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THE GAME THEORY OF ELECTIONS


A painting of St. Silouas. He stares upward--to god? the exit sign above the door?--in depair.

We are walking the streets of Northampton, Massachusetts, masked up, the leaves beginning to turn, as we pass a yard of BIDEN/HARRIS signs. Another. More, still. They've appeared like mushrooms overnight, like feeders of the Democratic primary's dead. Over on FiveThirtyEight, Massachusetts is the least likely state to turn to Trump, only second to the District of Columbia.

"Who the fuck are these signs for?" I say.

"It's political theater," my friend says. "It's fun to feel righteous."


I think of all those car bumpers that never scraped off their Hillary stickers--out of pride? laziness? Clintonian rage? all of the above? There is a special kind of madness in hanging on to a real loser.


We pass the yard where a queasily green AMY (Klobuchar) sign had stood so proudly back in February. BIDEN/HARRIS stands in its place. In another yard, "BYE-DON" is planted in the dying grass.


"I want to die," my friend says.


A walker passes, looks at us and points at our masks, says, "What're those for?"


"They're for you," I hiss.


He looks puzzled rather than confrontational, and we walk on. Above us, two squirrels are in a desperate fight on the utility wire. They undulate and screech. It's hard to tell who's winning, who's retreating, as they go back and forth on that black wire. I like to watch squirrels with the hope that I'll get to see them embarrass themselves, but it never happens: they leap impossibly, and the branches and the wires impossibly catch them. As it happens now. One leaps to a hemlock. The other start-and-stops its way back along the wire, back toward the source of its rage.


We are in a season of puzzlement and derangement. The pandemic rages on endlessly. Fire season rages on endlessly, and climatologists tell us the endlessness will only become more endless. Our windows are closed tight, and the cracks are plugged with old underwear. Breathing is death. The advice on how to survive is amended all the time; as we learn more, we feel certain we can be safer, so long as we can maintain the capability to want to feel safer. We are all very tired of being able to do nothing. But this November, we are told, we can all do something decisive. We can do something that will change the goddamn world. We can vote.

"All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it." Henry David Thoreau, in Civil Disobedience

In July of 1846, Henry David Thoreau was jailed for failing to pay his taxes. Thoreau saw taxes as an implicit endorsement of the actions of the state they fund, which included at that time the institution of slavery. Thoreau was a staunch abolitionist, and he wrestled with the size and reach of American democracy, whose Cthulhic tentacles in 1846 were mostly tangled in domestic terrorism aimed at black and Native Americans, but would spawn exponentially and reach internationally in the coming century. Thoreau argued that unjust laws demanded immediate and decisive revolutionary work to dismantle them. He felt that all people had a moral imperative not only do the political work to go about overturning unjust laws, but to actively disobey them while that political work was happening.


To be a part of a system as large and expansive as the American empire is to be definitionally morally compromised. By Thoreau's definitions, no living American can claim they are living a morally decent life. To watch as The New York Times waited nearly a day to write about the recent democratic elections in Bolivia, where Evo Morales' socialist party won a decisive victory, was to see the machinations of American empire implode like a cartoon cigar in the faces of all those institutions and individuals that aided and abetted the coup of Morales to be replaced by a right-wing fascist.

The lithium-fondling tyrant Elon Musk, whose crimes against humanity include the ruining of Grimes, even joked on Twitter about Tesla's capital interests in Bolivia, before deleting the tweet.

America is everywhere, and we fucking suck. If it is upsetting to hear that you are not living a morally decent life, maybe it is worthwhile to be, at the very least, upset for a change. Comfort, after all, has never led to any revolution of mind, spirit, or politics.


