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Today, I’m putting up another guest post by Robert Prasch, analyzing the “ultimatum” politics of the Democratic Party, more specifically, of the Democratic National Committee. Important, timely, provocative. Read on…

 

On Voting Strategically in 2012: The Ultimatum Game

By Robert E. Prasch

Department of Economics

Middlebury College

Over the past year, many disappointed progressives and liberals have resigned themselves to voting for the president’s reelection, despite their full understanding that the Administration has nothing but contempt for all that they hold dear. They ask, “Well, what can we do”?  This is a reasonable question and it deserves a thoughtful answer.

What Can We Do In Light of the National Democratic Party’s Tilt to the Right?

Before formulating the answer, let us recall that this question has emerged on multiple occasions over the past thirty-five years.  Some might believe that this has been an unfortunate series of accidents, but it was not.  It can be ascribed to the strategy laid out in the early 1980s by Rep. Tony Coelho, who was then the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and to the powerful influence of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), founded in 1985.  Each of these groups worked long and diligently to end the Democratic Party’s long association with New Deal-type legislation so as to increase its appeal to economic elites.  Additionally, they worked hard to sever the Democratic Party’s association with anti-war causes and the extensive 1970s effort to expose and place limits on the executive branch’s capacity for war-making, covert action by the CIA, domestic spying, and associated “dirty tricks.”

By 1996, this effort had come to full fruition.  That year liberals and progressives were asked to support the reelection of a president who had spent his first four years working tirelessly to promote corporate-dictated “Free Trade Agreements,” the irresponsible de-regulation of finance, the vigorous privatizing of any and all government functions, the Defense of Marriage Act, and ever-more punitive measures against the poor and undocumented.  That candidate was, of course, Bill Clinton.  In 2000, we were asked to again validate these rightist policies by electing Clinton’s vice-president, with the sole modification being a commitment to forgo sexual antics with the interns.

In 2004, Senator John Kerry firmly promised a return to Clinton’s Neoliberal agenda while repeatedly telling us that, despite everything that had occurred or been revealed in the interim, he remained steadfast behind the 2002 vote that he, Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, and so many other Senate Democrats gave to support of George W. Bush’s Iraq adventure.  It goes without saying that Kerry was and remains an enthusiast for any and all corporate-directed “Free Trade” agreements, financial deregulation, imperial expansion, and – of course – the stripping away of Constitutional protections.  Believing that they had no choice, millions of anti-war voters nevertheless validated the script laid out by the now-DLC controlled Democratic National Committee (DNC).  It is, I would suggest, past time for liberals and progressives to question this learned response.  Despite the rhetoric coming from Washington, it is NOT true that liberals and progressives owe their vote to whatever pseudo-liberal figure happens to be favored by the major donors and associated grandees of the DNC.

On Voting Strategically

The good news is that we do have a choice.  The bad news is that it may not be the one that we would wish for, but it is a choice nevertheless.  Moreover, handled adroitly, it could pave the way to better choices in the future.  Stated simply, I believe that we should “vote strategically.”  However, strategic voting necessitates that we begin by analyzing the structure of the “game” that constitutes the elements of the increasingly-bitter contest between American liberals & progressives and the leadership of the DNC.  As it turns out, this rivalry mimics what is known as the “Ultimatum Game.”  Once the contours of this game are understood, we can revisit our strategies, and begin to think of a way out of our current dilemma.

The rules of the Ultimatum Game can be readily described.  Consider a game with two players and one round. The first player is given $10.00 in one-dollar bills to split with the second player according to any distribution selected solely at the former’s discretion (i.e. $10 & $0; $9 & $1; $8 & $2; … $0 & $10).  The second player’s sole decision is to “accept” or “reject.”  If the second player “accepts,” the distribution proposed by first player becomes the final distribution of the cash and the games ends.  If the second player “rejects” each player is awarded $0 & $0.  That is the game.  Now, what is the predicted solution?

If the game is known to be of only one round in duration, and the players are motivated solely by self-interest, then the “dominant strategy” of the first player is to offer a $9 & $1 distribution, and the “dominant strategy” of the second player is to “accept.”  Why do they accept?  Well, accepting renders the second player “better off” as $1 is unambiguously greater than $0.  Undoubtedly they will be irritated by the first player’s lack of generosity, but as their only way to express that irritation is to petulantly “reject” the offer, thereby causing a distribution of $0 & $0, they find themselves without a substantive alternative to “accepting.”  So far, so good.

