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Pure Democracy vs. Republic: The Federalist No. 10

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SOME claim that today we urgently need a pure democracy — i.e., a system of government in which all social issues are decided by popular vote.  While pure democracy is a logical and effective system for governing small organizations, experience shows it ill-suited for managing large groups.  The framers of the US Constitution considered the alternative of pure democracy, but rejected it  Instead, based on a thorough study of history, they concluded that a republic, where representatives elected by voters make laws, was a more stable, just and democratic system.

The reasoning is best articulated in the The Federalist No. 10, by James Madison.  In this important work, Madison first identifies factionalism as the fatal flaw of pure democracies:

AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished. [italics added]

Madison lays out his arguments methodically.  First he notes that the seeds of factionalism are sown in human nature itself:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. [italics added]

The last words are central his argument.  He emphasizes that it is concern for the common good that is the essence of democracy, and implies that this requires a spirit of cooperation, not competition, to achieve.  To the extent that pure democracy promotes and empowers factionalism, it is extremely undemocratic.

In a pure democracy, the larger faction will use legislation to oppress the minority:

When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.

But a minority faction can do its own damage with obstructionism and sabotage:

If a faction consists of less than a majority … [i]t may clog the administration, it may convulse the society.

The instability and injustice characteristic of pure democracies also supplies a pretext by which true tyrants (“adversaries to liberty”) may come to power.

Madison wraps up the first half of the article summarizing the problems of pure democracy:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. [italics added]

The advantage of a republic is that citizens are represented by elected legislators, who supply a buffer against the selfishness, injustice and fickleness of popular opinion:

The effect of the first difference [of a republic] is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

The benefits of having elected legislators include that they can (1) consider the well-being of all citizens, (2) study and debate issues in depth, (3) base decisions on long-term interests that popular opinion often disregards; and (4) avoid flip-flopping as voter majorities change.

Questions

1. Do modern social and mass communication media increase or decrease the relevance of Madison’s reservations about pure democracy?

2. Much of his argument for a republic depends on the ability to elect capable and honest legislators. What steps could society take to make this more likely?

Further Reading

  • James Madison, Federalist No. 10, “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (continued),” Daily Advertiser, November 22, 1787.
  • The Federalist Papers (Wikipedia)
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Healthy and Unhealthy Communication Patterns Within the US Political Spectrum

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THE theme of this brief article (illustrated in the figure below) is to note a contrast between two political conditions of American society:

1. Positive condition (top): Moderates of left and right converse with each other, producing a fruitful exchange of ideas and gradual improvement in social policies and government.  This is, arguably, somewhat the situation of the US in the 1960’s.

2. Disordered condition (bottom): This corresponds to the present situation, where the political narrative is dictated by radicals on the left and right, with the majorities on both sides marginalized.

The system dynamics of these two scenarios are completely different.  In the healthy situation, there is a moral majority, spanning left and right — the members of which share certain fundamental moral premises about right and wrong and the direction society ought to head.  Within this moral majority, people on either side of the aisle may disagree, but they still recognize and affirm a greater sense of community that transcends specific differences of opinion. This system allows and promotes gradual social progress, because each side is interested in listening, reason, negotiation, compromise and respect of self and others.  Communication media (news, articles, books) are oriented to the moderate majority.  Example: in the 1960’s, Democrats and Republicans read the same magazines (Life,  Reader’s Digest, Saturday Evening Post) and watched the same news programs; this helped (1) affirm a sense of community and shared values that transcend politics, and (2) allowed for examination of social issues along non-partisan lines.

In the disordered condition, extreme and radical factions on the left and right are elevated to functional leadership.   A false narrative is created which assumes that ‘radicals speak for everyone.’  Dissenters are censored, or ridiculed.  Extremely polarized communication media are used as a means to convey the false message that the radicals speak for everyone.  Radicals demonize opponents, and moderates in each camp are induced to dislike and hate moderates of the other camp for ideological reasons.  Anything that affirms the fundamental solidarity of all citizens (religion, tradition, fine arts) must be denigrated and ridiculed.

If this is a reasonable model of what’s going on, what can or should be done to correct things?

George Washington’s Solemn Warning Against Party Strife and Plea for Unity

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WashingtonPrayer3

From George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)

A solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger, natural to that solicitude, urge me, on an occasion like the present, to offer to your solemn contemplation, and to recommend to your frequent review, some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all-important to the permanency of your felicity as a people. These will be offered to you with the more freedom, as you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel. Nor can I forget, as an encouragement to it, your indulgent reception of my sentiments on a former and not dissimilar occasion….

