In The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, social critic and historical cultural theorist Christopher Lasch wrote:
In real life, as opposed to pluralist fantasy, every moral and cultural choice of any consequence rules out a whole series of other choices. In an age of images and ideology, however, the difference between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly elusive.
In his work, Lasch emphasized the importance of understanding the social and psychological dynamics that shape political behavior, rather than reducing politics to a mere exercise in rational calculation, and it can be inferred from his work how he might view the Nash-type game theorization of American electoral politics and its implications for coalitions with minor parties. In a typical multi-party system, where for example there is a major liberal and major conservative party, a third minor party, while never constituting the party of the elected government, becomes the decisive constituency in forming a government of one of the major parties– a coalition built on adopting some of the positions (or firm commitment to, for example) of a far-left faction, for example, in exchange for support for a typically non-committal major party slate on the same issue, thereby adding to the majority. In American political culture, the exchange is meant to be taken as a loss for the minor party in service of a greater good (electing an apparently self-evidently better major party, lest the other major party win, in which case the minor party helped elect them by not helping elect the party they were invited to enjoin without asserting any kind of a compromise– essentially a hostile takeover of the minor party in exchange for a vague notion of embodying belief, "abstract principles" as the liberal trope goes in the case of leftists abstaining from Democratic Party politics, in reference to values that are anything but abstract, that routinely this behavior is meant to make the Democrats take a position on in the first place). This is an example of not a cooperative coalition, but hostage-taking and it's completely permeated American political culture; Lasch's likely position on this, and the implications for the sort of gamification done my political wonks (and game theorists amongst them) in flattening discourse and consolidating power upward away from populist influence but also a functional democracy, by all major parties, will be discussed in more detail, as the logic of such a position does not hold up to scrutiny when used even internally against itself.
The Nash equilibrium, as I've written about before, is a concept in game theory that describes a situation in which no player can improve their outcome by changing their strategy. Given the strategies of the other players (in this case, candidates and party functionaries dictating voter behavior, not the voter behavior itself), in the context of American electoral politics, a Nash-type theorist might argue that minor parties must compromise their principles in order to form coalitions with major parties, since the major parties hold more power and can dictate the terms of the alliance; a view that assumes a given set of political actors are rational agents seeking to maximize self-interest. In such a scenario, this means that compromise is necessary for any successful coalition-building.
However, from the perspective of a dialectical materialist, someone concerned with measuring and understanding actual material reality, and not a metaphysical representation of same that can be manipulated by redefinition of terms and conditional law on participation, such a view overlooks the complex interplay of social and psychological forces that shape political behavior; this view posits that social reality is shaped by the contradictions and conflicts that arise between different social classes, that these conflicts can only be resolved through dialetical reasoning of the variety set of material conditions at a given time, in order to propel social cohesion further (in the case of a late-capitalist western liberal democracy, from stagnation driven by postmodernist thought to consolidate and upsurge power, to outright revolt). From this view, minor parties play a crucial role in building progressive platforms and challenging the hegemony of dominant political forces, which is the basis upon which American third parties represent themselves, not so much in supplication to, but rather to be heard by mainstream parties seeking to coalition (i.e. socialism never being on the ballot in the US, but socialist parties abound organizing locally to influence political thought on key issues that prove decisive in American elections– the effect of which has been dampened by bipartisan commitment to obscuring campaign finance to ensure the donor and lobbyist class remain the arbiter of electoral function and outcome, but this is a separate topic when discussing the mechanics of politics, but surely not the relevance, as this is the clearer material picture of how American elections function today rather than in theory). Rather than compromising their principles, minor parties would, by their own representation and their legal right to exist (not to mention the fact that their membership constitutes legitimacy in a democratic system), to use any such created leverage to advocate for the inclusion policies that benefit marginalized groups and challenge the status quo in the slate of an apparently progressive party that has, to date, refused to embody said values.
From the perspective of a Lasch-type psychology, this Nash-type theorization of American electoral politics is, specifically, problematic: chiefly, gamification of the sort practiced by the political analyst and elections monitoring class in the west reduces political behavior to an exercise in rational calculation, again, ignoring the role of affective and emotional factors in shaping political preferences. Lasch argued that the decline of community and the rise of individualism in modern society had led to a crisis of identity and a loss of meaning, which in turn fueled political polarization and extremism. From this perspective, minor parties play an objectively crucial role in building communities of resistance and offering alternative visions of the good life, rather than simply engaging in strategic calculations, if we are to believe the United States has a functioning democracy that is, first, working correctly (it has not– there hasn't been a free election since 1980 and a meaningfully democratic one since 1956), and second, becoming more accessible (it is not) and democratic through the election of Democrats (it isn't).