I like to teach Peter Singer's essay "The Singer Solution to World Poverty" to college students, because it's the sort of work that demands a response from the audience. In it, Singer makes the utilitarian argument that spending money on anything that isn't absolutely necessary for survival, on luxury goods like fine food or that 65'' OLED TV, is the same as saying "the lives of others matter less". In a world still ravaged by poverty, with people unable to access basic medications or goods, like malaria nets, for survival, Singer argues that a morally decent life means addressing those ravages before upgrading your phone to the higher storage capacity, the one that will store more of your Imagine Dragons bops in lossless glory. My students hate the Singer essay. They call Singer a moral scold. They say he has a superiority complex. They say he must be wrong because it feels wrong to feel so bad. But Singer is right, just as Thoreau is right: our lives are not morally decent so long as we have the capacity to make any life better, and do nothing or, as it were, do something else, like splurge on the truffle fries.


As we spiral deeper into the dissonances of capitalism, I suppose it's natural for us to turn even more hedonistic and decadent. Climate change is such a looming and impossible crisis, one that we're told no individual alone can act against, that we retreat to our meager pleasures, to good food, to the bottomless queueing of Netflix's special blend of mediocre but endurable shows, to games and play.


THE GAME THEORY OF ELECTIONS


I want to linger on Thoreau's idea of voting as a "sort of gaming" with a "moral tinge". Depending on where you receive your news, you might think the 2020 American presidential election is the most important election in the country's history. The New York Times editorial board, in their endorsement of Joe Biden, writes that Biden "has also vowed to 'restore the soul of America.' It is a painful reminder that the country is weaker, angrier, less hopeful and more divided than it was four years ago." Restoring the soul of America sounds nice, even if it rubs shoulders too comfortably with the 2016 Trump campaign slogan and, as if they are telling on themselves, the 2020 Trump campaign's repeating of the 2016 slogan. "Make America Great Again" is Reagan-era new wave cheese to the Biden campaign's gospeled-out Kennedy/Johnson take. Both slogans aim to feel substantial and airy, heavy and light, salty and sweet. But when was America great? And when did America have a soul it could lose? Modern political campaigns don't promise policy: instead, they promise feelings, a stirring of the personality, which, in a land ravaged by the Self Improvement Industrial Complex, makes sense. We've given up on the world, but not the self.

Modern political campaigns don't promise policy anymore: instead, they promise feelings, a stirring of the personality, which in a land ravaged by the Self Improvement Industrial Complex, makes sense. We've given up on the world, but not the self.

That we can feel a "moral tinge" when we pull the Biden lever should make us suspicious of tinges in general, as well as our desperate longing to feel feelings, longing absolutely included. To leave the restoration of America's soul to the majority or, as it were, a majority of the electoral votes, strikes Thoreau as an "unvital" concern. And these sorts of unvital concerns should make sense to most Americans who don't consider themselves activists or organizers: you show up every few years to vote, you maybe know the name of your city's mayor, or, even better, the names of your city counselors, but life is mostly experienced in an unpolitical space-time where we don't have to think about our actions and concerns as being tethered to the actions and concerns of a much larger, and far more hideous creature that might be devouring others.


I am interested in vital concerns, and how we can act on them, just as I am interested in the massive movement in the democratic wing to shame and silence anyone who would communicate discomfort and wariness at pulling the Biden/Harris lever. "Vote Blue No Matter Who" has become the far more pervasive slogan of this election than "Restore the Soul of America", and it's the worst of them allthe hollow masquerading as the pragmatic. The who should always matter, especially when the who in question has spent decades forwarding the interests of capitalism, creditors, banks, and the prison industrial complex, to name a few other whos. Biden is a morally compromised candidate across space and time: we should remember his handling of the Anita Hill hearings, just as we should remember his handling of the crime bill; we should remember his record on dismantling bankruptcy protections for consumers, just as we should remember the influence-peddling he and his children have engaged in, from shady Ukrainian companies like Burisma to MBNA, a subsidiary of Bank of America. That many people are wary of voting for such a candidate should not be shamed away or outright dismissed either. The moral tinge haunts some voters more than others, and it can't be dissuaded by premonitional thinking. Premonitional thinking, that is guessing at what catastrophes the future will bring us under another Trump term, has led us to this moral precipice. The wrongs of a hypothetical future are weighed against actual historical wrongs. We are told that the future, which is unknowable, is knowably worse.