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another….

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed,

it is of infinite moment
that you should properly estimate
the immense value of your national union
to your collective and individual happiness;
that you should cherish a cordial, habitual,
and immovable attachment to it;
accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it
as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity;
watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety;
discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion
that it can in any event be abandoned;
and indignantly frowning upon
the first dawning of every attempt
to alienate any portion of our country from the rest,
or to enfeeble the sacred ties
which now link together the various parts.

~ * ~

Written by John Uebersax

February 17, 2016 at 5:33 am

The Emersonian ‘Universal Mind’ and Its Vital Importance

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Emerson_older

IT SEEMS I’m always trying to get people to read Emerson. Why? Because I’m convinced his writings contain solutions to many of today’s urgent social problems.

Perhaps Emerson’s most important contribution is a concept that he refers to throughout his works, calling various names, but most often Universal Mind. This term invites a number of unintended meanings, tending to obscure Emerson’s important message.

Universal Mind may at first glance seem a vague, new-agey reference to some cosmic super-intelligence, but that’s not what Emerson means.. The concept is more commonplace, down-to-earth and practical. It could perhaps better be called the Human Nature, Universal Human Nature, or Man. For now, though, I’ll stick with Emerson’s term, but put it in italics instead of capital letters to demystify it. What, then, does Emerson mean by the universal mind of humanity?

It is, basically, all human beings share a common repertoire of mental abilities. Just as insects or lizards of a particular species share a common natural endowment of behavioral instincts, so all humans have a common natural set of mental skills, aptitudes, and concepts. (In fact, sometimes uses the word Instinct instead of universal mind.)

For example, consider a basic axiom of plane geometry: that two parallel lines never intersect. Once this was explained to you in high school, at which point you said, “Oh, I see that. It’s common sense.” This is the Emersonian universal mind in action. Every other geometry student has the same response. The ability to ‘see’ this is or ‘get it’ part of our common mental ability as human beings.

And the same can be said of hundreds, thousands, or more particular elements of human knowledge. These cover many different domains, including basic principles of mathematics and logic, artistic and aesthetic judgments (all human beings admire a beautiful sunset, all see the Taj Mahal as sublime and beautiful), moral principles (what is just or fair?), and religion (e.g., that God exists and deserves our thanks and praise.)

By the universal mind, then, Emerson merely means that plain fact that all or virtually all members of the human race share a vast repertoire of common mental abilities, concepts, judgments, and so on. This is not wild metaphysical speculation. It is an empirically obvious fact. Without this implied assumption of universal mind, for example, criminal laws and courts would be pointless. The mere fact that we hold people accountable for criminal misdeeds implies a shared set of assumptions about right and wrong, accountability for ones actions, etc.

Now it is true that one may, if one wants, elaborate the principle of a universal human mind and add all sorts of metaphysical speculations. Some do. They see this universal mind as deriving from the principle of all men being made in God’s image and likeness. These are important considerations, but they are, in a sense, secondary ones. More important is that is, it is important that all people — theists and atheists, metaphysicians and empiricists alike — can agree on the existence of the universal human character. Said another way, it is vital that we not let disagreements over metaphysics obscure or distract us from this more important consensus that there is a universal man or universal mind.

Why? Because this concept — something we all assume implicitly — has been insufficiently examined and developed at a collective level. It needs to become a topic of public discourse and scientific study, because its implications are enormous. We’ve only just begun this work as a species, as evidenced by the fact that we as yet haven’t even agreed even on a term! It’s always been with us, but only lately have be become fully aware of it. This realization is a milestone in the evolution of human consciousness and society.

Maybe I’ll write a followup that discusses the specific ways in which this concept, fully developed, may advantageously affect our current social conditions. For now I’ll simply list a few relevant categories where it applies:

Human Dignity. Each person has vast potential and therefore vast dignity. Each carries, as it were, the wisdom and the sum of potential scientific, artistic, moral, and religious capabilities of the entire species. Any person has the innate hardware, and with just a little training could learn to discern the technical and aesthetic difference between a Botticelli painting from a Raphael, a Rembrandt from a Rubens. Each human being is sensitive to the difference between a Mozart piano sonata and one by Beethoven. And so in Science. Any person could understand the Theory of Relativity suitably explained. Or differential equations. Or the physics of black holes.

