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Well, Washington is doing it again. The sad part? No one is really shocked or outraged anymore at this point, as we’ve all come to accept it. Once again, the two parties refuse to compromise on a spending bill, and, once again, they threaten a government shutdown. As always, we’re stuck with either party driving their proverbial cars head on into one another hoping to see who wins this latest round of “chicken”. The only problem is if two teenagers did this, we’d say they were both idiots. If two political parties do this, whoever sticks it out the longest will be praised by their constituents… But getting off topic…

Politicians, in the true tradition of spewing out lots of buzzwords and platitudes they never intend on actually carrying out on their own, always love throwing out all this flowery talk about “bipartisanship” and “compromise” and all that other stuff. But when push comes to shove, it’s time to make like a plot of World War I No-Man’s Land, hunker down in your trench, and wait for someone on the other side to climb out to peg with machine gun fire. At first this was basic politician stuff. However, as it chronically begins to impact the citizenry, people are getting fed up. They’re wondering how these congressmen and congresswomen can drag the nation into a quagmire of gridlock and never decide on anything. Why we always have to deal with half-measures and stalling tactics, such as every time there’s a spending bill and all that ever ends up essentially happening is the can is “kicked down the road” a bit farther. The indecision genuinely does leave a negative impact, if nowhere else than economically, as the lack of stability leads to unease and anxiety on the market. Plus most people would agree that running a government a few months at a time is not the way to go. We wonder how we can end up with two houses of Congress stuffed to the gills with men and women who would prefer to let the nation go down the toilet than modify their views or have a little leeway.

Well, the truth of the matter is if we want to find the real person to blame, we should look no further than the nearest mirror.

It’s really the same story every time. It hasn’t changed in years, no matter how many times the media plasters it on the headlines. Ask the people in the country how they think Congress is doing. You’ll get an overwhelmingly negative response. The last Rasmussen poll said only a mere 7% of those sampled thought Congress was doing an excellent or even a good job. 93% thought they were only doing fair or poor…with most saying poor. This is nothing new overall although the actual numbers might be worse. However, what is definitely not new in any way, shape, or form is that if the same people are asked to rate their representatives or senators, they invariably say they’re doing a good or great job. And that is exactly why nothing ever changes. Constituents blind themselves, as people tend to do. If you think your representative is doing a good job, there’s only a 7% chance you’re right. Hence, what might be the smartest solution in the next election is for everyone to vote for the challenger rather than the incumbant. Sure, we’ll lose some good ones, but the far majority of the bad ones will be removed if the polls are any indication.

But why is Congress showing such disapproval? Is it because politicians always get worse? Did something make our average representative or senator much more terrible than they are now? Yes and no.

Let’s start with Political Science 101: the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Anyone who’s had even an introductory course of Political Science knows about this. For the rest of you, here’s a basic recap…

Two criminals (let’s call them prisoner A and B) who jointly committed a crime are taken into a police station and placed in separate rooms with separate interrogators. A good cop/bad cop routine goes through for both of them. The two prisoners are both told separately they have conclusive evidence indicating they committed the crime, and say that if they wish to save themselves, it’s best that they confess totally everything their partner did and the law will go easy on them in response. From the perspective of a prisoner A, this is how the options look:

Prisoner A stays quiet; Prisoner B stays quiet – Both prisoners get 3 years in prison

Prisoner A stays quiet; Prisoner B confesses – Prisoner A gets 10 years in prison, Prisoner B goes free

Prisoner A confesses; Prisoner B stays quiet – Prisoner A goes free, Prisoner B gets 10 years in prison

Prisoner A confesses; Prisoner B confesses – Both prisoners get 5 years in prison

Naturally, the options look the same from prisoner B’s perspective. So what will prisoner A choose? Logically, the only choice prisoner A can choose is to confess. If prisoner B stays quiet, then prisoner A will go free over getting 3 years in prison. If prisoner B talks, then prisoner A will get 5 years over 10 years in prison. It’s the only logical choice. Prisoner B will likely see things the same way.

But here’s the paradox…both ended up with a bad result. By choosing to only see the situation from their perspective, they ended up making a bad decision compared to what they could have gotten. Since both confessed, they both got 5 years, whereas if they had both stayed quiet, they would have only gotten 3. Part of the reason government structures, political parties, and committees exist is simply to try and avoid the Prisoner’s Dilemma from happening, but it’s still part and parcel of any political situation.

Now, let us return to our original discussion: why our representatives and senators always seem too stubborn, woefully inadequate, and ultimately unsatisfying.

And to keep from turning off either party, none of these words (Democrat, Republican, liberal, or conservative) will be used. Instead, to keep things neutral, let us just call them the Wolf party and the Fox party.

