November 26,2018
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Mitch McConnell's Prisoner's Dilemma

by Jonathan Wallace

Turnabout is fair play. Payback's a bitch? Now that the Democrats won the House in the midterm elections, I hope for them to obstruct the Trump administration as much as possible, shower everyone with subpoenas, investigate everything so that no daily business can get done. Even though I think that's no way to run a democracy.

According to Wikipedia, "Ten investigations were conducted into the 2012 Benghazi attack, six of [them] by Republican-controlled House committees". This number still astonishes me, because I am old enough to remember that when President Reagan with insane foolishness sent the Marines into Lebanon in 1983 and 241 American soldiers were killed in a single truck bombing, the Democratic-led House of Representatives (Tip O'Neill was speaker) did not use these pointless deaths as an excuse to send subpoenas, launch investigations or cripple the Reagan administration. The Republicans patented that tactic back when Truman disappointed their expectations by defeating Dewey,and took it to its most vicious levels yet when they impeached Bill Clinton for trivial misbehavior. The Republicans in all their piety do not detect their own resemblance to the hypocrite in Matthew 7:4-5: "Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye". A Democrat lies about having sex with an intern, and is impeached; a Republican can order torture to be committed in secret dungeons with no consequences. In what universe is infidelity and perjury a higher crime than torture?

I want the new Democratic house to behave exactly as the Republicans have, even though that is no way to run a government. On a gut level (and as trite as that may sometimes be), each step of the way, I have since 2016 seen the parallels to 1932 Germany. Finally, as of the midterm elections, we seem to be breaking out of that Narrative and into a fresh one. Instead of the Man on Horseback, we will have the Man Responding to Investigations, like Nixon at the end-game.

I can justify this both pragmatically and morally with reference to the Prisoner's Dilemma, the game theory exercise in which there are two available moves on every round, cooperation or betrayal. The highest score is attained by someone who betrays a cooperator, and the lowest score by someone who cooperates with a betrayer. Cooperation on every round is rewarded, but cooperators can never attain as high a score in the game as a successful betrayer.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and when you first understand the Prisoner's Dilemma, you understand that almost every transaction and incident in life is or involves one. When the cashier gives you too much change, and you return it, you play a cooperation card. When you sell adjustable rate mortages to people who don't understand them and will not be able to afford them later, that is a betrayal. Nonviolent protests, which exasperate power and are seen as betrayals, are actually acts of cooperation, because the protest groups could have used violence and did not. After I first read a book on the PD in the 1980's, my wife and stepson asked me to stop talking about it at the dinner table.

Across endless series of games, it becomes evident that the steadiest, most productive strategy, and the one many unschooled players instinctively arrive at on their own, is "Tit for Tat". You cooperate on the first round. After that, you cooperate with anyone who cooperated with you on the last round, and betray anyone who betrayed you. After a while, most opponents figure out that they will do better if they cooperate with you constantly.

Mitch McConnell, who swore that Obama would be a one term President, and refused to give his Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a confirmation hearing, has not learned that lesson. The Republicans have been playing the betrayal card in the national PD for decades. It will not only be sweet now to administer a taste of that medicine, it may actually teach them to cooperate in the future, so that we can jointly run a government again, as Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan knew how to do.