Consider this thought experiment. If the human race made itself extinct, but aliens rescued one survivor, that one person could be taught, almost by reading alone, to recover the sum of all scientific, moral, and artistic insights of the species! The entirety of our collective abilities would live on in one person. And, more, that would be true regardless of which person were the survivor. So much is the vast ability and dignity of each human being.

Education. It exceeds what we currently know to assert that all possible concepts already exist fully developed, though latent, in each person. But we can assert that all human beings are hard-wired in certain ways to enable to form these concepts when supplied with suitable data. In either case, the implication is that education does not instill knowledge, so much as elicits the pre-existing aptitudes. Further, in keeping with the preceding point, the universal mind means that no person is limited in their ability to learn. Each person is a Genius. We should do our utmost to make this potentiality a fact for as many as possible. Education should be lifelong, not something relegated to the first 18 years of life.

Arts are not the peculiar luxury of the elite upper class. Shakespeare, Mozart, and Raphael are the common heritage of all. We need to take much more seriously the basic human right to have each ones divine artistic nature flower.

Economics. Today economics has become the main frame of reference for conceptualizing all human progress. We must rethink this, and give greater allowance for seeing the flourishing of the universal man as our goal. Nobody can be happy with vast potentials unfulfilled. It is not the way of nature. We must get it clear in our thinking, individually and collectively, that the business of society is to empower the individual.

Social discourse. All solutions to social ills already exist latent in Man’s heart. The phrase ‘common dreams’ is more than a euphemism. We do have common ideals, great ones. Our social discourse should aim for mutual insight and self-discovery. Answers are within: one’s within oneself; but also, because of the universal mind, ones within the other as well.  Instead of argument and debate we should aim for dialectic: a joint uncovering of ideals and guiding principles and raising of consciousness.

Government. To much of modern political philosophy assumes the principle of nanny government. People are wiser than governments. We should insist that the first priority of government is to make itself unnecessary. Liberate the universal man — the ultimate moral force on earth — and see how much things improve without government intervention!

Foreign policy. All men are at the core alike. All respond to the same appeals to Reason and Morals. All have equal worth and dignity. All are designed for cooperation, friendship, and love. Any foreign policy which denies these realities does not conform with nature and cannot succeed.

As noted, Emerson’s discussion of the universal mind is found scattered throughout his works. Emerson was not systematic, but nevertheless his message comes across very clear. Some of his works most relevant this theme are Self Reliance, Intellect and Art (Essays, First Series), The Poet and Politics (Essays, Second Series), and Genius and Religion (Early Lectures).

First draft

References

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1903–1904.
Online edition (UMich): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller. Cambridge, MA, 1964.
http://books.google.com/books?id=F4Xfp8HbfxIC<a?

10 Reasons to Vote Third-Party

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10 reasons vote third party

Top Ten Reasons to Vote for Third-Party Candidates

10. Wall Street owns Republican and Democratic parties.

9. At 5% mark, third parties start getting federal campaign funds.

8. Winning not the only purpose of voting

7. Benefits future generations

6. If third parties affect outcome, big parties may change platforms.

5. Won’t be a ‘useful idiot’

4. Public debate of real issues

3. Maintains & expands third-party ballot access

2. Your name not on US bombs

1. Signals hope to other Americans

Third-Party Voting and Kant’s Categorical Imperative

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5d-evil-1

ONE of Kant’s great contributions to ethics is his statement of the principle known as the categorical imperative. This asserts that, for an act to be moral, one must be able to wish that its “maxim could be made a universal law of nature,” or, in ordinary terms, one must do only what one believes nature (meaning here the entire universe) would want everyone to do in similar circumstances. The categorical imperative is not without difficulties in practice — there are exceptions and questionable cases — but these notwithstanding it is a remarkably powerful principle.

How might it apply to voting in an American presidential election? Consider two alternative strategies, which we’ll call (1) voting the lesser evil, and (2) voting on principle.

Voting the lesser evil has become virtually the norm today. The Democratic and Republican parties nominate horrible candidates. The task is therefore not to vote for the candidate you like, but against the worse of the two, to prevent that candidate from winning. Since both of these candidates are bad, why don’t people simply vote for a third-party (e.g., Libertarian or Green) candidate? Because the races are so close: each voter figures that his or her vote may be decisive in preventing the more feared candidate from winning, so that opting for a third party might tip the balance unfavorably. If one is terrified of a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton winning, then this strategy has a certain utilitarian logic. But is it moral as judged by the categorical imperative?

