Politics as Drinking Game

January 22, 2010

In the wake of Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts, Andrew Sullivan, Matthew Yglesias, and other left-of-“right-of-center” bloggers have complained that today’s GOP is treating politics as only a game of Red Team vs. Blue Team, without regard to substantive policymaking. The GOP reflexively opposes everything Obama does, they say, painting it as socialist no matter how centrist it actually is.  One consequence of this strategy is that Democrats have tacked to the center, relative to the desires of their base, only to have that centrism depicted in the fair and balanced media as radical leftism. This dynamic has produced what David Leonhardt, in an NYT op-ed, calls a health care package that is “politically partisan but substantively bipartisan.”

Politics is both a game and more than a game. When we talk about political gamesmanship, we’re assuming that the game in question is zero-sum: each side’s goal is to have more seats in Congress, more governors, and more presidents (i.e., one) than the other. On the other hand, especially in Obama’s pragmatic mode, the substance of politics is non-zero-sum: each party’s goal is to advance some policies that will, they think, benefit the whole nation. Of course it’s possible to conceive of the substance of politics as non-zero-sum, and to conceive of the federal government as a weapon with which to rob some citizens for the benefit of others. Pre-Civil-War sectional politics was zero-sum like that — although “Abraham Lincoln”* did his best to reinterpret it as non-zero-sum. But each party needs to win a zero-sum game in order to advance their agenda in the non-zero-sum realm of politics. In other words, we can think of politics as a complex game in which a non-zero-sum game is wrapped inside a zero-sum game, and the goal is to win the non-zero-sum game by implementing the best policies. This holds true for Democrats as well as Republicans. The problem that Sullivan et al have identified is that the GOP has forgotten that the goal of the zero-sum game is to win the non-zero-sum game, and that conversely Obama is so focused on the non-zero-sum game that he has neglected the zero-sum game, which remains crucially important to his supporters and opponents alike. It remains so partly for practical reasons (you need it to win the non-zero-sum game) and partly for emotional reasons (all politics is tribal). If only there were some way to turn the destructive passions unleashed by tribal politics into a constructive channel …

This brings me to my modest, Lincolnian proposal. Let’s redirect some of the destructive energies at play in the zero-sum game into a game of ambiguous mathematics: a drinking game. Everybody picks a team, either red or blue. At the end of the year, you tally up your team’s wins (Congressional seat pickups, etc.) and have one drink for each. If you’re on the red team you drink the “Red Elephant.” If you’re on the blue team you drink the “Blue Donkey.” This game would teach both sides a lesson about the perils of getting drunk on power. Nobody would want to pick up more than, say, 10 seats.

David Broder, if you are reading this, please mention me in your column.

Recipes:

The Red Elephant

1 oz bourbon (Evan Williams) or rye whiskey (Rittenhouse)

1oz Campari

1oz sweet vermouth

2 dashes orange bitters

– shake all ingredients with ice, strain into a chilled coupe glass

The Blue Donkey

1.5 oz gin (Bombay Dry)

.75 oz blue curacao

.75 oz lemon juice

– shake all ingredients with ice, strain into a chilled martini glass

* see my bio

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One Response to “Politics as Drinking Game”


  1. […] more to come. Mr. Dale Pickle has joined us to write about politics, mixology, and sometimes both at once, and at least two more new writers are on the way. We’ll still post on a wide variety of […]


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