We often ideally think that democracy is about taking the political equality of all citizens seriously. It’s about giving them an equal voice and vote, encouraging them to participate, allowing their views to be fairly represented, and facilitating an open and respectful dialogue in the search for the best solutions to the collective problems of society.
In reality, democratic politics are not that pretty. “Adversarial” might not be the first word that pops into our minds when we think of democracy in the US, but maybe it should be. The electoral system in the United States is fundamentally adversarial in nature: parties and candidates are encouraged to play to win.
As citizens in a constitutional republic, every American has one equal vote to elect representatives to the government in each electoral cycle. Elections pit candidates against each other in a competition for power. Almost all the offices of government, from Congress to the Presidency, are elected within this adversarial framework which requires them to compete against other candidates in order to gain or hold their jobs. Although most people don’t want to think of electoral politics as a game, a game is precisely what electoral politics looks like, except the prize for winning is a whole lot bigger than a ring or a trophy—it is power.
This is the first of a series of posts in which I will explore different angles of thinking about democratic politics as a game: one that is heavily regulated to help it achieve certain desired ends, and one that demands a degree of “good sportsmanship” from the players, to be sure. The open question at this stage is whether this way of “framing” democratic politics will help us evaluate and analyze both normative and empirical questions about democracy more clearly and effectively.
Why do we have this adversarial system of elections? What non-adversarial alternatives might there be? Is there value, moral or otherwise, inherent in this system; or is it justified entirely by the ends it might promote? Then there are more specific questions of function—if the system really is like a game, what are the rules that govern how it is played or ought to be played? What constitutes fair versus foul play? Who are the referees, what powers ought they be given, and how do we ensure their impartiality? These are just a few questions that I hope to address in later posts.