Let’s see. If everybody did this, then the two big parties would have a perfect way to keep the public in perpetual slavery: keep nominating wretched candidates, and select issues that split the public down the middle, 50/50. That way in every election 99% of voters will continue to cast their votes for the Democratic (or Republican) candidate, to keep the Republican (or Democrat) from winning. If we suppose, not unrealistically, that both parties front the same Wall Street power elite, then this is a perfect racket by the ruling interests. There is no end in sight, and little hope for improvement in our lives. We’ll remain serfs in a gradually worsening economy, with continually eroding quality of life. Therefore voting the lesser evil cannot be moral according to Kant’s categorical imperative.

What about voting on principle? That would mean voting for the candidate whose platform best conforms to ones authentic beliefs and values, without worrying about who will actually win. If only you vote this way, granted, it may have little practical effect, except, perhaps, to register as dissent to the power elite and your fellow citizens (although these things aren’t trivial). But consider the categorical imperative: what if *everybody* voted this way? Then we would break the Republican-Democrat hegemony. We could end US military imperialism, environmental exploitation, a life of perpetual debt, and so on. In short, we could achieve or collective hopes and aspirations to produce a truly just, wise, and happy society. Without question, voting on principle does satisfy the categorical imperative, and therefore is moral.

The argument seems pretty clear. A further consideration is that voting itself ought to be regarded as a deeply important and inherently moral duty — something sacred. Our democracy is only as good as the moral conscientiousness of voters. Presidents and parties come and go, but a moral action is forever.

Related articles

The Prisoners’ Dilemma and Third-Party Voting

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Prisoners Dilemma - Ohdaira & Terano

[ Related: Responding to the ‘Voting for Jill Stein Merely Elects Trump’ Fallacy  ]

Does game theory explain why Americans don’t vote for third-party candidates?

Previous posts here have considered the tactics by which the Republican and Democratic parties collude to maintain a two-party hegemony in America  politics.  Lately it’s occurred to me that this problem can be understood as a special case of what game theorists call the prisoner’s dilemma (Rapoport, 1965).  Prisoner’s dilemma (PD), as we shall see, is a classic example of how two decision-making agents, both seemingly seeking to maximize self-interest, systematically make  harmful or suboptimal choices.  In the present case, the issue is that even though American voters would be better off voting for third-party candidates, there are structural reasons why they do not do so.  Looking at this problem in terms of PD can help identify the structural issues at work and suggest possible routes out of our present political impasse.

A few other people (e.g., John Sallet, and EvilRedScandi) have looked at  PD as a way to understand current political dynamics, but their concerns are somewhat different than the present one, which is how Republican and Democrat voters today are jointly in a prisoners’ dilemma.

First we’ll describe the basic PD paradigm.  Then we’ll show how this applies to reluctance to vote for third-party candidates.  Last and perhaps most importantly we’ll consider practical steps for reform that the model suggests.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

PD is a game theory paradigm that demonstrates how two decision-makers paradoxically fail to maximize either individual or joint interests.  Specifically, though their best strategy would be cooperation, they systematically choose non-cooperation.  The basic model can be understood with the following example:

Early one Saturday you and a college friend go hunting for ‘magic mushrooms’ in Farmer Brown’s cow pasture.  Farmer Brown sees you and calls police Chief Wiggum, who arrives promptly, arrests you and your friend, and hauls you both to the police station. There Wiggum places you in a room by yourself and proposes the following deal (he also tells you he will propose an identical deal to your friend).  The terms are as follows.  He asks you to sign a confession admitting that you and your friend were gathering the mushrooms with the intent of selling them (i.e., drug-dealing).  Then:

  1. If you confess, and your friend doesn’t confess, he will go to jail for 10 years, and you will get a 90-day sentence.
  2. Conversely, if your friend confesses and you don’t, he will get a 90-day sentence,  and you will get a 10-year sentence.
  3. If you confess and your friend also confesses, you’ll both be given 5-year sentences.
  4. If neither of you confess, Wiggum explains that he can still charge you and your friend with trespassing and put you both in jail for 30 days.

