Summary of “It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics”

Political science professor David Faris has just published a new book: It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. The author begins by noting the many problems plaguing American politics today: we live in an era in which a tiny majority of folks in sparsely populated states have a wildly disproportionate impact on policy, when supreme court seats are stolen, when voting is suppressed, when a constitution built for the 18th century is considered sacred for the 21st, etc. It is an ugly time and Democrats must remain united until they can regain power. Then they must fight dirty as the Republicans have been doing for the last twenty years to avoid a total takeover of society by the plutocrats.

Here are a few of the perfectly legal steps that Faris suggests Democrats could take if they win Congress and the Presidency in 2020. They would require only that Congress pass laws and wouldn’t need any constitutional amendments.

  • Abolish the filibuster so any bill can pass the Senate with 50 votes and the veep
  • Make D.C. a state, which would add two black Democratic senators to the Senate
  • Make Puerto Rico a state, which would add two Latino Democrats to the Senate
  • Break California into multiple states to add yet more Democrats to the Senate
  • Expand the Supreme Court to 11 (or more) justices, and have the president appoint 40-year-olds

They could then reform voting rights by:

  • requiring a 2-week period of early voting from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day
  • making make pre-registration of 17-year-olds legal nationwide
  • forbidding states from passing voter-ID laws or imposing other non-Constitutional voting requirements
  • making it a federal crime to intimidate voters
  • making Election Day a national holiday for federal employees (and others)
  • fighting gerrymandering by doubling the size of the House (and having multimember districts with proportional representation.)

While there is much to be said about this great new book let me bring my own background in game theory to the issue. For our purposes, we need only a brief understanding of the prisoner’s dilemma. A prisoner’s dilemma is an interactive situation in which it is better for all to cooperate rather than for no one to do so, yet it is best for each not to cooperate, regardless of what the others do. (I’ve explained this in detail below.)

What this means in layperson’s terms is that if your opponent plays dirty and you play nice you get steamrolled, you become a sucker. In this case, you have no choice but to fight fire with fire or you will be dominated. Ideally, you would all cooperate with each other. (You allow each other a Supreme Court seat when the President is of your party; you don’t threaten the world economy by not raising the debt ceiling, you don’t abuse the filibuster, etc.) But if the other side violates the norms of governing you either fight back or you will be dominated.

Of course the bad thing about all this is that it will lead to retailation from your opponents. You will then be in a state of war with each other and everyone will do worse, unless one side wins and dominates the other. This is how I see it all unfolding.


Addendum – I did graduate work and published multiple peer-reviewed articles on game theory. Here is a more detailed summary of game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma.

 Game Theory

For our purposes, a game is an interactive situation in which individuals, called players, choose strategies to deal with each other in attempting to maximize their individual utility. There are several ways of distinguishing games including: 1) in respect to the number of players involved; 2) in respect to the number of repetitions of play; 3) in respect of the order of the various player’s preferences over the same outcomes. On the one extreme are games of pure conflict, so-called zero-sum games, in which players have completely opposing interests over possible outcomes. On the other extreme are games of pure harmony, so-called games of coordination. In the middle are games involving both conflict and harmony in respect of others. It is one particular game that interests us most, since it describes the situation in Hobbes’ state of nature, and is the central problem in contractarian moral theory.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The prisoner’s dilemma is one of the most widely debated situations in game theory. The story has implications for a variety of human interactive situations. A prisoner’s dilemma is an interactive situation in which it is better for all to cooperate rather than for no one to do so, yet it is best for each not to cooperate, regardless of what the others do.

In the classic story, two prisoners have committed a serious crime but all of the evidence necessary to convict them is not admissible in court. Both prisoners are held separately and are unable to communicate. The prisoners are called separately by the authorities and each offered the same proposition. Confess and if your partner does not, you will be convicted of a lesser crime and serve one year in jail while the unrepentant prisoner will be convicted of a more serious crime and serve ten years. If you do not confess and your partner does, then it is you who will be convicted of the more serious crime and your partner of the lesser crime. Should neither of you confess the penalty will be two years for each of you, but should both of you confess the penalty will be five years. In the following matrix, you are the row chooser and your partner the column chooser. The first number in each parenthesis represents the “payoff” for you in years in prison, the second number your partner’s years. Let us assume each player prefers the least number of years in prison possible. In matrix form, the situation looks like this:

