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The Zero Sum Game Of Political Power

Time and again, we’ve witnessed McCarthy enable and appease Trump. McCarthy understands, even if Republicans want to pretend otherwise, that Trump remains the ultimate powerbroker in the GOP.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Published:January 12, 2023

Let's talk about power.

Understanding the reality of power’s zero-sum nature in politics is essential in the “Game We Are In.” No better recent example exists than this past week's election(s) in the House of Representatives leading to Kevin McCarthy's eventual assession to the position of Speaker.

Our Founders intended the House of Representatives to be the representative body of those the Ancient Greeks call the “demos,” the common people. The House would be a body of government moving with the whims of the people and accountable to them in elections every two years. It’s the one institution that represents all of us, for better or worse.

In my work around the world, with both those fighting autocracy and those attempting to build democracies, I remained in awe of the vision of America's Founders. Who held political power was, in their day, as it is now, a zero-sum proposition. For example, when we have an election, one candidate wins and gains power, while the others lose both the plebiscite and the control of the office. In a zero-sum game, one side must lose for the other to win. Recognizing this, our Founders masterfully devised a structure for our democracy to work in concert with our all-or-nothing nature: The separation of powers, co-equal branches of government, and regularly held elections to hold those in power accountable.

Obviously, Kevin McCarthy eventually won the Speakership. Under normal circumstances and rules, he would have gained immense powers as the individual second in line to the Presidency and the second most powerful person in our nation's Capitol. Yet less than a week later, I suspect you share my skepticism that such an ugly win, on the fifteenth ballot, after appeasing those he was forced to appease, was much of a victory.

The reality is we are not in normal times. The game we know of, a democracy working towards win-win compromises and building a "more perfect union," is not being played by all within the system. Unfortunately, we witnessed those dynamics playing out with each successive ballot in the Speaker of the House election. With each vote, as it became more apparent McCarthy's political dream of being Speaker was in peril, we watched as he moved towards appeasing and ultimately conceding to those playing the zero-sum game with power.

It is not surprising the apparent tipping point for McCarthy came when Donald Trump -- the ultimate zero-sum actor in our politics -- pushed him over the line. The Republican Party, despite those suggesting otherwise, is still an autocratic vertical power structure under Trump's control. Those actors blocking McCarthy understood the zero-sum dynamic better than most. In a zero-sum political movement, you know your power resides in your proximity to its leader. Time and again, we’ve witnessed McCarthy’s grasp of this through his enabling and appeasing of Trump.

Ultimately, pro-democracy Americans should take two lessons from what we witnessed. First, the Republican Party is still under the firm grip of Trump and its zero-sum extremist wing. That wing might not represent the majority of House Republicans (or they might), but it doesn't matter. As long as they hold power, they have primacy and hold us all hostage until they are destroyed. Yes, destroyed. In a zero-sum contest, the Game We Are In, only one side will prevail.

The second lesson is equally important even though this time they did this on their own; we must get them fighting among themselves. We defeat extremism by getting the extremists to battle internally. For the next two years, those who fight for democracy must awaken every day and ask themselves, what can I do with what I have to weaken their autocratic hierarchy by causing them to fight among themselves?