The Nash-type theorization of American electoral politics is presupposed to exist on a narrow and reductionist view of political behavior; it is inclined to encourage a perception that, and I cannot stress this enough, ignores the complex social and psychological forces that shape political preferences and actions. From the perspective of critical theory, the voice of dialectical materialist thought in this instance, it is important to recognize the role of minor parties (and by extension populist and grassroots organization sentiment– the demonstrable voice of working class minorities and various intersections of identity with poverty in the United States) in building progressive platforms and challenging dominant political hegemonic thought, rather than the accepted view of these behaviors and the holds of them as strategic calculators who must compromise their principles in order to gain power. By taking a more nuanced and holistic view of political behavior, we can better understand the complex dynamics of coalition-building and the role of minor parties in shaping the (lapsed, at best, and completely failed, at present) theory of American democracy.
Here is a modern example that is often floated as an explanation of one tendency, but when viewed from both perspectives, supported this latter, critical theory tendency:
The 2000 presidential election in the United States is a prime example of the dynamics of coalition-building and the role of minor parties in American politics. In this election, Ralph Nader ran as the candidate of the Green Party, advocating for progressive policies such as environmental protection and campaign finance reform. As the election drew closer, Nader offered to drop out of the race if Al Gore and the Democratic Party would adopt key elements of his platform.
From the perspective of a Nash-type game to represent the possible outcomes before election day that might shape the outcome of the election itself, Nader's offer can be argued as the cooperative move, as it is motivated by and is objectively an action that (all other motivations aside) presents a compromise that results in building a coalition with the Democratic Party in order to achieve shared policy goals while allowing candidate Gore to ascend to the presidency. The payoff matrix for this scenario might look something like this:
|Gore Rejects Nader's Offer||Gore Accepts Nader's Offer|
|Nader Drops Out||1, 1||3, 0|
|Nader Stays In||0, 3||2, 2|
In this matrix, the first number in each cell represents the payoff for Nader, and the second number represents the payoff for Gore. A payoff of 1 represents the worst possible outcome, while a payoff of 3 represents the best possible outcome. If Gore rejects Nader's offer and Nader drops out, both parties receive a payoff of 1, since neither of them achieves their policy goals (essentially a rejection of the outcome where Gore is forced to commit to a position that Nader's candidacy asserts Gore has, either, failed or refused to address sufficiently for a Party claiming to embody this view; and a rejection of the one where likewise Nader is forced to trust that the Democrats would keep their word in exchange for his dropping out of the race, effectively losing control of that policy position's implementation, if Gore is elected). If Gore accepts Nader's offer and Nader drops out, Nader receives a payoff of 0 (since he doesn't get elected, and theoretically loses domain over the policy in contention), but Gore receives a payoff of 3, since he is able to adopt key elements of Nader's platform (a suboptimal outcome for Nader, as Gore would likely adapt said policy along mainstream party lines, but the policy is formally adopted as a priority, which is still a payoff) and win the election. If Nader stays in the race and Gore rejects his offer, Nader receives a payoff of 3 (since he gets to run for president, thereby stressing the validity of the call for Gore and the Democrats to take concrete, strong positions on policy they neglect for the sake of the donor/lobby class), but Gore receives a payoff of 0, since he doesn't win the election. If both Nader and Gore remain in the race, both parties receive a payoff of 2, since neither of them achieves their policy goals, but neither of them loses completely.
The dynamic at play here is simple, when you look past the flattening of political culture into gamification. So far, we see that game theory still doesn't support the notion of Nader's inherent incorrectness, as this wonk class typically asserts it caused the outcome of the election, rather than being one of many possibilities that could have changed the outcome, while discarding the human and material reasons that change would have occurred. The real question is why this schism in this apparently abstract distinction between apparently compatible constituencies exists; it's because that compatibility is inherently non-existent and mainstream liberal thought has always regarded it's left-side pressure as more dangerous to its views (its hold on centralized corporatized power, the shared class interest with the right) than an outright loss to its political opponents. The scenario we are discussing here of demanding that third parties (or simply factions within a larger party apparatus that represent ideological schism, such as socialists within the UK Labour Party) accede to coalition with the Democrats in the US without receiving any policy concessions in order to prevent a worse outcome can be compared to two historical precedents: the Blair-era New Labour movement's preference for a Tory victory over gains by socialists within the Labour Party, and the behavior of the Social Democrats in Weimar Germany favoring collusion with the NSDAP over acceding any coalition with the communists in Bavaria.
