The Right to Reason

with Robert Stanley

Identity Politics and Game Theory

Evolutionary Explanations for Liberalism, Challenging Democracy, and a Review of the 2016 Election

In the United States, why do Conservatives and Liberals tend to disagree about every political issue?  Why is it that knowing a person’s position on gun control can often predict their opinion on climate change?  This left and right divide within our country is peculiar when we recognize that people are not so binary; we’re diverse and complex!  It is as odd as imagining e.g. that there existed only two flavors of ice cream.  A person’s opinion on topics such as abortion, Obamacare, refugees, the economy, egalitarianism, and even foreign policy seem to be easily grouped into one of two categories.  I intend to explain this divide, reveal the dangers of the potentially resulting identity politics, prove by game theory that identity politics did not influence the 2016 election, and argue that we can overcome these tendencies by distancing ourselves from our emotional idiosyncrasies.  

Joshua Brook in his’ article, “Red World, Blue World,” published in World Policy Journal says that the divide between the red (conservative right) and the blue (liberal left) can be characterized into four reoccurring themes:

“1) Reds and Blues differ in the ways they construct and think about identity specifically, the grounds upon which they define in-groups and out-groups.

2) Reds and Blues assign different weight to cultural narratives in which the in-group plays the central role.

3) Reds and Blues differ in the conception of the relationship between a community and its values.

4) Reds have a stronger attachment to cultural symbols.” (Brook, 2007)

This way of thinking may cause us to assume that since our political leanings are socially predetermined; they must then be immutable.  According to Brook, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Political, polity shifts from Red to Blue (and even the rarer Blue to Red) are historically proceeded by a social development.  Shifts to Blue often occur because of the emancipating nature of the free market: an individual or group is exposed to other cultures through trade and immigration.  Also, a growing middle class in a society can lead many people to questioning the prevailing cultural narrative because they are not so wealthy as to wish to maintain the status quo and are not poor; therefore, likely to be distracted with the constant physical restraints of menial labor and the mental stressors of debt.  Shift from Red to Blue however, tend to arise when the Red group feels smothered by “excessive Blueness” and needs time to breathe before transitioning to the new sociological change.

            Both social stability and social change are rarely accomplished without group unity.  This division of values inevitably leads to people identifying with their color (Red/Blue) rather than with the changes they want to prevent or see occur.  In a recent article in Academic Questions titled “The Pathology of Identity Politics” Nicholas Capaldi argues that identity politics are not the illness; they are a symptom of social dysfunction.  “People drawn to these movements can only be defined in terms of what they oppose, a negative narrative of exploitation and victimization, without any positive alternative of their own.” (Capaldi, 2018).  Capaldi describes a modern example of identity politics emerging from Feminism and the LGBTQ movement: these groups appear to celebrate self-defining modernity but they “demand recognition from others.”  While Capaldi is very helpful in explaining how people falling into the minutia of identity politics can often contradict their own agenda, he makes a logical contradiction of his own, inadvertently revealing his own tendency toward his “group color.”  He grants that they are working toward equal rights and “recognition”, yet he then contradicts this point by saying that in doing so they “demand rights and protections extending to them not as individuals, but as members of a favored class.” (Capaldi, 2018).  He praises movements of the past such as Martin Luther King Jr., Clarence Thomas, Camille Paglia, Deidre

McCloskey, and Zuhdi Jasser but then proceeds to claim movements of today are a result of “dysfunctional people.”  Ironically, it would appear that he would have been Blue in every time period except this one.

            In 2013, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt changed how the general public discussed these differences when he wrote, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Here he challenged conventional thinking about morality, politics, and religion in a way that speaks to conservatives and liberals alike by adding a sixth “pillar” to Moral Foundations Theory.  This theory explains the variations of human moral reasoning on the basis of five innate, modular foundations.  These five pillars of morality include: care vs harm, fairness vs cheating, loyalty vs betrayal, authority vs subversion, and sanctity vs purity.  From these five tendencies, Haidt claimed that a person’s political ideologies would cause them to be either conservative or liberal.  He also added the sixth pillar: liberty vs oppression.  He concluded that Libertarians for example were motivated almost entirely on the liberty foundation.

The chart below will compare candidate’s social liberalism and their economic liberalism (with minimum liberal tendencies equaling 0 and maximum liberal tendencies equaling 1).  A candidate like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders ranks rather high on both the x and y axis, and for contrast Texas Senator Ted Cruz ranks rather low; although, both tend to follow the trend line (even though Sanders may stray somewhat).  You can see that lesser known candidates such as Howard Schultz (fiscal liberal, social conservative), and Gary Johnson (fiscal conservative, social liberal) tend to move away from the trend line leading them to be more obscure.  

[graph missing]

            A potential voter would need to determine their expected utility for voting: which includes two questions:

1)      What do I get if I vote for candidate A/B?

2)      What do I get if I don’t vote at all?

In order to unpack this, we will need to first analyze the basics of Game Theory and then create an expected utility model for voting in the 2016 election.  The best example of demonstrating utility is the Prisoners Dilemma (as shown below):

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

[graph missing]


(Spaniel, 2018)

Here, we can see that the result of both players (prisoners) is to eventually confess because without knowing what the other player is going to do, confession is the best option.  Predicting people choices in this manor has led to the criminal justice system’s methods of interrogation that we see prevalent today.  But this way of anticipating people’s utility becomes even simpler when we convert it to a binary scenario, such as is represented via the U.S. two party system.  In the 2016 election, it could be predicted that a “rational individual” (as defined in game theory) (Spaniel, 2018) that previously had a preference for Bernie Sanders, would not vote (or would vote for a third-party candidate such as Jill Stein) given that Clinton (or Trump) was not their second choice.  This is because the reward for voting in this scenario is small and one voter is unlikely to swing the election outcome.  If we use these symbols to represent gain, loss, and probability, we can construct a model for the Sander’s voter:

G = gain (what you get if your candidate wins)

L = loss (time/effort spent on voting for someone other than your candidate)

p = your candidate wins, and you voted

q = your candidate wins, and you didn’t vote


 p(G-L) + (1-p) (-L) ≥ q(G)

According to Expected Utility theory, a Sander’s-preference voter in the 2016 election would either not vote or would likely vote for a third-party candidate.  This is not a result of identity politics and Clinton becoming the Democratic nominee for the general election was not a result of the social tendencies of the typical United States liberal.

