Tag Archives: Democracy

Game Theory and the End of Democracy

Asian cultures tend to create games and systems that are inherently cooperative, in which everyone wins or loses together as a team. America, by contrast, is an explicitly and proudly antagonistic culture that pits one side against the other in most every aspect of life. Win-lose competitions drive our society starting with our board games, through our sports competitions, our educational system, our legal system, our capitalist financial system, and right up through our highly prized political system of checks and balances.

But in a system where one must lose so the other can win, it’s tough to be a gracious loser and sometimes just as hard to be a gracious winner. Win-lose competitions often do not end well. Yes, once or twice a gracious loser will walk across the field and congratulate a similarly gracious winner. But if the game is imbalanced, that good sportsmanship cannot be maintained. If one side keeps losing and sees no hope of winning, the game quickly goes sour for both sides. That thrilling boxing match suddenly turns into a repulsive beatdown that forces every feeling person turn away in disgust, and neither the winner nor the loser walk away feeling good.

Win-lose competitions are great fun as long as both sides believe they can win. But when one player starts to fall behind, they might try to distract the other player so that they can shift a chess piece, or they might grab some monopoly money from the bank when no one is paying attention. As the game becomes more lopsided, cheating becomes ever more irresistible. Sometimes the cheating becomes so intense that the entire game is corrupted and sometimes, by tacit agreement, both parties just abandon the rules altogether.

If one player finally becomes convinced that they can never win, why should they continue to play at all? When a chess player finally accepts that they cannot compete against world-class masters, or a runner accepts that their knee injuries make them unable to compete and win, why continue to participate? Of course, they lose interest in the game, they decide it’s stupid anyway, they might even angrily claim the other side cheats, upturn the game board, and insist we play some other game.

That is analogous to what has been happening in our real-life competitive game of politics. The Right has long seen that they are losing at this game of democratic elections. They tried cheating, they engaged in the political equivalent of unsportsmanlike misconduct, they exploited and abused the rules of the game, but it is still clear that they will not win another fair electoral match in the foreseeable future. Obviously, their natural inclination is to overturn the board, to declare that Democracy is stupid anyway, to turn it into a WWF version of political performance art, and even to embrace dictatorship.

From the perspective of the side that has no hope of winning in a fair democratic election, a totalitarian dictatorship that is hopefully more aligned to your perspectives is a rationally desirable alternative. Even if that dictatorship does not serve your own self interest, overturning the chess board at least denies your opponent a win.

So the message here is that the Progressives have finally succeeded in their generational effort to convince Conservatives that they can no longer win the game election game in America. It should be perfectly understandable that, once internalizing that stark reality, the Conservatives tried to cheat, tried to change the rules, and are now engaged in overturning the entire game.

This impulse to abandon the game rather than keep losing is aggravated and reinforced by a simultaneously lopsided win-lose economic system in which it is clear that the ultra-wealthy have claimed the winning cup so completely that none of the rest of us, but particularly rank and file Conservatives, can ever hope to do more than pitch in the minor-leagues.

What, did we think that Conservatives would just walk across the Continental divide, shake our hands, congratulate us on a well-earned victory, and accede to the increasingly progressive will of the majority?

Of course not. Of course they prefer to overturn the game, and end Democracy altogether, rather than lose at the competitive win-lose game that we have made it.

Trump Exposed Our Stupidity

I have long expressed the speculation that we are probably no smarter than the population of ancient Babylon. Yes, we may have more technology and more knowledge, but brains evolve very slowly and have probably long ago reached intrinsic intellectual limits like the maximum size of an insect with an exoskeleton. Similarly, we are probably no smarter overall than people were way back when.

Given the number of people in our population who believe in any sort of crazy, nonsensical, disproven claim, it’s hard to deny that we have a lot of really stupid people in our population. Despite that, we have long preferred to respect the intelligence of our fellow humans and at worst characterize them as misled, uninformed, uneducated, and so on. Not stupid though. Oh no, we’re not saying that.

When Trump came to power I said that was further proof of how stupid we are. Clearly we are not stupid in all ways, but I was talking about the particular set of “social intelligence” smarts that might allow us to form a just and sustainable social system. As social stupidity exerted itself throughout the Trump era, more and more people found they had no choice but to refer to his supporters as simply stupid.

Still, most continued to resist that harsh point-blank criticism. They hung on to hope that Trump voters were simply misinformed by Fox News.

Then Covid came along. As it became clear that many Trump supporters and some others were continuing to resist vaccines and thereby placing themselves and others at mortal risk, the rest of us have pretty much been forced to admit that, yes, they are just plain stupid. We can no longer continue to pretend that any less critical adjective is sufficient to describe them.

Trump has not made people stupid. Stupid people created Trump. Trump didn’t tell them what to think, he threw out trial balloons at his rallies and he echoed whatever they cheered to most strongly. He led stupid people wherever they told him they wanted to go.

The stupid people don’t worship Trump. They don’t even follow Trump. The moment he tries to take them where they don’t want to go, they rebel. They boo him as they did when he tried to urge them to get vaccinated. As horrible as Trump may be, the real problem is not Trump, the real problem are the stupid people who created and continue to empower Trumpism.

Look, it’s clear we have different kinds of smart and stupid. Some people may be brilliant in lots of ways, but still be quite hopelessly stupid at math. You don’t want them teaching math to your kids. In the same way, we should accept that some people, as smart as they may be in lots of ways, are simply hopelessly stupid when it comes to social policy and they should not be allowed anywhere near making it.

