The name of the game

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A lot of people see the political struggle between the Left and the Right as a game of capture-the-flag. We battle the other team to set our candidate on that hilltop, and once we do, we win the game. Thinking along these lines, many Bernie Sanders supporters were certain that if they could just get him elected president, everything would change. However, the reality is that, even if Sanders had been elected president (which I definitely wanted to see happen, at least to the extent that I voted for him in the primary, and would have been willing to contribute time, effort and  money to him, as I did to Clinton, in the general election) the change would have been much smaller than everyone was hoping. Most obviously, this would have been because of a Congress and a Supreme Court still controlled by the GOP, but on a more fundamental level, it would have been because we progressives simply do not make up the majority of the American people. In fact, we don’t come close.

When asked how he would accomplish his goals in the face of a hostile Congress, Sanders himself could only wave his hands and talk vaguely about the “millions” who would mobilize in his support. But there would have been millions on the other side as well.

The fundamental struggle that lies behind all our ephemeral political battles is this demographic divide. The nature of politics these days ensures that we’ll always be evenly divided, but the struggle is in where the center will lie. We on the left, whether we’re moderates or extreme progressives, are trying to move that center to the left. Those on the right are pulling in the opposite direction. The game that we’re playing is not capture-the-flag, but tug-of-war.

Every inch we can move that flag to the left, means more power to elect left-leaning representatives who will enact better legislation. Every move to the right endangers previous gains. And there is a feedback effect: electoral victories can move the center incrementally all by themselves and make future victories slightly more likely. And, of course, every move also  makes a real difference in people’s lives. In this game of tug-of-war, every inch matters.

So it’s very disheartening to hear liberals and progressives getting disenchanted with the game of capture-the-flag that they think we’re playing, to the point that they’re quitting the game. They see representatives that they elect getting nothing done in Washington, and decide that a game of capture-the-flag where it doesn’t matter if you win, doesn’t deserve any effort. And they would be right, if the game was really capture-the-flag.

In a game of tug-of-war, the explanation for why you’re not making progress is not that the game is rigged or broken, but that there’s simply another team just as strong as yours pulling that rope in the opposite direction. They are the problem, not the game itself, or anyone on your side. In order to make progress, you’re just going to have to pull harder, or more efficiently, or find more people to pull your way, or persuade members of the other side to join yours. But whatever you do, any progress will be slow. That’s just the nature of the game. Quitting the game out of frustration over how slowly the rope moves will in fact speed it up — only in the wrong direction.


This has been a “Politake,” a brief take on politics by Freeman Ng.