Election Games

In any election there are at least two games being played: a finite game of winners and losers, and an infinite game that is about discussing what we truly value and how to keep it in play.

This time around the finite game was overwhelmingly dominant. I watched the first 15 minutes of the news on TV3 most nights in the immediate run up to the election and the relentless, upbeat message was that there is a race on. Any event or announcement was only of interest insofar as it may impact on the fortunes of each party. We were shown the latest polling results and the makeup of parliament if they held. Now I admit this was fun. I too was in competition mode, because, eternal optimist that I am, I thought my side was going to win.

Then came election night. Well, my side didn’t win, and I felt crushingly disappointed. On Sunday I added to the Tweets that attempted to make a wounded community feel a little less sickened and vulnerable. Since the election, I have been shocked to find both the television and radio obsessed with Labour’s “abysmal” performance, and acting like a self-appointed lynch-mob to try and oust David Cunliffe. It has been way beyond anything that could be called “journalism”, to the extent that it became almost impossible to see how he could not resign. The media, it seemed, would not allow Labour to utter a single word until their leader had done what losers must in the post-election ritual, fall on their sword, to show just how deep their disgrace goes.

Where was the infinite game in all this? At a fundamental level each party appeals to some infinite values. Crudely, the left stands for community – our calling to look out for each other and build a society that cares. The right stands for independence – our desire to look after ourselves and strive for personal excellence. Both of these positions are appealing, and surely needed for the good society. That is probably why every election result, even those we call “landslides”, are actually pretty finely balanced between the two.

But the particular mix of these core values is different in each party, and lots of others are added in (like the environment). And it has become extraordinarily difficult for us as citizens and voters to work out how particular politicians or policies target particular core values. Often this is made more, rather than less, tricky by the media. The media’s primary mandate is to transmit events of public interest, but it is also under pressure to win its own finite games. Its core finite game is not to protect the powerful (as I’ve heard some people say) it is far more simply to get more and more viewers, readers or listeners. This sounds benign enough, unless you realise that soap opera like contests are more fun than policy analysis and so the latter gets increasingly squeezed out.

One of the most interesting sites for infinite game play that I came across in this election was the Vote Compass tool. This allowed you to rate your position on a number of statements and only after you had finished to see how your positions lined up with those of various parties. Imagine if a tool like this was at the centre of our discussions about the Aotearoa New Zealand we want to live in, how to bring it about, and who best to lead us to our ideals.

To me, the biggest barrier we face to infinite play in politics is the seeming demand that politicians and parties be sure of their position. Because the system is so adversarial, every player has to act as if they “know” and must pretend to be immune to the ideas of other players. Every debate is a contest, and once people are in competitions it is tremendously hard for them to stay true to their more fundamental values.

The way I see it, you can accept that life is unjust and that ruthless finite players will often, perhaps usually, win. Or you can refuse to accept it. It isn’t particularly rational to take the second position, but some of us just can’t help it. If you refuse to accept it, you just keep trying to keep the more fundamental conversation, about how to live well together, alive. The question I am sitting with at the moment is whether it is possible to create a base so firmly entrenched in core values that when it comes to elections people will gravitate to those who speak to them. Then we would surely vote for jobs instead of “welfare reform” and thriving children instead of “school reform”.

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