Using the 2016 Presidential Election for an example of expected voter utility, we can recall that Sanders supporters were expected to vote for Clinton after the primaries.  What analysts failed to predict however, was the second choice of a Sanders supporter.  What they would get for voting Clinton, including the cost (effort applied) of voting were not of value to many Sander supporters.  The swing states experienced surprisingly low liberal-voter turn-out in the 2016 election (and an increase in Stein votes), leading to an (Electoral College) victory for Donald Trump.

But how is it possible that our candidates are still so close to the trend line if we are growing more divided as liberals and conservatives?  The reason is not going to be as prevalent from the social but rather from the economic tendencies of the candidate.  This is why liberals’ social values often achieve victory historically (every country tends to become more progressive over time), yet they lose more elections than they win.  The economic tendencies of a candidate and their economy-based policies are influenced and supported by lobbyist groups.  The preference of a voter may be extremely socially conservative or liberal but the options for candidates likely presented to them will be primarily based on corporate, profit incentives.  The highest-paying lobbyist groups are not oriented toward social agendas; they are industry-based companies.  The top 50 lobbyists gave $716 million to the federal government and Congress in the 2016 election.  The top ten spenders were:

US Chamber of Commerce                                                     $103,950,000

National Association of Realtors                                            $64,821,111

Blue Cross Blue Shield                                                           $25,006,109

American Hospital Association                                               $20,970,809

Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America       $19,730,000

American Medical Association                                               $19,410,000

Boeing                                                                                     $17,020,000

Association of Broadcasters                                                   $16,438,000

AT&T                                                                                      $16,370,000

Business Roundtable                                                               $15,700,000    (, 2018)

So, while the social factor of our divide may not be significant to predicting/influencing an election, the entirety of our political divide is essentially based on one, ironically undivided and shared concept: democracy.  Loosing this common idea leads to either totalitarianism (in left-leaning power structures) or authoritarianism (in right-leaning power structures).  This concept of a system by which control is placed in the hands of the majority is typically accomplished by a population (or eligible citizenry) deciding upon their representatives via electoral process.  Winston Churchill is often erroneously quoted (it was actually an author named William Manchester) as saying, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute discussion with the average voter.”  It is on this topic that Jiwei Ci critiques the concept of democracy as both utopian and ideological.  In his contribution to The Journal of Political Philosophy titled “Political Agency in Liberal Democracy,” he said,  “One crucial difference between utopian desire…” [referring to the desire for democracy] “…and ordinary desire is that ordinary desires, having been satisfied (or belonging to a category of desires that have been satisfied) before, can draw upon past experience of satisfaction in the temporal gap between wish and fulfillment, whereas utopian desire is the wish for a state of affairs that has never been realized.” (Ci, 2006).   This important distinction makes it clear to us that democracy is not something that can be achieved in its entirety.  To even approach doing so would obviously be disastrous for the minority.  Rather than viewing it as a location that we may arrive at, democracy must remain a goal to which we are constantly trying to achieve and to achieve this ideology, we acknowledge that those with which we disagree must share in the control.

In order to find some closure and the understanding to help us explain this phenomenon, we will need to investigate our evolutionary past and evaluate where to go from here.  From where does this tribalistic tendency originate?  In “Sex, Power, and Partisanship” Psychologist Dr. Hector Garcia references a study titled “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted” and claims that our personality traits are predictors of core political values such as economic attitudes, social attitudes, and self-reported ideologies.  “The authors [of this study] found that higher openness was associated with greater liberalism across all three of these means of measuring orientation.” (Garcia, 2019).  Garcia claims that our personalities are a result of evolutionary causes affecting not only our openness to experience, but also our fear of outsiders and the recognition of the dangers of germs.  All three of these characteristics can push someone left or right.  But our reasoning ability is not imprisoned by these political preferences.  Garcia claims that we can “outsmart our genes” by examining the ultimate reasons for our fears and therefore achieving emotional distance: “It is only with distance that we may judge which of our fears continue to serve us and which should be left on the savanna of our ancestors.” (Garcia, 2019).

Works Cited:


Alford, John R., Funk, Carolyn L., Hibbing, John R., (2005) “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?” American Political Science Review 99, no 2 (May 2005): 153-67

Brook, J. 2007. “Red World, Blue World”. World Policy Journal, Cambridge, MA. 24(2), 55-66.

Capaldi, Nicholas. (2018). “The Pathology of Identity Politics”. Academic Questions, 31(3), 281–288.

Center for Responsive Politics. (2018). Lobbying Spending Database. Retrieved April 7, 2019, from

Ci, Jiwei (2006). “Political Agency in Liberal Democracy.” Journal of Political Philosophy, 14(2), 144-162.

Garcia, Hector. A. (2019). “Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of our Political Divide”. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Haidt, Johnathan. (2013). “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.” London: Penguin.

Spaniel, William. 2014. Game Theory 101: The Complete Textbook. 2014-2015 Edition. Charleston, NC: CreateSpace.

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