Ultimately, for all the polls, petitioners, letters, handshaking meetings, and whathaveyou, the only thing that truly impacts how a politician behaves is the votes cast on Election Day. People can be displeased, unhappy, angry, or even publicly irate in an open forum. They can hate a politician as much as they want…but none of it means anything so long as they still check that politician’s name on the ballot.

I was in a discussion with a friend who belonged to the Wolf party who discussed how displeased her party was with a certain candidate. She talked of how much he had let them down and ended up not being who they voted for, and how great their disappointment was. She did this knowing I was a member of the opposite ideology, possibly in an attempt to give me some encouragement that during next election season, it would mean better news for the Fox party. However, I was unmoved. Later, it occurred to me to ask her a simple question: “Do you really think that one of those people are going to vote for a Fox in the next election as opposed to a Wolf?”

The truth of the matter is, perhaps due to the communication revolution and the ease with which pundits and media sensationalism can surround us, or maybe just a side effect of modern times, people are more polarized than ever. In fact, the media and pundits want us to be even more polarized. There is no such thing as a decision that a Wolf or a Fox can make that both Wolves and Foxes can appreciate. A news report may say something such as: “This Wolf candidate did this today.” And someone voting for a Fox can look at it and say: “Hmm…well, I might have done it a tad bit differently, but it’s not bad. Seems to be a fair call. Might even work out pretty well.”

“NO!” Says the media and the pundit. “That decision was horrible! It was a nightmare! It was the worst decision ever made! It was intended to destroy the country! It’s indicative of them trying to burn down your house and eat your children! It’s a nightmare! Hate it more than you hate Hell itself!”

In truth, the decision was something small and innocuous. But that’s not good enough. The media and pundits have to make it look horrible and the biggest thing to hit the country in years. Because outrage sells a lot more than people deciding it wasn’t worth getting worked up over. Discord is necessary to fuel them, because people don’t care to watch the news or listen to pundits when they think things are going alright.

The end result? It doesn’t matter if a Fox had Hannibal Lecter for their candidate and the Wolves had Saint Francis of Assisi. The Fox would find some reason to believe by Election Day that Lecter would likely work out fine as a congressman or even a President and Saint Francis would manage to kill half of the country. The same works for the other side. It’s all or nothing. One side or the other. Voters are so worked up nowadays that they think to vote for a candidate in the opposite party is the same taking a machine gun and mowing down the children of everyone in their same district, that somehow they’ll bring death upon themselves and everyone else even if their own candidate has been sending things into Hell in a handbasket. No matter how bad their own candidate is doing, the idea is that voting for the other guy/gal would always be 100 times worse.

Politicians are well aware of this fact and have been for some time. Hence, even if they try to avoid the Prisoner’s Dilemma among themselves, they can’t avoid the end effect from their constituents.

Let’s say a Fox brings forth an idea that’s fairly controversial for a Wolf in Congress. It’s far-reaching legislation with a great deal of impact. Parts of it might be salvageable or can be modified to be more pleasing to the Wolf, some parts need to be cut to be bearable, and some parts are fine as-is. It will be difficult, but a compromise can be reached. Therefore, the Wolf has two options. The Wolf can either try to forge a compromise and lose out on some of the things they want in exchange for others, or they can stand their ground and shoot the whole thing down, refusing to compromise at all.

Always, the Wolf will choose the second option.

If the Wolf goes along with it, ultimately the Fox will get all of the credit for any good it does. History never remembers a politician for “signing off” on an important piece of legislation…only the people who propose it or mastermind it. However, voters, in particular the Wolf’s consituents, will know that. And at least some of them will be so polarized that they will accuse the Wolf of betraying his party or his values and will vote for a more “Wolfish” candidate in the next primaries.

If the Wolf doesn’t go along with it, however, there may be panic. There may be damage to the economy and the nation. There may be outrage. There may be people yelling and screaming and enraged at the stubbornness of the Wolf and how much his actions caused trouble for people and the country. But…in the end, the constituents will still vote for him at Election Day, because he proved himself to be a “true Wolf” and his constituents believe voting for a Fox would make things far worse.

So what’s the moral of this story? The only thing a politician sees, feels, and responds to is votes. If it doesn’t get a politician more votes, it’s irrelevant no matter how strongly worded or even negative to everyone it is. And, unfortunately, the people of this country have been conditioned so that they wouldn’t have it any other way. We want a nation completely polarized where we all believe: “It’s my way or the highway.” Now that the politicians give us what we want, we shouldn’t complain about it unless we get serious about rewarding politicians for compromise.

Until that day comes, we probably need to look forward to threats of government shutdown similar to “annoying houseguests that come around every six months”.