When your opponent plays defect every time

February 14, 2019 (1364 words) :: Mainstream US politics is a great illustration of how not to solve the prisoner's dilemma.
Tags: class-struggle

This post is day 45 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

In the game theory problem known as the prisoner’s dilemma, two prisoners - arrested for the same crime - are separated, and given a choice: each can give up the other, or can stay silent. If both stay silent (i.e., cooperate with each other), they’ll both get a light sentence; if both betray the other (i.e., defect), they’ll both get moderate sentences. On the other hand, if one cooperates while the other defects, the one who defects will get off scot-free, and the one who cooperates will get a harsh sentence.

The potentially surprising result of this game is that even though the global optimum is for both to cooperate, for each individual prisoner the best option is to give up the other. Of course, that just means they’ll both end up betraying the other, which results in a worse outcome for both - a suboptimal equilibrium point. Since neither prisoner knows how the other will behave in advance, and has no reason to assume that the other will choose the personally riskier option in the hopes of reaching the globally optimal solution, each prisoner’s best choice is to defect. The whole thing is essentially a doomed proposition, with a tragic ending.

There’s an iterative variant of the game which has a different solution. If the prisoners know they’ll be in the same dilemma with each other again, they have more incentive to cooperate. In this variant, strategies which emphasise cooperation, and only defect rarely (in retaliation, when the other prisoner defects) tend to do better.

Now imagine two prisoners in an iterated version of this dilemma with opposing strategies. One always cooperates, no matter what. The other always defects, no matter what.

It would be a massacre. The cooperative prisoner would get screwed over every time, and yet would go on blithely cooperating, as if the other prisoner would surely mend their ways in the next round.

I used to have a very binary understanding of US politics. The Democrats were the good guys, and the Republicans were the bad guys. Until recently, I only had a dim conception that there might be multiple competing camps within the Democratic Party, with very different visions for the world. I didn’t understand why people rallied behind Bernie Sanders’ candidacy in 2016, for instance. I was #WithHer through and through - I believed that Hillary Clinton was more experienced, and more electable, and that was that.

It was only in the aftermath of Trump’s election, and seeing the utter failure of the “Resistance” to present any actual resistance, that the chasm between the two major camps in the Democratic Party started to reveal itself to me. Alongside leftist publications like Jacobin, I was also discovering political theory and literary criticism, which - to my surprise - seemed to echo the Sanders wing’s criticism of Hillary Clinton. It dawned on me that “neoliberal” wasn’t just a slur; it was actually its own political ideology, whose tenets seemed to me to be increasingly incompatible with the social outcomes I valued.

Embedded within this political ideology was a particular approach to dealing with political opponents. In the waning days of 2016, I would watch late-night liberal pundits like Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver for updates on the so-called resistance, and I found myself getting more and more frustrated, to the point where I stopped being able to watch those shows. The very political terrain had been upended, and yet mainstream Democrats were still embracing the notion of Beltway civility, acting as if bipartisanship were the most important thing. Rather than actually challenging their opponents, and moving the Overton window as a result, they were compromising with them, and accepting their terms of debate as their own. When your best argument against building a border wall is that it’s a bad use of taxpayer money, rather than acknowledging the sheer inhumanity of strengthening the border under the current circumstances, then you’ve already lost the battle.

Twitter was a useful resource for giving voice to the uncertain disillusionment I was starting to feel with the Democratic Party. One popular tweet I remember, that I can’t seem to find anymore, caricatured the centrist wing’s tendencies to continually compromise with the right, in an apparent belief that the other side would eventually return the favour. It went something like this:

centrists: let’s try compromising with the right
left: how’d that work out
centrists: not well
left: why don’t you try compromising with the left instead
centrists: nah we’ll try compromising with the right again

In prisoner’s dilemma terms, it felt like the establishment Dems kept naively offering to cooperate, despite the fact that their opponents were playing defect every time. They seemed to sincerely believe that their opponents were acting in good faith, when in fact their opponents had no intention of doing anything other than dragging the goalposts further and further rightward. When you’re always cooperating and your opponent is always defecting, ‘bipartisanship’ just means letting your opponent roll over you.

(Funny story: There was a time when I assumed that my personal political journey was a matter of chronology, as a universal, rather than individual, reaction to Trump’s election. I was surprised when I later found out there were people who still thought neoliberalism, and its associated wing in the Democratic Party, was fine - I didn’t fully understand that everyone has different societal priorities, not to mention different tipping points for personal political epiphanies. My partner Jason had a similar experience when going from liberal to socialist in the aftermath of Trump’s election: he describes his conversion as being accompanied by the thought, “Okay, we’re all doing this now, right?” Alas.)

A whole cottage industry of jokes has sprung up in response to mainstream Dems’ ineffectiveness at offering tangible resistance - either to Republicans, or to the increasingly spent narrative offered by the status quo. A lot of these jokes revolve around Dems’ predilection for market-friendly solutions like tax credits or subsidised re-skilling programs to problems that require much more imaginative solutions. Here’s one by @crushingbort that I really liked:

Today we learned bugs are dying off and could be gone within a century, leading to a “global collapse of nature.” That’s why I’m introducing bipartisan, deficit-neutral legislation to retrain older workers as beekeepers

my bill, the Geriatric Retraining for the Upkeep of Bees Act has a pretty cool acronym if you look at it. I have zero co-sponsors and some Republicans are saying my wife likes to kiss slugs. Others have said that she is worse off kissing me. I hope we can find common ground

The point is that politics is a terrain of struggle, not merely a process by which ideologically neutral participants reach some rational point of consensus. Politics is conflict, a massive one, between different (and often competing) values. It is a conduit for class warfare.

Republicans know this, and they’ve been good at using political power to enforce their will. Most Democrats, on the other hand, refuse to acknowledge this, instead clinging to ideas of bipartisanship and compromise as if their opponents are acting in good faith. They’re not. There’s no point compromising when your opponent has chosen to play defect.

screenshot of a tweet about liberals trying to reason with fascists Also: Democrats trying to reason with Republicans (source)

The politics-as-usual crowd likes to criticise outspoken politicians like Bernie Sanders (and, more recently, AOC) for being divisive, partisan, and uncompromising in their values. As if those are bad things in the current political environment. Meanwhile, their own strategy of political unity is clearly failing, because their opponents don’t give a shit about unity and are taking advantage of the opportunity to steamroll them.

At the moment, the AOC & Sanders brand of confrontation seems to be doing well when it comes to building popular support - by standing their ground, they’re providing political leadership of the sort that’s sorely needed on the left. Let’s see if the party establishment cottons on to that before it’s too late.

« See the full list of fragments