Democracy Is No Game

How to save American democracy after Trump is gone.
July 10, 2020
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(Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

The country is burning, literally and figuratively, torn apart first by a deadly virus and then by protests and violence in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis. It may not seem like the ideal moment in American history to talk about reforming the American political system, but it is imperative to do so.

The public response to the crises confronting us, nationally and locally, has exposed the deep dysfunction of American politics. Partisanship infects everything, pushing every politician and citizen to pick a side when there should be only one side—the American side. Playing politics with medicine or with face masks during a pandemic should be the lowest possible point, a sign that we’ve badly lost our way.

Shouldn’t everyone be in favor of better science and protocols for fighting COVID-19? Of more humane policing and less violence in the streets? Of course, everyone says they want those things, but too many are unwilling to compromise in any way to get them.

Compromise today is seen as weakness. Getting nothing done is seen as preferable to getting something done if progress requires any concessions to the other side. The volume of the national conversation has been raised to a shouting contest. Elections come only every few years, but Twitter is all day, every day.

In this battle for attention, holding the most extreme position and using the most outrageous rhetoric is often the winning play. The current president is the most obvious example of the triumph of this method and Trump’s victory in 2016 was both a symptom of the problem and a warning of what is to come if the system is not reformed.

When you are dealing with multiple crises, each demanding your full attention, it is hard to focus on the underlying causes. However, if you don’t make the time to address the cause, you will eventually be overwhelmed by the effects. You must prioritize strategic planning, the future impact of your current decisions.

The two of us came to our models of strategic thought from very different games, poker and chess. Poker rewards the ability to play the odds, to manage risk in an uncertain environment with hidden cards and bluffing opponents. Chess involves precise calculation and deep preparation, with all the information available to both players at all times.

Reaching the championship level at both games requires planning and the ability to adapt over time. Even if you have great success at first, if you don’t keep improving and changing, your rivals will find and exploit the holes in your game. Any static system eventually becomes an easy target. As board members at the Renew Democracy Initiative, we hope to apply our strategic insight to helping the United States go on a winning streak.

You might say that the political system is too important to take risks, but the challenge is actually the opposite. The situation is too dire for us to just hope the cards will go our way. The stakes are too high not to risk change. Yet few want to be held responsible for veering from the status quo and failing, preferring instead to ensure failure by not trying at all. Americans fancy themselves to be risk-takers, disruptors, and innovators, and it is past time to put that to the test and drag a stagnant system into the modern age.

An increasing number of Americans doubt the fairness of their elections and the honesty of their representatives. Those doubts corrode participation, creating a downward spiral of apathy and corruption. At RDI, we focus on the importance of an engaged and informed citizenry, but the political system must reward that engagement. Proposals to achieve this should include:

  • A form of national popular vote for president
  • Guarantees of voter access and voting system integrity (including vote by mail)
  • Stricter regulations for campaign finance transparency
  • Binding disclosure and divestment laws for candidates and elected officials

Partisanship and gerrymandering have handed the reins over to radicals and incompetents. Candidates do not fear a challenge from the center, only from even more extreme elements of their own party. The Electoral College twists the will of the people into strange shapes, a form of gerrymandering on the national level. The recent Supreme Court decision permitting states to punish rogue electors makes reform even more essential. A nationwide vote is now easy to do—and beware any politician who is against making it easier for more people to vote and for more votes to matter.

The clear and present danger of foreign interference make it more important than ever to have complete financial transparency by campaigns and candidates. When the Supreme Court decided that campaign spending was a form of speech, they didn’t have Vladimir Putin’s money in mind.

There must be full disclosure and divestment by our politicians, or we’ll move ever closer to an oligarchy, where public policy is for private gain. Anonymous voting is sacrosanct, but anonymous money and potential conflicts of interest become a cancer. As with the voting system, the possibility of abuse and the resulting erosion of trust can be as damaging as the abuse itself.

We have to commit for the long haul. In one game of chess, in one hand of poker, there is far more chance involved than in a long series. Greatness requires patience. It’s easy for demagogues to promise quick and easy answers to complex problems if we lose our appetite for the hard work that real solutions require.

The stakes in this challenge to safeguard our democracy are far higher than in any game. People are not chess pawns or poker chips. We must listen to each other, listen to reason, and be unafraid of taking the risks required to make America into a better country for all.

Annie Duke and Garry Kasparov

Annie Duke is a World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions winner, corporate speaker, and the author of How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices Garry Kasparov is the former world chess champion and author of Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins. They are both board members of the Renew Democracy Initiative.