Now, let us reexamine the Ultimatum Game in the event that play is extended beyond a single round.  Let us suppose that all players understand that the game will be played for an indefinite number of rounds.  Under this changed situation, the second player has an opportunity to “discipline” the first player for treating her unfairly.  If the first round offer is an ungenerous $9 & $1, the second player can say “reject.”  Yes, she will give up $1, but her refusal “costs” the first player $9.  Ouch.  The first player, recognizing the possibility of a punitive refusal, and knowing that they will be playing against the same rival for the foreseeable future, has a clear incentive to improve the initial offer they make to the second player.  Depending upon her aversion to risk, traded off against her desire to earn as much as possible before the game ends, she may initially offer $7 & $3, or even $6 & $4.  If she is anxious to achieve a rapid agreement, the first player might even appeal to our widely-shared ideal of “fairness” by offering an initial distribution of $5 & $5.  Please note, as this is important, that the improved offers made in a repeated game are not induced by a commitment to “fair play,” but by self-interest.

The Ultimatum Game in Practice: The DNC vs. Rank-and-File Democrats

With the above in mind, let us return to the “game” played between the grandees and donors who dominate the DNC and the overwhelming majority of registered party members whose preferences, interests, or dispositions are liberal, progressive, anti-war, anti-Too Big To Fail financial institutions, or simply pro-U. S. Constitution and supportive of the rights of habeas corpus.

The DNC, as we have repeatedly seen, is pre-disposed to neglect or despise the hopes and wishes of their core voters.  Nevertheless, the DNC must retain their votes if they are to win elections, which is a necessary condition for achieving plum executive branch postings and the lucrative post-political careers as lobbyists and deal-makers that follow seamlessly to those who have been blessed with such appointments.  For that reason, they must convince anyone who will listen that all elections are – in the language of game theory – contests featuring a single round.  For this reason, the Administration, its spokesmen, and their proxies on MSNBC are “playing the game” correctly as they try to convince wavering or disappointed liberals and progressives that this election is the most critical in living memory.  Once this premise is established, any and all discussions with malingerers and discontents can be devoted to highlighting the relatively modest differences between the major party candidates.  And, let me be the first to agree, there may be some differences.  Drawing again from the example above, $1 is unambiguously greater than $0.  But, let us be honest, how big are these differences?  On the Constitution?  On Overseas Wars?  On corporate-scripted trade agreements?  On ongoing criminality and malfeasance within our bloated and broke Too Big To Fail banks?  Seriously, does anyone who is not a senior executive at a failed and corrupt financial institution benefit from keeping Timothy Geithner or Eric Holder in office?  I think not.

This, then, brings us to the 2012 election.  What should we do?  In light of profoundly right-wing tilt of the DNC and the Administration on such a vast range of the nation’s most pressing issues, how can liberals and progressives avoid wasting their vote?  I submit that we should recognize that the DNC has long been playing the “Ultimatum Game” with its supporters.  Moreover, in an era of big money politics they will be playing this game for the foreseeable future.  In all honesty, it is past time for liberals and progressives to refuse to cooperate with the DNC’s powerful political insiders who have repeatedly demonstrated nothing but contempt for them, their ideas, and their ideals.  We did not set up this “game.”  The DNC did.  But that does not mean that we have to play along with them.

Consciously turning our back on the Neoliberal, pro-war, and anti-Constitution DNC does not mean that we should stay home this fall.  On the contrary, we should devote our energies to rebuilding the base of liberal and progressive politics in our towns, cities, and states by working ONLY for local candidates that we like, admire, and trust.  If the above analysis of the game is reasonably accurate, and I believe that it is, the DNC will forced to present us with better “distributions” in future years once they come to learn that substantial number of liberals and progressives are willing to “reject” bad offers (but, before that occurs, expect a torrent of abuse from them).  This year, as with so many times in the recent past, we will be expected to participate willingly and happily in our own political irrelevance.  Enough is enough.  This time, make your vote count.  Don’t play along.