We can represent the dilemma with reference to a payoff matrix that considers each possible combination of choices and their consequences. You and your friend must each choose between cooperation with each other (not confessing), or defecting (confessing).  The days and years indicate the amount of jail time associated with each case.

Table 1. Classic Prisoner’s Dilemma

 Friend doesn’t confess
 Friend confesses
 You don’t confess
 you: 30 days
friend: 30 days
 you: 10 yrs.
friend: 90 days
 You  confess
 you: 90 days
friend: 10 yrs.
 you: 5 yrs.
friend: 5 yrs.

 

The best strategy here is clearly 4 — for neither of you to confess.   This is optimal both from the standpoint of selfish and altruistic motivation.  The paradox is that people in this situation predictably end up in scenario 3 (confess/confess). So  both of you go to jail for 5 years, when you both could have gotten off with 30-day sentences.

The pernicious aspect of PD is that this happens almost inevitably. Why? It has to do with what game theorists call the principle of dominance.  Relative to Table 1 that means that whatever your friend’s choice  is – that is, whether you’re looking at column 2 or column 3 of the table – your self-interest is maximized by defecting; thus, the strategy of defection is said to dominate that of cooperation.  And similarly for your friend.  Therefore, paradoxically, if maximizing self-interest is the only consideration, both of you will  defect, and neither will  maximize self-interest.

A detail is that although we’ve explained the dilemma in terms of various punishments, the crafty allocation of positive incentives, alone or in combination with negative incentives, can have the same effect. So, for example, Chief Wiggum can sweeten the deal with a bribe.  He could offer to give you or your friend say $100 if the one defects and the other doesn’t.

An important extension of the model is iterative PD, where two agents are presented with the dilemma multiple times.  Many researchers have studied iterative PD experimentally, e.g., seating two volunteers at computer terminals and repeatedly asking them to cooperate or defect, awarding payoffs (e.g., M&Ms, poker chips, money) each round.  A variety of player strategies are seen.  Sometimes players converge on cooperation, sometimes not. One not uncommon outcome is a tit-for-tat dynamic, in which players cooperate for a while, but if one defects, the other player retaliates by defecting in the next round, and this may go back and forth many times.  In any case, the iterative PD corresponds to our national elections, which occur at regular two or four-year intervals.

Third-Party Voting

Let’s now see how this applies to third-party voting. Our initial premise is that, while one might suppose that the Republican and Democratic parties are competitors, they’re really a duopoly.  Both serve the same ruling powers. They thus represent a single agent, which we might call Wall Street, the System, the Establishment, etc.  Whatever we call it, it corresponds to the role of the interrogator in our PD.

The role of you and your friend correspond to a given Republican and a given Democrat voter, or perhaps groups or Republican and Democrat voters.

The essence of the third-party voting PD is that it is in the best interests of both Republican and Democrat voters, individually and jointly, to replace or radically reform the present two-party duopoly.  Unless or until the two big parties nominate better candidates, the logical solution is for large numbers of citizens to vote for third-party candidates.  The paradox is that voters are not doing this, but are choosing to keep the aversive two-party system in power.

This happens, we propose, because of how the ruling powers structure perceived payoffs, both by their selection of candidates and by party platforms.

Here PD makes an unexpected prediction. Common sense might suggest that to win office, a party should nominate candidates who (1) appeal to its own voters, but also (2) are either somewhat attractive, but in any case not terribly offensive to voters in the opposite party. That way some voters in the opposite camp might switch votes, or perhaps may feel it’s not important to vote at all.  In either case, the party’s chances of winning are improved.

However if we grant that the Republican and Democrat parties are controlled by Wall Street and colluding with each other, PD implies that they will follow an opposite strategy, namely to nominate candidates who are frightening or even detested by voters of the opposite party. In such a fear- or anger-driven campaign, fewer voters will break ranks, believing that the opposite party must be prevented from winning at all costs.  All votes will be cast for the two big parties – precisely as Wall Street wants.

To further encourage voters not to break ranks, each party also offers positive incentives in the form of platforms and campaign promises:  for example universal health care or gay marriage by the Democratic party, or tougher immigration laws and Second Amendment protection but the Republican party.  But, again, PD would predict that parties would be especially keen to offer incentives that are hated by voters of the opposite party.

Table 2 presents the PD that Republican and Democrat voters faced in the 2008 presidential election.   (Cooperation here means voting for a third-party candidate, and defection means voting for the nominee of ones own party.)

