one’s best interest. Extravagant ring strutting behavior enhances fan support, and creates fear in the hearts of would be opponents. Compromise is never an option. Never apologize. Never give in.
His business career and personal life should illuminate the fragility of his playing credibility and championship claims. While he has defeated and destroyed other lives, he can claim few victories of substance. All he has is illusory. It may be gold plated, but the veneer is thin. Underneath is base metal offering no enduring integrity. Bankruptcies, divorces, betrayals, unpaid bills, and exaggerations of wealth are all he has to offer. Bluster and intimidation are his only weapons.
It may be faint hope, but I hope for a new congress with new leadership, on both sides of the aisle, more aware of how easy it is to slip into the game of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, and more willing to do what they can to avoid it. Above all, I hope for a new president determined not to play the game at home or on the world stage. Until then, the best strategy for dealing with Trump and current congressional leadership is to not play the game with them. But how?
Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice. In short, do not return betrayal with betrayal. Return betrayal with good.
I have a few Trump supporting friends who, if they read this, will no doubt say that I have filled a column with bitterness, anger and slander intended to tear down, not build up. I think they’re simply observations about the obviously pernicious forces undermining the integrity of our nation. Evil is not thwarted by pretending it doesn’t exist.