Changing the tone in Washington: a prisoner’s dilemma.

Americans hate Congress.  So, why doesn’t Congress improve its behavior?  The answer can be summed up in two words.  Prisoner’s dilemma. (’s_dilemma).  Moreover, it will be harder for Congress to improve its tone than for prisoners to be honorable.

Here is a plausible payoff matrix, with the payoff representing approval ratings.  (Don’t get too hung up in the numbers, which are rough guesses.  If you prefer, you can add a 5% do Democrats in every entry since they are more popular.)

When I say nonpartisan, it doesn’t mean caving in to the other side.   It means being honest about your positions, and not tearing down the other side in insincere and hypocritical ways (also known as the current way of doing business.)


                                       nonpartisan              Partisan
   nonnpartisan         D:50%  R:50%        D:35%    R:15%  
   partisan                 D:15%   R:35%        D:20%    R:20%           

It is best for the Congress and the country if both parties adopt a nonpartisan tone.  Unfortunately, with respect to political speech, the primary focus of each party is on its performance relative to the other party.  There is only a secondary focus on “the good of the country.”

If each party’s focus is on how well they do relative to the other party, there is a strong incentive to be partisan.  In fact, with respect to advantage over the other party, there is no difference between both parties being partisan or both parties being nonpartisan.

So, how do we change the tone in Washington?  The key is to make Congress realize that they are optimizing the wrong objective, one that does harm to the country.  (And we also need to make it clear that we will vote for those who act less partisan.) Obama gets it.  I hope that he can help Congress to get it.


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3 Responses to “Changing the tone in Washington: a prisoner’s dilemma.”

  1. JN Says:


    I quite like your analogy. I would just point that, in my opinion, a more realistic payoff matrix would not be symmetric.

    The base of the democratic and republican electorate is too distinct. This election was very exemplary of that. Both candidates had a reputation for independence (whether it was justified or not). While Obama was able to gain from this independence and still keep the support of his base, McCain was forced to adopt the entire republican rhetoric.

    The fact that the republicans rely so heavily on the fundamentalist evangelical vote (and on other parts of the electorate who are less receptive to factual discussion) makes it a much higher risk for them to adopt a conciliatory tone.


    • jimorlin Says:

      You’re probably right about the lack of symmetry. Democrats in Congress may have much more to gain if both parties behave responsibly and are much less partisan. Republicans may not gain so much by behaving responsibly given the central positions of Rush Limbaugh, Shawn Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, and a couple crazy preachers of the far religious right.

  2. Willie Says:

    Brilliant. I agree.

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