In both cases, the liberal parties favored losses to their political opponents rather than acceding power to left-wing factions within their own parties or in coalition. This behavior reflects a similar disregard for the common good and a willingness to prioritize short-term political gain over long-term policy goals. It also highlights the tension that can arise between different factions within political parties, particularly when those factions represent divergent values or interests. The Blair-era New Labour movement's preference for a Tory victory over gains by socialists within the Labour Party reflects a similar dynamic to the demand for third parties to accede to coalition without receiving policy concessions. In both cases, the dominant faction within the party prioritized its own power and influence over the needs and desires of other factions within the party. This behavior reflects a deep-seated cynicism and opportunism that Lasch identified as endemic to modern politics. With even more devastating material and human costs, not to mention the cost humanity's collective soul, the behavior of the Social Democrats in Weimar Germany reflects a similar disregard for the common good and a willingness to prioritize short-term political gain (and gain for that of the elite class with whom their opponents had shared class interests) over long-term policy goals. The Social Democrats were unwilling to form a coalition with the communists in Bavaria, even though doing so might have prevented the rise of the NSDAP (the Nazi Party, as it is commonly termed) and the subsequent collapse of the Weimar Republic into what eventually became the Third Reich.
This behavior on the part of mainstream major liberal parties reflects a deep-seated cynicism and opportunism that Lasch identified as endemic to modern politics; the liberal parties favored losses to their political opponents over acceding power to left-wing factions they claimed to represent to a point where these factions should not only not exist, but should not make further demands over what is self-evidently lacking in formal policy or ideological rigor. This represents a liberalized failure of leadership; a betrayal of the fundamental principles of democracy. Instead of playing games of strategy and manipulation, as a Nash-type theorist applying game theory to electoral politics would want to attempt to do to excise human behaviors such as innate empathy for others, Lasch believed continuous with a Rawslian love of mankind, that politicians in an idealized democratic system (which, again, is not idealistic to desire as liberals also claim this exists presently– it does not- and must be protected– which this behavior does not-) should focus on genuine good faith coalitions around shared values and principles, and working towards the common good through honest and open dialogue, not rhetorical misdirection and state violence against the public who would not be served by this kind of governance, but is subjected to it nonetheless.
Returning to the exercise at hand, the 2000 election, with this crucial context of the reality of the ideological distinction, let's look at how this is gamed out, an exercise liberals claim demonstrates the self-evidently wrong nature of Nader (and all third parties') candidacy:
Using the lambda calculus, we can express the Nash equilibrium of this game as follows:
(λx.λy.((x < 3) ∧ (y < 3))) (0) (3)
This expression checks whether the payoff for Nader and Gore in the Nash equilibrium is less than 3. If both payoffs are less than 3, then the Nash equilibrium has been reached (this is the outcome where Gore accepts accountability for the vacant policy, and Nader drops out to endorse Gore and cosign his adoption of the policy into the platform).
A programmatic example of this in Python (for the sake of readability) where the above matrix of payoffs is ingested:
def nash_eq(payoffs): for row in payoffs: for col in row: if col > payoffs[row.index(row)][payoffs[row.index(row)].index(col)]: return False return True payoffs = [[1, 1], [0, 3], [3, 0], [2, 2]] print(nash_eq(payoffs))
This code, like the above expression, checks whether the Nash equilibrium of the game is reached by iterating through the payoffs matrix and comparing each element to the corresponding element in the same row and column. If the current element is greater than either of these elements, the Nash equilibrium has not been reached, and the code returns
False. If all elements in the matrix satisfy this condition, the Nash equilibrium has been reached, and the code returns
True. I am reiterating this to demonstrate an important point: When viewed purely as code, these are outcomes, devoid of human factor, emotional or political context for why these outcomes are condititioned the way they are, and when only viewed that way, not what Nash intended, ignoring the substance of the payoff matrix's constitution and implications that precede (you can't predict future behavior, just determine probabilities) these outcome's predicate conditions, you can make this seem as abstract a distinction as you want and make the equilibrium seem undesireable when it is the more democratic outcome than what actually happened that mainstream liberal thought still regards as the most just even if it had the most harmful outcome, which they, not Nader, caused by playing by definition a hostile, non-cooperative strategy electorally– the sanitization of human factors from their strategy protects their reasoning but not their constituents from its outcomes.
