The Prisoner’s Dilemma of Partisan Politics


The classic prisoner’s dilemma hypothetical is as follows: two suspects have committed a crime and have been captured by police for interrogation. The police, who don’t allow the suspects to communicate to each other, have enough evidence to charge them with a lesser crime, but without testimony, cannot convict them fully of the original crime. The suspects have two options. They can either remain silent, or they can betray the other. If one suspect remains silent, and the other betrays, then the betrayed suspect bears the brunt of the punishment and the other gets off scot-free. If they both betray the other, they both receive the higher punishment. However, if they both remain silent, and thus cooperate, they receive only a light sentence on the lesser crime.


What makes that dilemma rather tricky is that 1) the suspects can’t communicate on strategy and thereby cooperate and 2) the suspects, barring communication, would be acting in their self-interest by betraying the other. As it is, an action performed in rational self-interest at the expense of the other may not be the one that produces the best outcome.


While this is a conceptual model generally applied in issue areas like arms races and economic competition, the prisoner’s dilemma is becoming apparent in the hyper-partisan “arms race” today.


Republicans and Democrats play a zero-sum game where the primary strategy is one of attrition and retaliation. Furthermore, these strategies are actually, and somewhat perversely, rational. Given the current competitive political landscape, where two parties have interests and policies that have become mostly mutually exclusive (privatized vs. nationalized healthcare, etc.), it’s rational that one party would seek to effectively destroy the other, and that the other would have to respond, lest they concede a relative advantage to the other. The measures they utilize to inflict harm are all displays of zero-sum politics; examples of those measures include politicized federal investigations, the leaking of sensitive photos of opposing party members, a presidency where impeachment has been mentioned from its onset, or even the unprecedented refusal to even consider a SCOTUS nomination, as in the case of Merrick Garland.


While these actions ensure that neither party loses their immediate, relative position and allow them take a quick jabs at an opponent, they also guarantee the long-term continuation of hyper-partisanship and more broadly, set conditions for an increasingly hostile political environment. In the end, neither party is better off than the other from these tactics.


These conditions are inescapable for two reasons: fear and lack of communication. There is fear that one party may lose ground if they do not retaliate, leaving themselves exposed to a relentless opponent. In fact, a strategy of de-escalation and cooperation will only produce a more optimal outcome only if it is mutual. If one party is to drop their guard, and the other does not, then there is a clear imbalance in advantage. If Democrats do not proceed with impeachment, then they cede to a Republican party with a structural upper-hand. If President Trump tones down his caustic rhetoric, then he loses to an extremely critical media.


The lack of communication on de-escalation, which lends to the inability of one party to predict the strategy of another, is at the core of this dilemma. Democrats and Republicans, in performing this calculus, will find that the escalation of hyper-partisanship is the strategy most likely to produce an outcome that doesn’t end in their defeat. De-escalation can only work if it is an orientation mutually-adopted.

Leave a Reply