Politics

How Tit-for-Tat Game Theory Hacked Politics

June 10, 2019
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(Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

Recently, speaking to supporters back home in Kentucky, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell noted that he would proceed with a Supreme Court nomination next year if a vacancy appeared, apparently contradicting his rationale—“let the voters decide in an election year”—for not allowing a vote to fill a seat in 2016.

As per usual, most Democrats became apoplectic about what they perceived as a further eroding of norms. Republicans, in the main, were unmoved by this reaction, noting that elections have consequences, that 2020 is totally different from 2016, and/or that Democrats started down this path with Harry Reid and the nuclear option.

This cycling of norm breaking, cynicism, and rage has profound implications for our democracy. Our desire for cooperation and fairness—one of the most adaptive traits in human nature—is built in part upon the ability to reward people who cooperate and retaliate against people who cheat.

A number of factors have led to our current situation, where what is perceived as “cheating” by one party is perceived as fair “retaliation” by the other—a scenario that offers few paths toward the kind of cooperation and compromise that have historically been crucial to the success of our democracy.

Or, to put more succinctly: Tit for tat has been hacked.

Our Adaptive, Righteous Anger

Consider the following scenario:

As you are about to deplane after a long, uncomfortable flight, someone from behind you pushes past when it is your row’s turn. Suddenly you feel an instantaneous spike of anger. Why do we react like this? After all, an extra 10 seconds of waiting to get off your plane is not, in the vast scheme of things, a big deal. Most of the time, this rational thought wins out over the temporary, mid-brain-induced rage. However, in other cases, when the stakes are higher and the perceived cheating is more egregious, such feelings are not transient.

Outrage can serve an important purpose. Our evolutionary arc may be bending us more toward more cooperation and away from zero-sum competition, but our flight path has been steered at least in part by those feelings of being cheated, and our desire to retaliate the next time around. Economists (and small children) refer to this particular phenomenon, where you are driven to do onto others as they did to you last the time around, as tit-for-tat.

Variants of tit-for-tat strategies are commonplace in many settings and have been shown to be conducive to fostering cooperation over time. Research in game theory has shown that tit-for-tat strategies often foster cooperation by ensuring that the retaliation is expected next time if one party cheats this time.

But while tit-for-tat may be an effective strategy in the lab, it can lead to real problems in the real world. The visceral feelings of grievance and subsequent belief that retaliation is warranted and/or necessary only lead to cooperation if both sides agree on some key details. Specifically, they both need to agree as to whether someone is cheating or acting appropriately. If this agreement on definitions breaks down, then tit-for-tat can lead to a downward spiral of constant retaliation.

When Tit-for-Tat Goes Wrong

What happens if, for example, there is a systematic misunderstanding between Democrats and Republicans regarding whether the party in power is “cheating” or “retaliating”? In a world where our media (and social media) consumption is increasingly fragmented, it is easier than ever to be cordoned off into an echo chamber where all of your informational sources would lead segments of the voting population to opposite conclusions that topic.

Judicial nominations are a useful example of this phenomenon. Democrats blame Mitch McConnell for obstruction on judicial nominations such as Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court when Republicans held the Senate but not the White House. They also blame McConnell for eradicating the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations and the blue slip process. Democrats see all of these actions as cheating, which demands retaliation.

But Republicans blame Democrats for breaking the norms regarding judicial nominations first, dating back to Robert Bork’s scuttled SCOTUS nomination and Harry Reid’s much later decision to remove the filibuster for non-SCOTUS nominations. In the Republican lizard brain, McConnell’s “cheating” was really just “retaliation.”

My point here is not to make an argument as to which side is right. Because in a real sense that simply does not matter.

What is critical in this situation is the implicit acknowledgment from both the Democrats and Republicans that (1) they indeed have broken norms and (2) they were justified in doing so as retaliation for the opposition’s prior norm-breaking.

Each believes they are either aggrieved in their anger or righteous in their response. To both, their grievance is justified, their retaliation logical and warranted.

So what happens when power switches again (as it inevitably does) within this framework?

The Democrats, again driven by supporters who live in a Democratic media ecosystem, will believe they are justified in further norm breaking. To them, dispensing with nomination hearings and packing courts (perhaps the last norm to be broken) next time around may seem like a logical and appropriate punishment for McConnell’s actions this time.

Following this pattern, the Republicans would likely consider court packing to be an overly severe form of retaliation and will seek to further increase the stakes when power flips back, perhaps by further stacking courts, leading to ever larger courts that are less and less stable.

For those who think such an outcome might be a red line that neither party might cross, does anyone really think that a SCOTUS ruling further weakening (much less overturning) Roe v. Wade will not generate extraordinary pressure on Democratic senators when they are in power with a Democratic White House? Given the Democrats’ stance that McConnell’s norm-breaking has been unprecedented, how could they argue that court packing is not a necessary evil in response?

If anything, tit-for-tat would practically demand it.

Where do we go from here?

Is there a way to break this cycle?

One potential end to such a spiral is that solutions become more straightforward once there are no “soft” rules (i.e. norms) left to be broken. At that point, the only way for a party to cheat/retaliate is through the same zero-sum mechanisms left and, in the future, the ballot box.

The filibuster and sanctity of a nine-justice Supreme Court are two potential examples of norms that, once gone, further entrench the power of the majority. Another example would be the reliance on non-partisan governmental experts, such as the Congressional Budget Office, to guide policy.

But the elimination of all norms and reliance on rock-bottom majoritarian force are not especially desirable outcomes.

There are some potential ways forward that might alleviate this downward spiral without an endgame that culminates with the destruction of all norms. Perhaps compromises like statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia could be traded for codifying the nine-justice Supreme Court. Maybe steps taken by a bipartisan Congress to restrain the executive branch will become more popular if the GOP sees itself in danger of losing the presidency. Or it’s possible that a larger portion of the electorate might revolt, demanding from their candidates specific pledges in support of bipartisanship and against future norm breaking sufficient to challenge the increasingly zero-sum political realm we find ourselves in.

I suspect that any of these alternatives are preferable to the path we are on, and would reflect our ability to see past our current cycle of grievances recognize the long-term downside of that path. For no matter how viscerally satisfying and rational it may appear to operate in a never-ending tit-for-tat spiral, in the long run, cooperation pays.

Niels Rosenquist

Niels Rosenquist is a psychiatrist and economist who lives and works in Boston.