Zero sum politics

A_Waterloo_Dogs_Playing_PokerIs politics a zero sum game? Poker is a zero sum game. The points are dollars and the game creates no new dollars. If you win money you have to win it from one of the other players. Every dollar that you gain is one lost to another player. The sum of the dollars awarded from any hand is therefore zero. But what about politics? If two players make a deal is anything gained by one side necessarily lost to the other?

The deal struck to avert the so-called fiscal cliff would seem to be a perfect example of a deal that should not have been. Without a deal tax rates would automatically rise and spending would automatically be cut. Republicans did not want the former and Democrats did not want the latter. Furthermore, most people agreed that a fiscal contraction so sharp would be bad for the still fragile economy. Even those Democrats who wanted taxes to rise did not want them to rise that much, for that many, all at once.

Of course, this being Congress, the threat of fiscal tightening was not hanging equally over American taxpayers and congressional projects. Taxes would have risen by almost 20% while spending would have been cut by just one quarter of one percent. This is why Republicans were in a weak negotiating position. The private sector was under much more threat than the government unions which bankroll the Democrats. 

Furthermore, the president was advocating a plan which averted the tax rise for virtually all taxpayers, leaving only the richest paying more. Republicans were left in the awkward position of opposing a tax rise which would only apply to two percent of the population with the alternative being a tax rise for everyone. 

The result was inevitable. The president got nearly everything he wanted and the Republican-controlled House got almost nothing, except that a worse catastrophe was averted. Republicans could hardly vote down a bill providing relief for 98% of people just because they would have preferred one which provided relief to all. This was a game of chicken they could never win.

The president therefore has every reason to gloat in nakedly partisan terms. He has every reason to gather supporters around him and crack jokes about how it was impossible to make reasonable deals with Congress. He has every reason to engage in school yard chants about how he won and Congress lost.

The trouble is, he did this on New Year’s Eve, before the vote which ultimately averted the cliff. How’s this for bipartisanship: 

“Keep in mind that just last month Republicans in Congress said they would never agree to raise tax rates on the wealthiest Americans. Obviously, the agreement that’s currently discussed would raise those rates, and raise them permanently.”

In other words, “I won, you lost. If you agree to this deal, you will have gotten nothing”. Why would the president want to say that before the deal was agreed? If the deal had collapsed and America had gone over the cliff he would have been in an even stronger negotiating position. Higher taxes would have been in place and it would be a matter of how much they were cut. As it is, Congress delivered the deal despite the president’s juvenile taunting, but the Speaker faced a major revolt and is weakened for future negotiations.



Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at


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