The Democratic Party’s response to the State of the Union was not only a revelation of a rhetorical shift in the party’s approach to countering the Trump Administration, but it also signaled a definitive strategic shift.
Representative Joe Kennedy was chosen to be the optical figurehead of this fresh-faced approach, and he wasted no time confronting the false dilemmas that have become a hallmark of the Trump Administration’s strategic attacks.
In front of an American made car and an audience of millions Kennedy declared:
Today, ladies and gentlemen, today that promise is being broken by in administration that decides who makes the cut and who can be bargained away. they are turning American lives into a zero-sum game. For one to win, a nether must lose. We can guarantee America’s safety if we slash our safety net. Where we can extend health care in Mississippi if we get it in Massachusetts. — gut it in Massachusetts. We can cut taxes if we raise them on families to model. We can take care of sick kids if we sacrificed rumors. We are bombarded with one false choice after another. Coal miners or single moms, rural communities are inner cities. The coast or the heart line. The daycare worker in Birmingham, bitter rights rather than mutual casualties of a system forcefully rigged towards those at the top. The parent who lies awake terrified that their transgender son or daughter will be beaten and bullied at school. Nothing is more shattering been a daughter in the grips of an opioid addiction. Here is an answer that Democrats offer tonight. We choose both.
What Kennedy is describing is a common logical fallacy known as the False Dilemma.
This fallacy, formally identified in Aristotle’s 13 Fallacies, is describe by the University of Idaho defines as a logical farce that “paints an issue as one between two extremes with no possible room for middle ground or nuance or compromise. It is closely related to the straw man fallacy, which essentially paints one side, instead of both, as so extreme no can agree with it.”
Rhetorically, Trump is making the United States choose between citizens and Dreamers, the white working class and laborers of color, the flag and the First Amendment, Christians, and Muslims…the list is as endless as the lines of bigotry that divide races, classes, religions, genders, abilities, and sexual orientations in this nation.
And while it is important to acknowledge the rhetorical importance of being confronted with the fallacy of the false dilemma — it is equally if not more important to recognize that this rhetoric is reflective of a larger and far more dangerous game being played by the Republican Party and the Trump Administration: the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a core theory of competition studied by strategists, economists, philosophers, and game theorists. Simplified, it can be described as following:
Imagine the police apprehend two people for a robbery. Let’s call them Don and Steve.
Don and Steve are put into separate rooms and can’t communicate with each other.
Each is told by the police that if they:
1. Both plead guilty, they will get a 3-year sentence
2. Both plead innocent, they will get a 2-year sentence anyways
3. If they sell out their partner, they will get a 1-year sentence while their partner will get 10 years.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma, then, is that while cooperation gives Don and Steve the best outcome as a group, selling each other out gives each a better outcome as individuals.
If acting as a team — pleading innocent together will lead to either a 2 year sentence a piece (4 years total) and pleading guilty together will lead to a 3 year sentence a piece (6 years total). Selling each other out, on the other hand, would result in the worst outcome — 10 years for one and 1 year for the other (11 years total).
In other words, when personal goals are substituted for group goals on the competitive field, not only does the group lose, but it traps itself in the worst predictable outcome.
What is most often left out of traditional analysis of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is what Dr. GS Potter of the Strategic Institute of Intersectional Policy calls the Jailer’s Delight. The Jailer’s Delight acknowledges that no matter what course of action the prisoners choose, the authorities that set up the game always win.
The jailers never do jail time. There is never an outcome where the prisoners both go free. They set up the game and watch the prisoner’s do the dirty work for them. The opportunities to overcome the Prisoner’s Dilemma are won and lost before the game even begins.
As a result, the only way to win the prisoner’s dilemma is to take over the prison.
There are 2 dominant ways in which the Prisoner’s Dilemma is approached by researchers. The first is as an isolated, individual game. The second is as a repeated series of games. Researchers studying both approaches have identified ways in which the outcome of the game can be altered.
