Political tribalism and the prisoner dilemma

Perhaps the only thing observers across the political spectrum can agree on is that we live in a very polarized political era. America’s two major political parties at the federal level are increasingly dominated by their respective ideological extremes, much to the chagrin of many voters who feel the need to hold their noses before voting for one or the other.

Defining what constitutes a “fringe” in politics is in the eye of the viewer, and experts are all over the map measuring what constitutes the rational center – is this a 30/40/30 ideological spectrum that reflects a “chunky” center with extremes on both sides, or is it 25/50/25, 15/70/15, or something else? Regardless of size, many commentators have called for this “moderate middle” to seize control of the political process from the extreme, either by reforming the two-party system or replacing it by creating new political parties. .

The idea is not new-organizations like No Labels have existed for years and strive to produce two-party, policy-centered results, although the effectiveness of these limited efforts is questionable-but the feeling of urgency about ideological extremism is more felt in an age of rising populism on the right and collectivism on the left, each of which threatens to alienate the middle voter from the democratic process.

Regardless of the exact percentage of unaffected moderates, it seems certain that a centralist coalition or political vehicle will arise to serve the purposes of “bipartisan” policy, it will change the center of gravity in politics and find itself forming the majority, or at least large enough to reject one of the political extremes (or the legacy political parties they have created). Actually creating a solid centrist movement, however, is more difficult than it seems, for so many reasons – but one in particular.

The reason is political tribalism. Our innate desire for affiliation is rooted within our natures and used for both good and evil for millennia. Even the most sober in behavior, milquetoastian sensibilities can be messy in serving some larger purpose, which political businessmen have learned to exploit for great electoral effect.

Polling shows that even self-described independents and moderates tend to lean on one party or side of the aisle (as they should do in a well-established two-party system). Centrist voters within each party, along with left- or right-leaning independents, have three choices when they become so weak from their traditional “side” that they will consider making a change: sit down, cross (even if only for a specific election), or form a new group with their centrist confreres across the aisle. But how does it perform in practice?

Sitting outside invalidates the democratic process and does not reject the party one leaves (although it prevents its expected vote), nor does it directly support its opponent. Furthermore, any vote must be treated as intrinsically transactional-a candidate or party offers positions on policy issues and prescriptions in exchange for voter support. By resigning from a person in the electoral process, the non -voting citizen receives nothing in return for his or her indirect support for a particular candidate or party (by not voting for the candidate or party normally supported by such voter).

To stay focused and act for greater impact, a moderate voter may consider “crossing” if he or she believes his or her “home” party is engaging in – or getting caught up with – fringe elements. In practice, it manifests as right-of-center or left-of-center “standards” that vote for the other party on the premise that they cannot afford to follow the extremism of their own tribe and assume that the other side will be rewarded. their support by respecting the bargain and making its messaging policy accordingly – or otherwise making concessions to the reasonable centrism of such crossover voters.

Unfortunately, recent history suggests this is a shaky proposition. The number of registered Republicans and independents elected has been sufficiently denied by the hope of re-electing President Trump to cross the aisle in the search for a return to normalcy and, as promised, to return “old men to leadership. ” The unstoppable Biden administration has woken up to the left and in vain, not serious incompetence on countless issues has resulted in a record low approval rating and a noticeable level of consumer remorse.

In fact, the catastrophe in the first 18 months of the Biden administration may be the perfect manifestation of the “prisoner dilemma” that reinforces voters ’tribalism. A real fear of moving (or sitting down) and then seeing oneself sold a bill of goods causes those left and right in the middle to prefer hustling with “their” wings – that if exactly what to predict the prisoner’s dilemma: While cooperation, or trading one’s vote in exchange for the other side’s moderation, may be the best outcome, the risk of betrayal-i.e., crossed and sold, is the worst outcome – causes centrists to remain faithful, maintaining a sub -optimal condition.

But what about the option of forming a new, centrist party, similar to Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique en Marche (now Renaissance) party in France? Unlike France, which has a history of successive re-established republics, changing party shapes and coalition politics, the US has no recent history of a strong third (or fourth) party making the scene in electoral. And the risks of attempting to form a No Labels-style centrist party or parties are no different to individual voters just crossing over: unless a critical mass, equally covering the political divide, splits into the same Democratic and Republican parties, the side. which leaves its own former affiliated risks to over-empower the other side, and by extending the pendulum that controls it-the exact opposite of the desired result.

Understanding how the prisoner’s dilemma reinforces the inherent appeal of tribal allegiances diagnoses a hardship but does not offer a cure. Early research on the prisoner dilemma discovered a systematic bias in cooperative action, in which subjects trusted each other to act in a manner consistent with the best interests of the parties, as opposed to rational, selfish behavior. that one expects.

Having a level of mutual trust among millions of anonymous voters may seem like a bridge too far, but perhaps a compelling message conveyed by trusted messengers-no litmus-test cant, and as heterodox in ideology like the Americans – there is a chance for chaos. times of siege.

Richard J. Shinder was the founder of Theatine Partners, a financial consultancy, and a frequent lecturer, speaker and panelist on business and finance topics. He has written extensively on issues related to economics, finance, geopolitical, cultural and corporate governance. Follow him on Twitter @RichardJShinder.