In their excellent book, Hating America, authors Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin document the dire misgivings that many 18th century European intellectuals expressed regarding the formation of a Democracy in America (see here). They warned that a system that empowered uninformed and stupid masses to make critical decisions was doomed to be dysfunctional and destructive. Their concern was elevated by their certainty that America, with all its vast resources, would become very powerful. Putting that much power in the hands of the stupid masses would be disastrous, they warned.

It has taken longer than those European intellectuals feared, but their predictions and warnings are finally coming true. A powerful America, dysfunctional and destructive in its behavior, careening down the road to a calamitous global future with stupid people behind the wheel.

Why now? I mean, the stupid people who support Trumpism – if not Trump himself – have always been here. They spewed nonsense in ancient Babylon, they owned slaves in America, and lynched free Blacks more recently. They have always hated government, believed in nonsense, proudly flew their Confederate flags, denied climate change, and rejected vaccinations. But we have managed pretty well so far. We have made progress despite them. So why worry about them now? What makes them more dangerous today?

I’ll give two reasons why our stupid population is more dangerous today – social media and guns. Social media gives them the critical ability to mutually-reinforce their stupidity, to coordinate, to rise up in online or real-world mobs, and to take over our government through coordinated action or even under threats of violence. Social media promised to empower the masses, and unfortunately it has succeeded.

And guns give these people the real power not only to mobilize, coerce, and threaten, but to exert their will through with profoundly horrifying violence and destruction.

It is long past time that we all accept and acknowledge that we have, and always will have, a socially stupid and dangerous fraction of people in our population. We must further accept that no amount of education, media campaigns, or empathetic outreach – or even fear of death – will dissuade these people from their stupid behavior. We cannot “bring them around.” We rather must find ways to moderate them, disempower them, and achieve a fair and sustainable society despite them.

We need, as George Will has said, sane and rational people in our representative form of government who can moderate our worst, stupidest, passions. But social media, and increasingly guns and threats of violence, are installing stupid people in our government who then gerrymander and create other pathways to bring in even more stupid people.

Eliminating, or strongly controlling, the two major enablers of stupidity, social media and guns, is essential if we are going to survive our socially stupid population and prove those European intellectuals wrong about the unavoidable fate of a Democratic system of government.

Any Fool Can Do It

SurvivorOn October 9th, 1989, I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “The Survivors” that made quite an impression on me. In it, Captain Picard and his crew encounter an elderly couple living in an unnatural oasis on a devastated planet. It turns out that the wife is a phantasm, an unknowing replica of the actual wife, now long dead. She was conjured by her husband Kevin, a godlike being who was devoted to her before her death and who has remained so centuries after.

By the way, Kevin was played by the iconic character actor John Anderson (see here). You probably don’t know his name, but if you watched any television from the early 50’s to the early 90’s, you cannot fail to recognize his distinctively Lincoln-esque countenance and voice.

Anyway, at the end Kevin reveals his shameful secret. When the planet he was living on with his wife was attacked by hostile aliens called the Husnock, he tried his best to use his powers to trick or dissuade them. Those efforts failed. Refusing to take any life, even those of the deplorable Husnocks, Kevin stood passively by as they devastated his planet and killed his wife along with the rest of her people.

The anguish of this loss caused him to lose control of himself, releasing a momentary outburst of uncontrolled rage. As Kevin told it:

“I went insane. My hatred exploded, and in an instant of grief, I destroyed the Husnock. I didn’t kill just one Husnock, or a hundred, or a thousand. I killed them all. All Husnock everywhere.”

What touched me was not merely the poignant tale of grief and loss and shame and regret. What touched me was what was implied by the story. What touched me was what else the story of Kevin teaches us.

Take note that Kevin was essentially a god. Unlike Thanos, Kevin didn’t need to expend all the power of the Infinity Gauntlet. It only required one stray thought for Kevin to selectively exterminate billions of lives. He was that powerful.

So after watching this episode, I asked myself the logical question. Given all that power, and given Kevin’s deep love and mourning for his wife, why didn’t he simply think her back into existence? Why didn’t he bring back all her people and restore her planet? In fact, given his deep regret, why didn’t he bring back the Husnock and direct them along a better path? Of course he would have… if he could.

The only answer is, he couldn’t.

So the truth, the revelation, the epiphany for the viewer must be that any fool can destroy. Tearing down is easy. It can be done with one errant thought. But even an omnipotent god cannot easily create. Even one as powerful as Kevin cannot in a million years ever recreate what he can mindlessly destroy in an instant.

We humans are certainly not gods, but in this regard we are the same as Kevin. We can easily, even unthinkingly, break a dish, crush a rose, tear someone down, shoot a gun, dash a hope, take a life, smash a historical relic, burn a building, bomb a city, nuke a country, even devastate a planet. Any fool can destroy. But it is immensely difficult, even impossible, to create or restore any of those things.

And what makes us immeasurably worse than Kevin is when we take pride and joy in destroying. When we believe that destroying makes us powerful. It does not. Any fool can destroy. Fools destroy because it makes them feel powerful.

However, it takes real strength and true genius to create.

This applies not only to physical things but to ideas. Any fool can knock down ideas. Any fool can pick them apart and tear them to pieces.  It takes an exceptional person to conceive new ideas and to build on the ideas of others rather than take delight in crushing them.

And this applies to ideas like Democracy as well as to our institutions. It required generations of strong and wise people to create our democratic ideals and institutions. But it only takes a few short years for a weak-minded and craven fool like Donald Trump to mindlessly tear them all irretrievably asunder. Feeling power and even pride in the “dismantling of the administrative state” – without building something stronger and better upon it – is the work of fools.

And we have no shortage of fools.