Donald Trump once claimed that if he were to become president, there would be so much winning that the people would get sick of it. There might be more truth to this statement than he wished. Trump ignored that, in politics, focusing on winning erodes power.
Can you win politics?
To understand why it is impossible to win politics, we should take a quick look at game theory. Game theory analyzes decision-making processes and predicts what can happen under different circumstances. It can provide helpful insights and accurate predictions for many situations, including this one.
One important distinction in game theory is between finite and infinite games.
- Finite games have clearly defined rules, clearly defined players, and the goal is to win the game. Chess, football, and Monopoly are finite games.
- Infinite games have no clear rules, no clear players, and the game goes on forever. Players drop out or lose interest, but new players constantly emerge. There is no chance to “win” the game. The economy is a finite game. New companies and competitors enter the game daily; a market lead now is worthless next week. It is impossible to win the economy, and there is no sense in trying.
Both types of games require strategies that account for their unique characteristics.
- Finite games require short-term strategies. Good players understand how long a game will last and play in a way that maximizes their chances of winning. When a football team is trailing shortly after the beginning of the game, it remains cautious. But when it is trailing at the end of a game, it takes great risks because it has nothing to lose.
- Infinite games require long-term focus. It is impossible to beat another player; the player has to voluntarily drop out of the game. A good strategy focuses on reducing his or her will to play.
When players play the same game, things work out fine. Two infinite players can play a good game, and so can two finite players. But when we mix a finite and an infinite player, we create problems.
- When someone plays an infinite game even though they are in a finite game, they don’t recognize the point at which they have to take more risk. They willingly accept defeat and lose the game.
- When someone plays a finite game even though they are in an infinite game, they focus too heavily on the short term. They invest all their resources to gain a momentary victory but lack the means to maintain this position when new players emerge.
Politics is an infinite game. We sometimes get caught up in the momentary victories of passing a law or winning an election or a war, but there will always be another election or war and laws can be repealed. It is impossible to win politics.
What happens when you play the wrong game in politics?
When someone plays the wrong game in politics, they destroy their political resources and erode their long-term power.
Regarding politics, values are resources. Values create long-term power because they determine whether new players will support you or fight you, and nobody can survive when they have to fight too many opponents.
Politically relevant values are not German values or American values, Christian values or Muslim values. They are things like kindness, equality, and respecting human rights. These values exist in most ideologies and are almost universal to all people. By violating them, politicians and countries create more opposition than they gain the power to fight. Sooner or later, this leads to their demise.
We find many examples of this connection in history.
After World War II, the U.S. and their allies followed an infinite strategy. They occupied Nazi Germany, created military bases, and vowed to remain for as long as necessary to establish and maintain a functioning democracy. There was no concrete goal and no timeline.
The allies wanted to serve and protect their values, but in a way that acknowledged that this job could never be complete. There would always be someone threatening them, and when one threat goes away (Nazi Germany), another one will emerge (the Soviet Union).
The U.S. mostly focused on changing the minds of Nazis. It would have conflicted with their values to torture or kill people. The result was a new world order in which most people preferred the American way of life over the Russian one because the USSR acted less benignly in and after the war.
During and after the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam, the U.S. and their allies abandoned their infinite strategy. They wanted to win and get out – a finite strategy with a clear goal, a clear opponent, and a chance to end the game.
The Vietcong, Al Qaida, and the Iraqi warlords, on the other hand, played an infinite game. They wanted to survive and protect their homes. They understood that there would always be a threat to this goal and that a new threat emerges when an old one goes away. Their strategy focused on making the war so expensive for the U.S. that they would drop out – an infinite strategy.
The western coalition played the wrong strategy. Their focus on short-term victories led them to violate human rights and surrender some of their values. They enraged locals and contributed to the rise of ISIS. Because the U.S. played a finite strategy in an infinite game, they made the situation worse.
Similar problems apply to policy debates. When politicians heavily focus on passing a certain law to appeal to voters, they often surrender some of their values. They accept imperfect laws, hurt their voters, and lose their power.
How to succeed in politics
To succeed in politics, politicians have to play an infinite game. Prioritizing the long term over the short term and sometimes sacrificing possible short-term wins to protect long-term resources, they can keep their values intact. Intact values are the cornerstone of their reputation and the reputation of their countries.
The goal of creating a good, safe world, is honorable. But there is no ending and no chance to win the game. There will always be threats, and surrendering our values to achieve a short-term victory means becoming a threat to our own. You are unable to protect what you love when you surrender it.
What happens when you try to win politics?
Donald Trump is inherently focused on winning. It is the idea through which he interprets the world and that drives his actions.
Trying to win politics is a destructive idea with an inherently high moral quantity.
- It divides the world into irreconcilable groups (us and whoever we consider our opponent),
- It forces a binary argument (we either win or lose), and
- It appeals to higher wisdom (if everything must be won, this must be won, too. There is no need to question whether this can or should be won.)
Combined, these three points create an infinitely evil threat (them – whoever we consider our opponent) and a white knight who has to fight this threat (us). Nothing could be worse than them winning, which is why everything we do in our fight against them is justified. This belief disables our moral guidelines. We think that we need to win this fight here and now, and this end justifies all means. We play a finite strategy in an infinite game, destroy our values, and erode our long-term power.
In similar ways, any destructive, high-moral-quantity idea distorts the way we see the world and tricks us into playing finite strategies in infinite games. This is one of the many reasons why governments based on high-moral-quantity ideas always create destructive results.
To protect our values, there is no need to beat an opponent. We only need to beat our desire to violate them in exchange for short-term goals, and they will endure any challenge.
How does this rule apply in other fields of life?
Many aspects of life mirror politics: they appear like finite games but are infinite games.
In a relationship, for example, we often get caught up in trying to win an argument. We play a finite strategy in an infinite game, which causes us to surrender our values and erodes our partner’s trust in the relationship and us.
We can do better by focusing on our values. When we trust, love, and support our partners, we create better relationships. There will always be a next problem, and then we want our partners to believe in our ability to constructively deal with it. We can only achieve this goal by focusing on our values.
This way of thinking aids all aspects of our private and professional lives. So, understand the type of the current game, and play the right strategy. Intuitively, we often play finite strategies. Unfortunately, most situations of life are parts of infinite games.
- There are finite and infinite games. To win a game, we have to play the right strategy. The wrong strategy will inevitably lead to defeat.
- Politics is an infinite game. To succeed in it, we have to focus on protecting our values. A focus on winning causes us to play the wrong strategy and erodes our power.
- In all aspects of life, we can make better decisions by understanding the type of our current game and playing the right strategy.