From the perspective of Lasch-type psychology, the rejection of Nader's offer by Gore and the Democratic Party can, again, be positioned logically (and factually, as it turns out from historical precedent, all other possibilities having demonstrably lower probabilities as cause) as a non-cooperative, if not outright hostile, move, motivated by a desire to maintain their own power and influence. Lasch argued that modern politics was characterized by a deep sense of cynicism and opportunism, in which politicians were more demonstrably (at the time and in past precedent, and as the future from there until the present has bore out) interested in electoral wins and consolidating their own power than in advancing the common good, materially or culturally or even nominally for the vulnerable populations they claimed to represent while rejecting all manner of concrete proposal from minor parties and left factions within. In this view, Gore's rejection of Nader's offer can be only be interpreted as a manifestation of this cynical mindset, in which short-term political gain (the support of the corporatist superstructure that underlies all bipartisanship– an objective refusal to do one's job in a partisan electoral decision making process) was prioritized over long-term policy goals. Lasch argued that this postmodernist-infused approach to justice through electoral politics was endemic to modern society, and that it reflected a deep-seated alienation from authentic human values and aspirations. From this perspective, the outcome of the 2000 election, with its controversial result and divisive aftermath, can be seen as a tragic reflection of the dysfunction and cynicism that pervaded American politics at the time, and into the present day– in this case, it resulted in the second time in 20 years that the Supreme Court was engaging in deciding how democracy would function and that it was best functioning further from the apparatus of voting and more toward that of corporate and elitist power centers, a practice it would repeat in 2012, and again in 2022, with more and more overt aggression into the domain that used to be that of the voting public, at least in theory.
Lasch might view, in light of all of this context, the demand for third parties and activist groups within major parties to accede to a coalition with the Democrats, in this case, without receiving any policy concessions as a classic example of a Nash-type game in which the dominant strategy is non-cooperation, and hostility toward anyone who questions the mission of the non-concession behavior of the Democrats; this both neutralizes radical sentiment, but allows the Party to claim to represent radical action in matters of social and economic justice while dampening (often extinguishing) the vehicles for policy that might do so, while actively moving rightward in coalition with moderates and conservatives. In this scenario, the Democrats are essentially saying that they have nothing to offer the third party in terms of policy concessions, and that their only motivation for forming a coalition is to prevent a worse outcome, which they are not willing to specify. From a Nash perspective, this is a non-cooperative move, as the Democrats are not offering any incentive for the third party to cooperate with them, while demanding that they do so anyway in the name of combatting fascism, which, given the cooperation of the Democrats with elements like, for example, the Bush-administration staffer-run Lincoln Project as a prime example of this weaponization against democratic sentiment; Democrats' acceptance of Bush-administration Republicans and neoconservatism more broadly into their coalition represents a manifestation of the sort of behavior Lasch (correctly) would have (and the comptemporary left has vocally) been critical of. This behavior reflects a deep-seated cynicism and opportunism of the sort Lasch identified as endemic; this acceptance reflects a willingness to compromise on fundamental values and principles in the name of political expediency, while rejecting materially and ideologically those values and principles as significant portions of their politics, willing to sacrifice the ability to act on them. For example, the Nader effect on 2000 was so reprehensible to these same policymakers because it elected George W. Bush, but Bush was called upon to endorse the 2020 version of the Democratic Party as a sign of moral superiority in an election with two candidates distinguisible between each other because of a distinction between self-interested corporatist autocracy (Trump) and cartel-motivated corporatist autocracy (Biden), and the cultural effect was staggering– apologia for the Iraq War chief among them (which was the basis for the Kerry candidacy in 2004, and the Obama candidacy in 2008– in which case, they're intending to play all sides as the moral better of whomever is expedient that day, Nader was clearly never the problem for their ideology).
This behavior reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of politics and the role of political parties to suggest this was done in good faith. One commited to democracy as a principle, even in a constituent constitutional republic, believes that political parties should represent the interests and values of their constituents, and that they should work towards the common good through honest and open dialogue, as Lasch might characterize a key tenet as being. By accepting the views of their political opponents, ones whose holding of those beliefs was previously held as self-evidently the basis for their running a candidate againt them, the Democrats were betraying this fundamental principle of democratic politics. Self-evidently, again, this behavior reflects a disregard for the needs and desires of their own constituents, derelict of the views of those who had elected them and were failing to represent their interests. This behavior is not only morally problematic, but it is also politically short-sighted, as it risks alienating their own base and undermining their long-term political viability, and we now see this bearing out in tighter and tighter elections where all Democrats are left to run on is not being the Republican, even if in a cycle from now, that Republican could be a key ally (a la Bush, and now even Trump's own Vice President, Mike Pence) for the Democratic electoral machine against the villain of the week, from whom their own interests and motivations are not materially distinct from the perspective of the public.
This is, to be clear one more time, a deep-seated cynicism and opportunism that is antithetical to the values of democratic politics, and describes nothing short of an ongoing state of legitimacy in crisis.