Table 2. 2008 Presidential Election as Prisoners’ Dilemma

 Dem. voter cooperates  Dem. voter defects
 Rep. voter cooperates  Election a toss-up,
Two-party hegemony rejected
 Obama/Biden win,
‘Obamacare’
 Rep. voter defects  McCain/Palin win,
More guns
 Election a toss-up,
Two-party hegemony affirmed

 

If we suppose that both main parties represent Wall Street and are ultimately inimical to the interests of the public, the best strategy for Republican and Democrat voters is to vote for some third-party candidate.  That won’t change the power structure immediately, but over the course of two or three elections sufficient momentum may build to make a third-party candidate competitive.   If nothing else, this may force the two big parties to become more responsive to citizens.

However what is happening instead is that voters are afraid to do this.  So, to consider the 2012 presidential election, despite the disillusionment of many Democrats with Obama, and the unattractiveness of Mitt Romney to many Republicans, the combined votes received by all third-party candidates amounted to less than 2% of the total.

Practical Implications

Viewing third-party voting as a PD suggests specific strategies for extricating American voters from their current predicament.  Several, but not all, of these strategies relate to improving the perception of payoffs so that cooperation, i.e., voting for third-party candidates, is more appealing. Specific strategies include the following:

Accurately perceive costs of non-cooperation. The ultimate problem is that Democrat and Republican voters are not accurately considering the costs of maintaining the two-party hegemony and the benefits of electing third-party candidates.  If the true costs and benefits were salient in our minds, we would more eagerly vote against the abusive and arrogant Republican-Democratic party establishment.

Our social problems today are many and serious:  the economy is moribund, rates of unemployment and foreclosures intolerable, college tuitions insanely high, the environment is being destroyed, civil liberties disappearing; the country is engaged in perpetual war, and a spirit of divisiveness and antagonism dominate.

Less often considered, but perhaps even more important are the ‘opportunity costs’, i.e., besides these negative things, what positive things are we missing out on because of our dysfunctional and aversive government?  Objectively considered, America has sufficient natural and human resources to construct a veritable utopia;  we could eliminate poverty, grant free higher education and health-care for all;  we have enough land to let everyone live in their own houses on their own property in environmentally friendly and attractive communities.  Indeed, the blessings of nature generally, and in our country particularly, are so great that it seems we must make a concerted effort to avoid constructing such a prosperous and congenial society.  We need a clearer vision of how good life could be were we only to stop punishing ourselves with the present inimical political system.

How can we gain this vision? Surely we still have individuals with the imagination and skills to lead. We must develop and empower these natural leaders and intellectuals.  One obvious means of doing this is to reform our higher education system, which, by now neglecting liberal studies and humanities in favor of teaching technical and money-making skills, is discouraging the emergence of a more utopian vision of society.

We can also promote voter cooperation by applying more skepticism and critical thinking to the promises of Republican and Democrat candidates.  For example, a Democrat candidate may well promise universal health care, which sounds very attractive at face value, but ought to raise many obvious questions about its feasibility or unintended side-effects.  Would government-run health-care produce an unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy?  Would the government give too much power to pharmaceutical companies?  Are there cheaper and better alternatives, such as a greater emphasis on preventive medicine and healthy living?  Subjected to greater scrutiny, the promises of the two parties can be seen as empty, or in any case far less attractive than the kind of society we could obtain by having a government based on citizens’, not corporations’ interests.

Long-term perspective. Clearly another way to acquire more a accurate perception of the payoff structure, so as to better see the benefits of cooperation by voting for third-party candidates, is to adopt a long-term perspective.  A bias favoring immediate wishes over long-term welfare is, of course, a fundamental problem of human nature.  But the problem is especially great in politics, where demagogues and news media specialize in appealing to voters’ short-term interests.   In any given election, the short term benefits promised by Republican and Democrat candidates may seem attractive to their respective constituencies, but over the course of 10 or 20 years alternations of policy and failure to pursue any consistent course is disastrous.

Collectivize utilities.  By collectivizing utilities I mean for individual citizens to recognize their own best interests and those of their fellow Americans are intimately connected.  We are a highly interdependent society.  Ultimately, social injustice or unfair distribution of wealth harms everyone.  If one segment of the population is oppressed or excluded, or their views ignored, then at the very least their contribution to society will be lessened, and this hurts everyone.  Moreover, eventually an oppressed or underserved group will gather sufficient energy to redress the wrong by political action.  Whatever is at the basis of the ideological split between Republicans and Democrats, the current political dynamics operate as a negative feedback system: as one group gains successive victories, opposing pressure builds until a reversal occurs.  Thus victories are often short-lived, policies flip-flop, and no sustained course is pursued.