But if we were to actually view elections through the lens of game theory as Thoreau tells us to do (granted, a very 19th century persuasion of game theory), we might more reasonably come to understand what's at play here. Most voters are playing. Full stop. The act of voting is symbolic and metaphorical, in the same way that the pieces in chess are said to be metaphors for courtly conflict. With chess, we should know immediately that we are checking our way through a fiction, since the most powerful piece, the queen, is more a historical exception than the rule. With voting, we should know immediately that our individual votes likely never matter. Individual votes do not win presidential elections. And the electoral college doesn't even bother to pretend that individual votes matter: we vote for electors who, quite literally, have the power to vote for whoever they want. While these so-called "faithless electors" have never swayed a presidential election, their power to do so should give us pause when we contend that individual votes matter. They doish, sorta-ish, so long as the norms hold (and if Trumpism has taught us anything, it is that our political system has long sustained itself on a web of norms that can be broken, mangled, and tossed without any recourse, legal or otherwise). And we should pay attention to all the other signs and signals that voting is really an elaborate form of role-play, from the "I Voted" stickers people put on their lapels, to the election night parties people throw, voting is a playful act we perform to make relationships with others, our communities, and almost certainly ourselves. To pull the lever for Biden is far more of a sensual act than a political act: we smell the solvent hit of the permanent marker as we pop its top, we hear the faint, almost animal squeak of the marker tip's journey filling in the Biden bubble, we feel in our hands the ballot quiver and wobble like a breathless thing pulled from the waters of life. These signs and signals make us feel alive. They shock us out of the pulseless existence of the disaffected, the disconnected, the un-enfranchised.


On the podcast Bad Faith, Briahna Joy Gray, Bernie Sanders' former National Press Secretary, debated Noam Chomsky about the play of voting.

Chomsky would not engage Joy Gray on the material problems that many disaffected voters face. Those material problems come at the same question from countless angles: "If my life is already so unbearable, how am I supposed to vote for a candidate who doesn't even bother to make promises to improve it, even a little?" Yes, climate change is the great existential threat that awaits all of us in the future, but that future is far enough from this present, where people are losing jobs in record numbers, losing their health insurance, and being forced to jump onto the Obamacare insurance markets, where they are likely to find insurance plans with premiums they can't afford, with deductibles that ask them to shoulder the cost-burden of their care. If voting is a form of play, as Thoreau contends, then it should at the very least be a cooperative form of play, with elected officials delivering substantive goods to their voters. Likewise, voters should be able to leverage their votes in exchange for these substantive goods. Under these cooperative rules of play, politicians like Biden would have to contend with losing the votes of those constituents they don't actively court. If the progressive left demands Biden make Medicare for All a policy goal of the Democratic party, and Biden fails to promise, much less deliver that goal, then Biden isn't playing fair. He risks losing their support. In the gaming space, it would be so easy to remove your support, to tear up the alliance, to turn your pieces against Biden's, or to retreat. But for some reason in the political space, we are told that this all really matters.