                                                                                                                                Prisoner 2

    Confess  Don’t Confess
 Prisoner 1 Confess (5, 5) (1, 10)
Don’t Confess (10, 1) (2, 2)

So you reason as follows: If your partner confesses, you had better confess because if you don’t you will get 10 years rather than 5. If your partner doesn’t confess, again you should confess because you will only get 1 year rather than 2 for not confessing. So no matter what your partner does, you ought to confess. The reasoning is the same for your partner. The problem is that when both confess the outcome is worse for both than if neither confessed. You both could have done better, and neither of you worse, if you had not confessed! You might have made an agreement not to confess but this would not solve the problem. The reason is this: although agreeing not to confess is rational, compliance is surely not rational!

The prisoner’s dilemma describes the situation that humans found themselves in in Hobbes’ state of nature. If the prisoners cooperate, they both do better; if they do not cooperate, they both do worse. But both have a good reason not to cooperate; they are not sure the other will! We can only escape this dilemma, Hobbes maintained, by installing a coercive power that makes us comply with our agreements (contracts). Others, like the contemporary philosopher David Gauthier, argue for the rationality of voluntary non-coerced cooperation and compliance with agreements given the costs to each of us of enforcement agencies. Gauthier advocates that we accept “morals by agreement.”

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6 thoughts on “Summary of “It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics”

  1. John, the premise of this game is utilitarian gain: how to minimise my loss or maximise my gain in the material world in which I live.

    But if I only live in the world but are not being of it, I can have a different premise.

    That is moral integrity, irrespective of its worldly outcome; its utilitarian ‘power’ cost.

    I may renounce such power approach altogether and focus on moral integrity; on a spiritual no-loser approach as my absolute priority.

    Even if I am killed for it, I am not a sucker, because I demonstrated my commitment to moral integrity by refusing to play dirty, no matter what.

    So instead of power, love becomes the ultimate criterion for my choices.

    Love that aims for a moral win-win situation.
    The person who runs me over only wins on the material plane.

    But perhaps all win on the spiritual plane if I demonstrate that moral integrity trumps for me all dirty play no matter what earthly costs it may have.

    Only by incremental inner transformation of individuals in the long run to making the common good, that is the moral win-win basis, the criterion for the governing way of living, that perhaps we would move in the direction of a fairer and more inclusive society.

    The ‘law’, coercive power, is a cop-out which can only perpetuate oppression.

    It is the development of inner integrity of as many individuals as possible which is the means, no matter what others do and how much I may suffer for it in this world, to the end of development of a society, a voluntary association of human beings, where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

    Where morally people serve the self and the others and spiritually there is a seamless reconciliation of the self-interest vs the others’ interest.

    The conflict scenario is the perennial worldly dilemma in the material world of scarcity without the spiritual world of abundant love being infused into it as its basis.

    The aim is a one for all and all for one approach to life.

    To maximise living for unconditional loving.

    This requires me to love not fight someone who sees me as his/her enemy and for me not to see that person as my enemy but my alter ego.

    I do not try to win over the person but maybe try to win both of us over to the common good by trying to live for it.

    I can live or die for it even if the other refuses.
    In this scenario the aim is a perpetual movement towards maximising unconditional love in society even if it can only remain an impossible dream on a material level.

    The aim changes from wanting power to renouncing it and wanting to serve both me and the others.

    The movement is everything, the end is nothing. The no thing of love.

  2. appreciate your comments. One problem is that many people have suffered and will to suffer unnecessarily in America if the Republicans maintain their political power. I wonder what my other readers think about this.

  3. I worry about an ever-more brittle two-party system, where each side becomes defined by its attempts to “punish” the other side.
    This visciousness might be the new status quo, until the next Great Recession (with overburdened public employee pensions being a plausible spark). What new order comes out the other side of that will probably be largely luck.

  4. Timely news: DNC suing Trump campaign, claiming treasonous behavior vis-a-vis Russian government.
    That could easily backfire in the upcoming midterms, if voters perceive the Dems overreaching and persecuting Trump. They better have a solid case.

  5. Permanent one party rule always ends badly. I know you want your team to win forever. But you have to ask yourself, will my party look the same in 100 years as it does now? If you are unsure of the answer, ask yourself how your party USED to look 50 years ago.

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