Politics and the prisoners' dilemma

ADVERTISEMENT
I think so. Because there are powerful incentives for political leaders to choose the path of disagreement and non-cooperation, embracing  "second-best" outcomes.
 
First, the second-best approach appeals to extreme partisans. The second-best approach says, the other guys are wrong (or treasonous or warmongers) and we need to turn them in. Given the structure of partisan and primary politics, that is often the surest path to re-nomination and election, especially in one-party legislative districts. It can also be the best way to raise money and profile.
 
California is engaged in an important experiment to change this. It is using a non-partisan commission to design legislative (including congressional) districts and it has abolished party primaries.

Under the new law, in full effect for the 2012 elections, members of Congress will run in an "open" primary, all parties together, and the top two winners, regardless of party, run in the general election. The hope is that the process makes the votes of independents as important as those of registered Democrats and Republicans (who traditionally have chosen the candidates in the general election).
 
Second, our constitutional structure can be seen (wrongly, I believe) as an invitation to conflict. Contrast the United Kingdom, where parliamentary rule gives effective political power to the majority. Our system of checks-and-balances was designed expressly to blunt the passion of the moment; to ensure reflection, and to divide power.
 
But gridlock was not the goal. The framers of our "more perfect union" imagined a political system, as James Madison explained, that would act "to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations."
 
It's important to understand that Madison is not calling for "compromise." Compromise means giving up the best for second-best. Collective action is just the opposite – eschewing the second-best in order to get to the very best outcome.
 
And that starts by defining what we, as a nation, have in common. Here's a story. In the fall of 1992, when the presidential campaigns were in full swing, a veteran Democratic strategist named Paul Tully passed away suddenly. The next day a vase of flowers arrived at the offices of the Democratic National Committee, with a card that said, if recollection serves, "What we have in common is more important than that which separates us." It was signed, "The Republican National Committee."
 
That was right. And it's too often forgotten. If we could gather all Americans in a room with a big white board to create our national strategy, we would start by asking what it is that we all embrace. Outcomes like "a strong economy" or "better opportunities for our children" or "strength in a dangerous world." Then, when we had written all of the common goals on the board, we would ask ourselves, how can we best reach them? And we would understand the difference between those big, shared goals and the various means to those goals, say updating Social Security or collecting additional revenues.
 
This is a moment of challenge. The answer is not to abandon political parties or strong opinions; they fuel the necessary dialogue in the search for political truth. The answer is for our political leaders to create the best national strategy for the 21st century by saying to themselves what we all know: This nation was never created to be second-best.
 
Jonathan Sallet is a partner in the law firm O’Melveny and Myers LLP. He served in the Clinton Administration as Assistant to the Secretary and Director of the Office of Policy & Strategic Planning of the Department of Commerce
.