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?


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