One variable that can alter the outcome of the Prisoner’s dilemma is communication. If the prisoners are able to identify the game that will be used against them, they can decide what their collective course of action will be if they are apprehended and apply it. In other words, they could form a game plan ahead of time.
Another variable that can alter the outcome of the Prisoner’s dilemma is consistency. This variable comes into play when the game is played repeatedly. Players will often base their decisions on prior responses given by their opponent. For example, if the first time the game is played, Steve stays loyal to Don, then Don is more likely to make decisions believing that Steve will collaborate. Similarly, if Steve sells Don out in the first round of play, Don is more likely to treat Steve as a competitor than a collaborator. The difficulty with consistency as a strategy is that once “trust” is broken once, the game deteriorates back into a losing competition.
The final, and arguably most important variable, is framing. In a study that came out of Stanford University, researchers tested the effects of framing on the behaviors of the “prisoners.” In one group, the participants were told that they were playing a Community Game. In the other group the participants were told they were playing a Wall Street Game.
According to MIT analysts:
“The results were striking. When participants were told that they were playing the Wall Street Game, 70% of participants acted according to rational self-interest and chose to betray the other prisoner. When participants were told that they were playing the Community Game, however, 70% of participants chose to cooperate.”
And herein lies the problem with the State of the Union Address. Before Trump even stepped up to the podium, we were all his prisoners. The game was won and lost before he uttered his first word, because Trump isn’t a prisoner playing the game — he’s the jailer that is setting us up.
Trump used his speech to pit white people against people of color, black people against brown people, rich people against poor people, men against women, Christians against Muslims, homophobes against the LGBTQ community and citizens against immigrants — locking each in their own prison surrounded by their own dilemmas.
And it worked.
All the jailer needs to win is for one actor to sell out another. One community needs only abandon another for the entire system to collapse in on the prisoners. And from the beginning, the Democrats took a losing position.
To defend Dreamers, they sold out 11 million unnaturalized citizens, tens of millions of their family members and their allies. To defend Obama’s legacy on unemployment, they sold out the members of the working class that are drowning under wage gaps and long-term unemployment. To capitalize off of white feminism, they sold out women of color and male allies that cannot participate in a movement fueled by lynch mentality and a lack of due process. And to court the white female vote, they have sold out the communities of women fighting in the pro-Choice movement.
And as each of these communities sells out another, the entire group repeatedly saddles itself with the worst possible outcomes. In order to break out of this cycle, we need to strategically counter this dilemma with the plays that work. We need to go back to communication, consistency, and framing.
Communities that are being pitted together must communicate with each other. The Black community and the Immigrant communities, for example, need to come together to strategize against the jailers, and not each other. These communities need to start building consistent relationships of trust. Leaders and organizations representing immigrant communities need to come out in defense of people from black communities and black communities need to consistently come out in support of unnaturalized immigrants.
And finally, we need to own the frame. We don’t need to have the same offensive goals. What the indigenous community builds for itself will no doubt be very different from that the black community needs to build for itself. What we cannot win without, though, is a united defense against the GOP and its white nativist attacks on every single community they consider inferior.
We cannot win if we are fighting for ourselves. The only way we can win is if we are fighting for each other. And the only way we can protect each other is if we united defensively against a common enemy. In this case our common enemy — our common jailer — is the Republican Party.
The second we sell out any single one of our targeted communities — we lose. The second we work for ourselves instead of each other — we lose. The second we abandon one community for our own, we automatically trigger the worse outcome for all of us. But the second we unite to defend each other and turn our efforts against the jailers instead of each other — we change the game.
And in this game, Trump can’t beat us. The only way we lose is if we sell ourselves out. Now our new dilemma as a nation is figuring out if we are willing to give up our own bigotry in order to stop the most dangerous political opponent in modern political history. We can call this the Bigot’s Dilemma. We can end the Trump Administration, but not until we decide what game we want to play, what team we are on and whether or not we can work together to win the game.
To learn more about Dr. GS Potter and the Strategic Institute for Intersectional Policy (SIIP), visit: http://strategycampsite.org/v2/
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