Consider higher-order utilities. The utility calculus of voters is such that typically only material values – jobs, benefits, taxes, etc. – are considered.  Americans have bought lock, stock and barrel the political lie that “it’s the economy, stupid”, i.e., that all success and value of our society is measured by the GNP.  This does not reflect the true value structure of human beings.  We are not merely material creatures, but moral and spiritual beings as well.  It is an undeniable fact that people feel good and experience more happiness and satisfaction when they practice generosity, altruism, benevolence, charity, and justice.  Add to this that no amount of material benefits can outweigh the disadvantages of citizens being constantly at each others’ throats.   In an authentic utility calculus, higher-order utilities have to be considered; and if they are, the payoff much more clearly favors cooperation among voters and rejection of the two-party hegemony.

Third-party platforms and rhetoric.  Third parties must confront Americans with the price being paid for two-party totalitarianism and emphasize that a better future is obtainable.

Voter pacts. Beyond changing perceptions of payoffs, there are active steps that people in a prisoners’ dilemma can do to win the game.  Perhaps the most obvious is for the two players to anticipate the dilemma and form a pact beforehand.  For example, with regards to Table 1, you and your friend could agree beforehand, “If we’re caught, we both promise to assert our innocence.”  This solution is enhanced by establishing or improving trust, affection, and bonds of unity between the two players.

In theory, individual Republican and Democrat voters could pair up with a member of the opposite party and agree to vote for third-party candidates. A website might be set up for this purpose.  While this is sensible and ethical, I believe that at least certain forms of voting pacts have been ruled illegal, and one website dedicated to this was forced to close.   Nevertheless this principle could doubtless be applied in ways that are unambiguously legal, or at least such that contrary prohibitions would be unenforceable.

Bargains could also be made at the level of institutional endorsements.  For example, two newspapers, one liberal and one conservative, could make a pact to endorse third-party candidates.

Opting out. Finally, citizens might opt out of the dilemma in various ways.  I would personally not advocate failure to vote as a means for this, although some suggest it.  Protests, demonstrations, or even strikes might be used to pressure the Republican and Democratic parties to reform their platforms and supply better candidates.  Another possibility is to hold alternative elections run by the citizens themselves with candidates of their own choosing.  Such elections would have no legal status, but they would have symbolic value, would permit realistic debates about policy, and encourage trust and camaraderie amongst citizens.

These are only representative suggestions.  How feasible or effective any of them would be remains to be seen.  The main point here has been to suggest that PD is an appropriate paradigm for looking at the current two-party stranglehold on American society and understanding how to encourage third-party voting.   I would like to encourage others, including social scientists, to consider this topic more, as I believe the model is apt and probably contains more theoretical and practical implications than have been considered here.

Post-script

Writing this article helped me to see the more fundamental problem: American society generally is an n-way prisoners’ dilemma. When people view society as merely a ‘dog-eat-dog’ competition, they ‘rationally’ choose to maximize self(ish)-interest. But selfishness only pays off when other people act unselfishly.  When everybody acts selfishly, everyone loses; thinking you’ll win by acting selfishly is an illusion.

Each person is better off when everybody cooperates. This is more than an ethical maxim, it’s demonstrated by game theory.

This problem (whether to vote for a third-party candidate, or a less preferred candidate that is more likely to win) is an instance of a more general class of social dilemmas. As such it is not only related to the prisoners’ dilemma but also the tragedy of the commons. Several other forms of insincere voting that constitute social dilemmas. For all such dilemmas, the long-term optimal strategy is cooperation, viz. for each agent to choose so as to maximize long-term collective, not immediate personal utility.

Further Reading

Rapoport, Anatol. Prisoner’s Dilemma: A Study in Conflict and Cooperation. University of Michigan, 1965.

Uebersax, John. The Lions and the Tigers (A Political Parties Fable).

Uebersax, John. Third-Party Voting and Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

Uebersax, John. Voting as Constructive Idealism: Why Principles Do Matter More than Expediency.

Uebersax, John. Why Vote Third-Party?