This essay is a continuation of a previous post which may be found here.
In the first part of this essay I outlined a game theoretical framework for understanding the difference between Republican and Democrat approaches to election campaigning. Basically, payoffs encourage Republicans to improve people’s lives and mental states, whereas Democrats are encouraged to increase people’s suffering and anxiety. We looked at a couple of examples — specifically the Black Lives Matter phenomenon and COVID hysteria, both of which irresponsibly magnify small or non-existent threats in order to “get out the vote”. I promised that this second half of the essay would examine how that tactic for winning elections might affect the country in the longer term, and also I said I would suggest some possible ways out.
First, I don’t want to seem too flippant about what is going on. Even though it seems obvious to clear-headed people that there is neither an epidemic of racist police violence nor any serious threat from the coronavirus, millions upon millions of people truly believe that these threats are real, and are genuinely, deeply afraid of them. These people are clearly hurting – and it is my belief that this mental damage has been inflicted on them intentionally as an electoral strategy by the Democrats. Their playbook for two election cycles now has been to utterly terrorize and gaslight their own constituents as their primary plan for victory. They never actually provide any real benefit to their voters’ lives – obviously, because if they improved their lives, they would start voting Republican, see above – with the one exception that they turn down the propaganda somewhat during the ever-shrinking time period between elections.
And the result is that they are seriously hurting the people who listen to them. A recent survey-based study, summarized here, shows that politics are causing a plethora of mental – and even physical – health problems in Americans, with a very strong bias toward younger white people who participate in politics but do not have well-formed political ideas of their own, in other words the bread and butter of the Democrat party. Here’s the crux of the paper’s findings — positive values indicate increases in poor health, negative values indicate the opposite; “negative partisanship” basically means “Democrat”; the different “scales” are different varieties of the same questionnaire; and asterisks indicate that the predictor had a statistically significant impact on health in the authors’ model:
From the paper (emphasis mine):
What is the public health relevance of these findings? First and foremost is the fact that huge numbers of Americans clearly and consistently perceive politics as exacting a chronic negative toll on their health. Based on the 2019–20 Census Bureau population estimates, the resident population of the United States included approximately 255 million adults at the time of the 2020 survey. Based on that number, the findings from the pre-election survey suggest that somewhere between a fifth and a third of adults—roughly 50 to 85 million people—blame politics for causing fatigue, lost sleep, feelings of anger, loss of temper, as well as triggering compulsive behaviors (e.g. difficulty in stopping thinking about politics and consuming political information), and difficulties in impulse control (e.g. posting social media comments they later regretted; these estimates calculated using the percent agreeing or strongly agreeing with relevant survey items).
Distressingly, it doesn’t appear that the Democrats’ 2020 “victory” alleviated these people’s suffering – in fact surveys administered in the early aftermath of the 2020 debacle showed increased political stress in everybody except people who voted for Trump (probably because we were already about as stressed as we could get after 5 years of Democrats trying to destroy us). Although if one is looking for a silver lining, the study showed that black Americans appear to be significantly less vulnerable to politically-induced stress than everyone else — almost as cool and collected as Trump voters. This supports my “Democrat chimera” hypothesis — that the Democrat party is an unsteady alliance of sensible black people and batshit insane white people. So if black Americans can survive the riots and crime waves inflicted on their communities by Democrat electoral strategies, they should be okay.
The political game I described in the first half of this essay describes a system with a stable equilibrium of 50-50 Republican good guys and Democrat bad guys, maximizing suffering and conflict forever. Is there a solution to all of this — a way out? I can see two possibilities. First, we can approach the political game like Pascal approached belief in God. In Pascal’s wager, as it has come to be called, There are two strategies – worship God or don’t – and two possible realities – God exists or he doesn’t. The payoffs are certain, if you accept the framework offered by the Christian Bible as the only alternative to atheism – if there is no God, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in him or not (payoff = 0 if you don’t believe, payoff = negative the cost of worship if you do), but if God is real, you can either believe in him and go to Heaven when you die (payoff = infinity) or you can not believe in him and go to Hell (payoff = negative infinity). There is no possible cost of worship so high, nor probability of God’s existence so low, as to outweigh the threat of eternal damnation under that formulation. In other words, there is really only one solution where you prosper, so no matter how wrong it seems to accept that solution (believing in God), you should nevertheless believe in him, for your own good. Similarly, if one accepts the game theoretical framework of American politics I laid out above, one should vote Republican even if you disagree with everything the Republicans say, because there is a stable equilibrium at 100% Republican that would break the cycle that is currently making our lives miserable. While this wouldn’t necessarily make Republicans care about you — remember, they only need 50.1% of the population’s support — it would at least have the possibility of breaking the framework itself and leading to the existence of a new dichotomy more similar to the non-zero-sum world of past decades.
(It’s worth noting that there is also a stable equilibrium at 100% Democrat that would break the cycle — but it seems unwise to give absolute power to a group of people who have spent the last generation or two perfected the art of torturing their own constitutents…)
The other solution is suggested by the PLoS ONE paper I linked – better education in critical thinking about politics and history. There was a clear immunization effect of political knowledge against the negative health effects of the US political environment in the study: while people who were more politically active suffered more health problems, those with more political knowledge suffered fewer. In Lukianoff and Haidt’s excellent book The Coddling of the American Mind, the authors contend that much of the sorry mental health of recent generations — and their readiness to engage in the politics of personal destruction from which “cancel culture” is born — extends from their inability to grapple calmly with contentious issues. People with sophisticated political opinions tend to have read extensively in history, religion, philosophy, and so forth; they understand that the problems we face today are not new or unique, that humanity has survived worse, and that there are solutions short of Armageddon for most issues. At the very least they understand the thinking of their political opponents, and they know that the best way to achieve political victory is to find common cause with their opponent’s constituents. Such people are more likely to see that the scorched earth tactics of the 21st century left are ultimately counterproductive – that hubris invites nemesis. So the answer, in this case, is to encourage people to read more deeply about history and politics and develop more “grown-up” attitudes about politics — in other words, to return the population to a framework where opposing parties are differentiated by something other than childish, combative notions like “progress” and “reaction”.
The only way to achieve such a goal, however, is to completely change how we approach education – because the game theoretical framework I described extends directly from the American university, whose activist professors are exactly the mentally imbalanced people we have considered in this article. Only once those individuals have been marginalized and education has been returned to a classical liberal perspective – or centralized education has been abolished as a general requirement – will there be a chance to restore sanity to our political process.