By Isaac Kimmel (Guest Post!)
Last semester, I took a course entitled Mathematical Concepts in the Social Sciences. Toward the end of the course, during the unit on game theory, my classmates and I engaged in an intellectual exercise based on the Cold War. In essence, it was an extreme simplification of the nuclear-proliferation dilemma faced by the United States and the Soviet Union, the Cold War’s two principal participants. Each country had two choices at any given time: either dismantle warheads in an attempt to curry favor with the opponent, or continue to build them so as to gain leverage in negotiations. If one built up arms while the other dismantled them, the country who had more nukes would gain a serious advantage over the other. If both chose to keep building, tensions would be heightened, and if both dismantled arms, the chances of nuclear war declined accordingly. There was some debate as to which outcome was optimal for a given nation. The professor said that it would be subjugation of the other country through arms superiority, so the best course of action would be to continue building arms while trying to convince the enemy to do the opposite. Nuclear holocaust, however, is unequivocally catastrophic for all involved, so I argued that the best possible outcome for both would be the scaling down of both nations’ nuclear arsenals, because it leaves the least chance of nuclear war.
This extremely simplified Cold War scenario bears striking resemblance to the state of political discussion in America today. Frustration with the state of the economy, the wars in the Middle East, gay marriage, abortion and immigration have driven large sectors of the populace to the two extremes of the American political spectrum. The far right and the far left are analogous to the two Cold War combatants. Like the US and USSR, the political parties are each presented with two choices: either take a hard line against the opposition, or concede some points in the hope of fostering productive discussion. If the right concedes and the left stands firm, or vice versa, public policy swings markedly toward the ideological ideal of the more steadfast party. If both parties continue to stand firm and refuse to compromise, tensions rise, animosity grows between the parties, and nothing gets done. Only if both parties agree to make some concessions and bang out a compromise is real progress made.
Unfortunately, this is not what generally occurs in the American government today. Urged on by special-interest groups and ideologically radical segments of the electorate, both parties are moving further and further away from each other and toward the distant ends of the political spectrum, to their mutual detriment and to the chagrin of most of America. Current legislators fall into two categories: those who are genuinely radical, and those who are forced to become so in order to hold off challengers from the fringes of their parties. The system of pre-election primaries gives the vocal minority of radicals in each party the opportunity to nominate their own candidates, who share the hardline perspective of their supporters. Would-be centrist candidates, who would ideally be willing to make compromises in order to keep the country running, are instead constrained by partisan promises they were forced to make on the campaign trail in order to appease special-interest groups and fend off their less conciliatory challengers in the primaries. As a result, both houses of Congress are mired in perpetual political gridlock, and even pitted against each other, since the Republicans hold the majority in the House and the Democrats control the Senate.
The American voting public, too, is becoming more polarized. Without the need to uphold some sort of standards of etiquette to maintain their political reputations, working-class Republicans and Democrats remain even more starkly divided than their government counterparts. Elected representatives from opposite parties are, to a certain extent, forcibly compelled to cooperate (or at least coexist), but out in the suburbs and small towns of America, there is no such compulsion. Politics, once described as the favorite pastime of every American by Tocqueville in his seminal work Democracy in America, is now shunned from polite conversation due to fears that it will cause emotions to run high and friendships to be strained. Even the common man risks being called a “hater” or a “socialist” if he airs his views among his peers. Amicable associations are built and broken based on political alignment, with the outspoken radicals on either side forming ideologically homogeneous communities and the more numerous but less pugnacious moderates becoming shell-shocked into avoiding political discussion altogether.
There is one main flaw in the polarization-as-arms race analogy, one that allows for the perpetuation of the insurmountable divide between left and right: during the Cold War, nuclear proliferation came with increased risk of a very concrete and extremely undesirable consequence. Both countries knew that increasing the size of their nuclear arsenals increased the odds of nuclear holocaust. This threat of retaliation was the primary deterrent that kept each country from provoking the other. By contrast, the two political parties have shown in no uncertain terms that in their conflict, there is no similar deterrent. Despite a rapidly growing deficit and increasing public frustration, Congressmen, Senators, and even the President never miss an opportunity to sling insults across the aisle, their only concern being the amount of money in their war chests for the next election. Ordinary citizens, less educated in the art of rhetoric and in the issues than lawmakers, adopt similarly obstinate attitudes, thus precluding any meaningful dialogue on the grassroots level.
In modern America, any movement toward compromise and real achievement in government or in the philosophical minds of the people is cut short by mutual animosity between the two extremes of a highly polarized society. Since each party lacks the means to annihilate or even conclusively overcome the other, there is no end in sight to the wars of political posturing and petty bickering being constantly waged between the left and right. In other words, the consequence of America’s ideological impasse is not Mutually Assured Destruction, but Mutually Assured Obstruction. To short-sighted political instigators and dinner-table debate hawks, this is no real consequence, as the strife upon which they thrive seems here to stay. However, in a world in which modern economic technology in other countries is growing by leaps and bounds and the moral soul of modern Western society is decaying at an equally rapid rate, Mutually Assured Obstruction and Mutually Assured Destruction may just prove to be one and the same.
Copyright (c) 2013 Isaac Kimmel
- Nuclear Explosion