The Democratic presidential race is becoming a classic “prisoners’ dilemma,” no pun intended. Logic and human nature are conspiring to put Democrats in a lose-lose position. Here is how.
Socialist Bernie Sanders is widening his delegate lead, with the Nevada win. While the primary race is early, each Sanders win – Iowa, New Hampshire, now Nevada – creates momentum. At the same time, each Sanders win raises concern for moderate Democrats, who cannot imagine supporting a socialist. Accordingly, moderates are beginning to line up behind ABB – “Anybody But Bernie.”
Here is how the “prisoners’ dilemma” works. In game theory, which often applies to real life, two criminals are caught and held separately. They cannot communicate. If neither betrays the other, both face a light sentence. If one betrays the other, the squealer goes free, and other faces a stiff sentence. If both betray the other, both face an even stiffer sentence.
What tends to happen? Logic says self-interest will cause each to betray the other. The prevailing assumption is crooks are not charitable; neither assumes the best of the other. Betraying each other, both end up worse – thinking they will end up best. In the real world, human bias is to cooperate, if possible. That sometimes upsets logic.
In simple terms, the “prisoner’s dilemma” amounts to this: Two parties that could gain from cooperation or charitable thinking, often do not cooperate – believing they will win everything alone. In the end, they lose it all – and so do those with whom they might have cooperated.
How does game theory apply to the 2020 Democrats? Socialist Bernie Sanders appears convinced – as do his followers – that a socialist message will win everything. He is encouraged in that thinking by his sequential primary wins. Meantime, moderates supporting ABB are increasingly convinced that Sanders’ socialist message is the Democratic party’s death knell. They are in no mood to cooperate.
Not only are moderate Democrats not willing to support Sanders, they are increasingly determined to find an alternative to him, even if it means changing debate rules, questioning caucus and primary outcomes, and perhaps ending his nomination bid with a brokered convention.
The problem is this: If the two sides cannot cooperate, and there appears little chance of that – since no overlap emerges between John F. Kennedy Democrats and Socialist Sanders, sides will harden. Rather than being charitable, both will become more aggressive with each other. They are already do this, advertisements increasingly casting the other as “the end of days.”
But the prisoner’s dilemma gets worse. If Sanders prevails in a majority of remaining primaries, effectively cornering enough Democratic primary votes to put a claim on the Democratic nomination, moderates will go one of three ways. They will either push for a brokered convention, push a third-party candidate, or resolve to stay home, effectively opposing Sanders by abstention.
Each of those choices punishes Democrats severely in November. Why? Sanders and his followers share have charity in their hearts for the Democratic National Committee, which appears to have boxed them out in 2016, and some think tried to nobble Sanders in the Iowa caucuses this time around.
As a result, do not expect many Sanders votes to support a “brokered” moderate emerging from the 2020 convention. Even in 2016, a significant number of Sanders voters were so disgusted with the Democratic choice, they voted for Trump. That was especially true in swing states, and by large margins – in some cases, twice what Trump needed to beat the Democrat.
Likewise, if the Democratic base splits between Sanders and a third-party, history teaches – even when that third-party candidate was Theodore Roosevelt, who ran in 1912 as a “Bull Mooser,” the third-party candidate and split party loses. In 1912, TR beat the candidate of his former party, Republican William Howard Taft, but both lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Similarly, Independent John Anderson in 1980 helped assure Republican Ronald Reagan’s first win, as Independent Ross Perot in 1992 helped assure Democrat Bill Clinton’s win. In short, idealists tend to vote for a third-party candidate, in protest of their party’s weak or unpopular nominee. This allows even a modest turnout for the unified party to produce victory.
Last, if Sanders is the nominee, many traditional all-American Democrats, who simply cannot stomach a Socialist who has praised the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Venezuela, subscribes to Marxist ideology, embraces class warfare and despises capitalism – the heart of America’s prosperity – will just stay home. Or worse, they will hold their noses and vote for Trump, who is accumulating labor union, trade association, minority, and other traditional Democratic sector support.
All this comes back to the idea that cooperation – within the Democratic party – is a two-edged sword, as the party continues to tip hard left. The longer the Democrats tip left, the more unlikely compromise becomes, as the left hardens and moderates balk. And the more likely a brokered convention becomes, the more caustic the Socialist Sanders branch becomes.
If not the classic prisoner’s dilemma, perhaps this is just a no-win situation, where both sides appear increasingly distressed with the other, preoccupied by blocking the opposing branch from winning. The 2020 cycle is shaping up as a battle for the soul of the Democratic party, not a battle between our popular president and some equally popular opposite number.
In the end, as Sanders rolls forward and party moderates roll out, the Democratic party is breaking in two, one side becoming overtly, unapologetically, belligerently socialist – and the other discouraged, disaffected, and dismayed to the point of disillusionment.
What does all this mean? In short, President Trump appears to be hitting on all cylinders, rolling into 2020 at full throttle, economy, border security, moral authority, and international affairs tipping his way.
The Democratic field is in a state of chaos, allowing a socialist to run the table. That is likely to set up an interesting November, perhaps the most interesting since 1984 when Ronald Reagan beat another disillusioned Democratic Party in a historic landslide.