When political polarization is modeled as a game the result is Chicken. The technical basics are not very complicated.
Reiterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (RPD) is socially integrative. An equilibrium, conforming to maximal aggregate utility, arises through reciprocal convergence upon an optimum strategy: defaulting to trust, punishing defections, and rapidly forgiving corrected behavior. Any society adopting these rule-of-thumb principles consolidates. When everyone norms on this strategy, individual and collective interests are harmonized. Things work.
Chicken is very different. Someone blinks first, so the trust-trust mutual optimum of RPD is subtracted in advance. Rather than the four possible outcomes of a single PD round (A and B do OK, A wins B loses, B wins A loses, A and B both lose) there are just three possible outcomes (A wins B loses, B wins A loses, A and B both lose extremely). In Chicken, it is the avoidance of outcome three, rather than the non-existent chance of PD outcome one, that moderates behavior, and then asymmetrically (someone always blinks first).
No less importantly, the time structure of Chicken is inverted. In RPD, the agents learn from successive decisions, and from their mere prospect. Each decision is punctual, Boolean, and communicatively isolated. In Chicken, the decision is mutual, quantitative, and anticipated by a strategically-dynamic introduction — an interactive process, in advance of the decision, that is richly communicative, complex, and even educational. In addition, when compared to PD, Chicken reiteration is remarkably complicated (more on that in a moment).
Consider the classic Chicken game. Two drivers accelerate towards each other, and the one who swerves (‘blinks’) loses. If neither swerves, both lose (worse). The lead up is everything, and the decision itself is a matter of speed and timing (a non-Boolean ‘when’ rather than a Boolean ‘which’). The question is not “will the other player defect?” but rather “how far will they go?”
Thomas Schelling made an intellectual specialism out of Chicken, and his understanding of the classical version was sharpened by the concept of “credible commitment” (“how far will they go?”). How could a player ensure that his opponent does not win? The solution to this problem, if produced in advance, has the strategic value of also maximizing the chance that the opponent blinks first (thus avoiding the pessimal lose-lose outcome, and generating a win).
Producing credible commitment looks like this. Upon climbing into your car, conspicuously consume a bottle of vodka, thus communicating the fact that your ability to enact a successful last second swerve is very seriously impaired. Your opponent now knows that even were you inclined to avoid mutual destruction at the brink, you might not be able to do so. Then — once both cars have accelerated to a high speed — rip out your steering wheel and throw it out of the window. (It is extremely important that you do this before your opponent is able to — that’s what the vodka was for.) Your communicated commitment is now absolute. Your opponent alone can swerve. It’s death or glory.
The ‘mainstream’ neoreactionary account of American political history is that of reiterated Chicken games between progressives and conservatives, in which conservatives always swerve. This analytical framework, despite its crudity, explains why conservatives consider their opponents to be intoxicated lunatics (i.e. winners) whilst they are sober and responsible (i.e. losers). As traditionally positioned, conservatives are the principal social stake-holders, and thus primarily obligated to avoid mutual destruction. It is essential to conservatism that it cannot take things (domestically) to the brink. Its incompetence at Chicken is thus constitutional.
When the Zeitgeist starts clucking, it can only be a sign that conservatism is coming to an end. The Tea Party is not informatively described as a conservative political movement, because its signal influence is the insistence that the Right stop losing Chicken games. It demands “credible commitment” through the minimization of discretion on the part of its political representatives, along with whatever insanity is needed not to fricking swerve. This is of course highly — even totally — antagonistic. It is why the Left media now sound like this. Before all significance is consumed in partisan rhetoric, it is important to note that the loser in a Chicken game — even the merely probabilistic virtual loser — necessarily thinks that its opponent is insane. Any more moderate response would be the infallible sign that losing was inevitable (once again).
It isn’t hard to understand why this might be happening. In reiterated Chicken, the loser no doubt acquires a predisposition to submissiveness (“it’s hopeless, those lunatics always win”), but the objective undercurrent of repeated defeat is a contraction of the distance between relative (asymmetric) and absolute (mutual) defeat. Eventually, the difference isn’t worth surrendering — or swerving –over. “If they keep on winning, there will be nothing left anyway, so we might as well finish it now.”
Reciprocally, incessant victory threatens to dull revolutionary fervor into conservatism. Progressives now have many generations of substantial victory to defend, so taking things to the edge has begun to seem concerning. When the government shuts down, what does the Right really lose? At the very least, it’s beginning to wonder, and by doing so, upping its Chicken game (AKA “going insane”). Progressives don’t have to wonder. They lose the government.
ADDED: Buchanan argues that surrender seldom works. At the NYT, Michael P. Lynch: “It is tempting to call this “crazy talk” and unserious bluster. But it is serious, and it shows that some people are thinking about what happens next. It is a plan that represents the logical limit of the views now being entertained on the radical right, not just in the dark corners of the Internet, but in the sunlight of mainstream forums. After all, if the government is the problem, shutting it down is a logical solution.”
ADDED: Jim expects a swerve.
ADDED: The swerve.