Lasch would likely view this kind of political maneuvering as a symptom of the larger problem of political cynicism and opportunism that he saw as endemic to modern society, put in the parlance you might be more familiar with from other analysis done here and contemporaneously, this is positively postmodern in nature. A materialist, someone concerned with the mechanics and motivations and holistic view of the world around them, would argue that the Democrats' refusal to take a clear position on policy and their insistence on demanding the support of third parties without offering any concessions reflected a deep-seated disregard for, once again, community and cultural cohesion of a public living under a regime of bankrupted social justice and a willingness to prioritize short-term political gain over long-term policy goals that might conceivably do anything about it.
The reality is that the commitment of the American political class to play games, from the media to the pundits to the wonks to party officials themselves, has backed the voting public into a corner. Again, their own logic, in this case game theory, does not support their view that human factors don't explain political motivation. It is important to note that a Nash equilibrium represents a state in which no player has any incentive to unilaterally change their strategy, given the strategies chosen by all the other players. However, because in this scenario the voting public is disempowered, the public, in the system as it exists today, cannot make any strategic choices. Therefore, we can construct a simplified two-player game in which the only players are the bipartisan superstructure committed to corporatist autocracy and a hypothetical external force that might disrupt the equilibrium.
One possible payoff matrix for this scenario could be, in a "game" (material reality) between the public and the bipartisan corporatist autocracy:
|Superstructure Resists||Superstructure Relents|
|Disrupt||(2, 0)||(0, 1)|
|Do Not Disrupt||(0, 0)||(1, 1)|
In this matrix, the first number in each cell represents the payoff to the bipartisan superstructure, and the second number represents the payoff to the hypothetical external force (the voting public no longer empowered to make decisions democratically). The two possible actions of the external force are to "Disrupt" the status quo, or to "Do Not Disrupt" the status quo. The two possible actions of the superstructure are to "Resist" any disruption, or to "Relent" and allow some changes to the status quo.
If the external force chooses to "Disrupt" the status quo and the superstructure chooses to "Resist," the superstructure receives a larger payoff of 2, representing their ability to maintain their power and control. The external force receives a payoff of 0, representing their inability to effect change.
If the external force chooses to "Disrupt" the status quo and the superstructure chooses to "Relent," the superstructure receives a smaller payoff of 1, representing their loss of some control. The external force receives a payoff of 1, representing their success in effecting change.
If the external force chooses to "Do Not Disrupt" the status quo, the superstructure receives a payoff of 0, representing their ability to maintain their power and control. The external force also receives a payoff of 0, as they are unable to effect any change. In this scenario, the Nash equilibrium is for the external force to "Do Not Disrupt" the status quo and for the superstructure to "Resist" any disruption. Neither player has any incentive to change their strategy unilaterally, as any change would result in a lower payoff for them. However, it is important to note that this equilibrium represents a deeply undemocratic state of affairs in which the interests of the voting public are completely ignored.
It also ignores, at its core, something fundamental to the history of social and economic injustice, the capacity for the bend to reach a point of break:
In this context, "Disrupt" refers to the act of challenging and destabilizing the status quo of the current political and economic system, which is seen as favoring the interests of the ruling class over those of the general public. The J-curve of rising expectations and revolutionary political theory, as understood by Marx, posits that as people's expectations rise and they become increasingly dissatisfied with the existing system, they may become more likely to engage in disruptive behaviors, such as protests, strikes, and other forms of direct action, in order to push for systemic change. The idea is that the greater the disparity between people's expectations and their actual experiences, the greater the potential for revolutionary action. In this context, disrupting the current political and economic system is seen as a necessary step in achieving meaningful change and creating a more equitable society. A breaking of the tolerances would mean, from the perspective of Lasch, such a revolutionary moment would require a fundamental reimagining of society and politics, one that rejects the corporatist autocracy of the current superstructure and instead prioritizes the needs and desires of the people as an organized, coherent body of working class solidarity. This may involve a rejection of the two-party system and the formation of new political alliances or parties that are truly representative of the people, but realistically requires a rejection of electoralism as it exists today, in favor of not anarchy, but directed democratic centralization of economic and social control by the public.
Nash-type theorists would still, despite the flattening of the contemporary political culture of its tools and frames of analysis, view the breaking of the J-curve tolerances as a potential shift in the equilibrium of the game, where new strategies and coalitions must be formed in order to achieve the desired outcomes, of the sort discussed above; it may be difficult for new strategies to emerge and for coalitions to be formed without significant risks to individual safety and well-being, but that is what would be required to combat the rational destruction of the public's safety and well-being by technocrats seeking to launder the autocracy of corporatism by languishing in the myth that American electoralism offers any solutions in this regard.