That Chomsky kept falling back on arguments of the threatening future, as well as the fiction that voting only takes "10 minutes", while arguing that electoral politics is only a game, and the real, unplayful work comes in activism and organizing, reveals the paradox we find ourselves in at the voting booth. Electoral politics isn't everything, it's the only thing, besides the thing that matters, which is the unsexy drudgery of real work, and no play. All work and no play do, indeed, make Jack a dull boy. And in any case, real, dull work doesn't really work with politicians like Biden. The Black Lives Matter protests have been going on for months in the middle of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, with protestors demanding the dismantlement of the entire policing system, as well as economic policies that materially improve the lives of America's poorest. Despite activism at a scale we have likely never witnessed as a country, Biden has offered few concessions to the BLM protestors, or more generally to the left. He has gone out of his way to distance himself from Bernie Sanders, socialism, and the entire defund movement. Biden's supporters like to fall back on his "decency", by which they mean his ability to role-play compassion and empathy in the political space. Biden's best gaming skill is the kind that brings you victory in an exhaustingly social game like Among Us, where the appearance of telling the truth is everything: Biden can listen to a voter articulate her despair, and say he is sorry in a way that is believable. Biden cares, you see, he just hasn't devoted his life to doing much of anything that moves that care from the soulful place to the material place. Trump is incapable of such role-play, and his supporters, to their credit, have lost the taste for their politicians playing like they care. Trump cares as much as Biden cares, or the effects of their caring and not-caring are the same, which is to say that nothing changes either way, but at least Trump doesn't bother to pretend, and it's thrilling, from this perspective, to see a modern politician play the game so foully.

Trump cares as much as Biden cares, or the effects of their caring and not-caring are the same, which is to say that nothing changes either way, but at least Trump doesn't bother to pretend, and it's thrilling, from this perspective, to see a modern politician play the game so foully.

To even articulate your despair under these conditions is to be shamed relentlessly by people who don't give any fucks about you besides your capacity to vote for their candidate. Over at the Times, the top comment on a story about disaffected voters who sat out in 2016 says it all:

To call someone drowning in suffering and despair a child is a special kind of American sociopathy. And that's not to even speak of the great Shamer in Chief, Obama, who perhaps more than any other player in the game moved all the pieces to guarantee Biden's victory in the primary, and was on the phone with Pete Buttigieg the night he conceded. Now Obama is tweeting that because someone suffering from ALS is voting, we must do the same:

That Obama's tweet is incomprehensible at the political level—why am I supposed to vote for Biden when I can't afford my current insurance premium under the Affordable Care Act, as someone also living with a chronic condition?—as it is emotionally gutting, says it all: there's no why here, only the shallow feeling of a why.


Trump is another kind of political player entirely. He understands that there are a lot of players out there whose chief strategy in play is not to win so much as to make all the other players at the table feel the cold depths of their defeat. Winning is all well and good, in this line of thinking, but beating your enemies is infinitely better. When Conan is asked in Conan the Barbarian, "What is best in life?" he answers:

Animated gif from the movie Conan the Barbarian. Camera zooms in on Conan, who is answering the question "What is best in life?" His answer: "Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women."

Conan's answer comes from a life of unceasing violence and suffering, despair and the unnamed chambers beneath despair. Pundits drive themselves crazy into wondering why people often vote against their own political interests, as is the case with many poor white Americans voting down the Republican ticket, but most pundits write from a vantage of comfort and security that is unimaginable to the poor and working classes in this country. I think that most of Trump's supporters understand the play of voting better than The New York Times editorial board: nothing ever changes, but my God it feels good to watch my enemies turn red.


Enough! What should I do this November? Vote Biden? Abstain? Am I supposed to stomach the idea of another four years of Trump? Sure Biden is bad, but isn't Trump profoundly worse? Can't we drop the play and work ceaselessly once we get Biden elected? Reader, I have no answers. My absentee ballot is sitting unopened on my kitchen table. I keep thinking I'll open it, fill in my bubbles, and seal my choices up. I'll then walk to town, a little more than a mile, a pleasant walk, come to think of it, past my favorite tree that has erupted into a yellow so searing, it sears through my seeing. I will wander into town, to Town Hall, where I'll drop my ballot into the ballot box. I won't feel good about any of it. Voting is an act of play and hope, and I am not playing around, and I am hopeless. This is all in my thinking, of course. I haven't acted on anything yet.


In a state of great religious agony, St. Silouas is said to have been visited by God who told him, "Keep your mind in hell, and don't despair". The inflexible impossibility of God's words, like a koan that has no solution besides that it's unsolvable, like the inelegant words of a mystic who was said to be nearly illiterate, keep me pacing around the many chambers of my despair.


I never want to play this game again.

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