The game theory of political posturing

Over the weekend, Ed had a post titled “Obama Still Going Both Ways on Equality.” After I got done going, “heh, heh, going both ways,” this part stuck out:

I have no doubt that Obama privately supports same-sex marriage. And there’s no question that he has done more to support equality for gay people than any other president we’ve ever had. But he’s playing a transparent game with this issue for purely political reasons. That’s why he has always taken this utterly absurd position that he’s in favor of civil unions with full equality, but not same-sex marriage. That position is inherently disingenuous and he knows that. So does everyone else.

If everybody knows Obama’s position is disingenuous, what does he gain from taking it? But wait, maybe not everybody knows that everybody knows! And even if everybody knows that everybody knows, what if not everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows? Game theory teaches us that these distinctions are important.

On a related note, I wonder about how rarely politicians ever admit to being wrong. Even when everyone who’s paying attention knows they were wrong. Why do they do this? Forget psychology, I’m wondering about strategy here (identical stategic considerations can be coupled with either self-deception or cynicism at the psychological level).

Do they do this for the sake of getting votes from people who aren’t paying attention? Or do even many voters who are paying attention prefer a politician who doesn’t admit to being wrong, because that looks (metaphorically) strong and they want to affiliate with strong-looking politicians? Or is it something else?

  • Kevin

    It’s because if there are two conflicting views, you actually need to look at the facts to determine who is correct. Given the quality of today’s journalism, if you deny the allegations, a piece would probably cite both sides of the story with a headline not favoring either side and not divulge the pertinent information. However, if you give credence to the allegation, the headline will read “X admits mistake!” If someone simply catches the headline (which I would bet is common), it would be preferable to not have this in the public arena. However, since this has become commonplace, such denials are basically worthless and it makes investigative journalism that much more important.

  • ash

    And who the hell are all of these undecided, fence-sitting voters that all these campaign resources are being spent on? Who could be so utterly apathetic and disengaged as to not care one way or another at this point?

  • Marshall

    Somehow we’ve reached a point where holding fast to a wrong position can do far less damage to a politician’s ambitions than admitting being wrong. The former can easily be spun as “standing on principal” while the latter is often spun as “flip-flopping”. There is at least some segment of the population for whom being right is less important than continually reaffirming positions that, however wrong (and however well known the wrongness is), are still considered by this segment of the population to be a “useful lie” for achieving a particular end result. It doesn’t matter how often Republicans lie about Obama’s policies, even when those lies are known to be lies, because those lies are useful for achieving the desired end result of defeating Obama in the general election. It is the USEFULNESS of the lie that keeps it in circulation long after it has been shown to be false. For example, an acquaintance of mine recently posted William J. H. Boetcker’s “Ten Cannots” and falsely attributed it to Abraham Lincoln. When I pointed out that this was an incorrect attribution and provided links to Snopes and Wikipedia in an attempt to clear this up, he went out of his way to insist that both Snopes and Wikipedia are not reliable enough sources, and that whatever other sources I provided would also not be sufficient. Apparently the only things that would be sufficient are either a denial delivered in person by Lincoln himself, or an original copy of Boetcker’s writing that could be shown not to be a forgery. The reason for all of this, of course, is that the quote loses some of its usefulness in legitimizing his right-libertarian viewpoint if it is spoken by a generally less well known preacher as opposed to a former president highly respected by the general public. His lie had its use, and no matter what this usefulness would not be diminished by such trivial things as “truth” and “accuracy”.

  • http://www.twitter.com/inanlaman13 Whitney

    Fine post mate


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