Sometimes it is helpful to take a step back from the particulars and take a look at the first principles that are animating a political conflict. With that in mind, I would propose that what is driving the current conservative movement is a world view that sees everything through the lens of what we’ve come to call a “zero-sum game.”
Zero-sum is a situation in game theory in which one person’s gain is equivalent to another’s loss, so the net change in wealth or benefit is zero.
That sets up an “us vs them” battle where it is assumed that if they win, we lose. It’s why Isaac Bailey correctly identified the problem (even as his proposed solution fell short).
…we are fast becoming a nation in which minorities make up a majority of the population. As a result, tens of millions of white Americans, accustomed for so long to having all the benefits of being the majority, are scared out of their minds—and it is this fear that Trump is exploiting so effectively.
These changing demographics are a real threat to any white person who assumes that everything is ultimately a zero-sum game. Because if “they” win, it is an automatic assumption that I lose. That was the basic premise of an important article by Adrien Schless-Meier months before Trumpmania emerged.
Take, for instance, the creeping anxiety among white folks in the U.S. about our impending “minority” status. The most recent projections from the Census Bureau name 2044 as the point when people of color will collectively outnumber white people in this country. This demographic reality has fostered a deep sense of paranoia about a pervasive existential threat, not just to white people but also to white institutions, values, and culture. White folks are, irrationally, afraid of being wiped out.
That is the kind of thinking that led Dylann Roof to say, “You’re taking over our country,” before he killed nine African Americans in Charleston. It is the same thing that drives people to think that granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants means that they will take away “our” jobs. On an international level, the zero-sum game means that if the United States isn’t dominating other countries, we’re losing. It’s why Donald Trump says that American doesn’t “win” anymore.
If the zero-sum game is an accurate way of viewing the world, the truth is that these folks have a point. If everything is about a battle of us vs them and “we” lose to the extent that “they” win, then fighting for dominance is the only game in town. The only difference between liberals and conservatives comes down to who is included in your “us” and who falls into your “them.” That has often been how the battle is defined in politics.
But what if we go back to first principles and challenge the entire premise of the zero-sum game? What if it is possible to actually construct win/win scenarios? For example, getting there is not difficult when it comes to the issue of immigration reform.
A new report, “Raising the Floor for American Workers: The Economic Benefits of Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” by Dr. RaÃºl Hinojosa-Ojeda, finds that comprehensive immigration reform that includes a legalization program for unauthorized immigrants and enables a future flow of legal workers would result in a large economic benefit—a cumulative $1.5 trillion in added U.S. gross domestic product over 10 years. In stark contrast, a deportation- only policy would result in a loss of $2.6 trillion in GDP over 10 years.
The reason that kind of analysis seems to go against “common sense” is that we are so used to seeing the world through the lens of a zero-sum game. That leads us to faulty conclusions in cases like this. What we need are some first principles that allow us to envision an alternative.
In her book The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist suggests that the zero sum game is rooted in the concept of scarcity.
It is an unquestioned, sometimes even unspoken, defining condition of life. It is not even that we necessarily experience a lack of something, but that scarcity as a chronic sense of inadequacy about life becomes the very place from which we think and act and live in the world. It shapes our deepest sense of ourselves, and becomes the lens through which we experience life…
This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life, and it is deeply embedded in our relationship with money. In the mind-set of scarcity, our relationship with money is an expression of fear…
She suggests that an alternative is a sense of sufficiency.
Once we let go of scarcity, we discover the surprising truth of sufficiency. By sufficiency, I don’t mean a quantity of anything. Sufficiency isn’t two steps up from poverty or one step short of abundance. It isn’t a measure of barely enough or more than enough. Sufficiency isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, and a declaration, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough.
The other first principle that challenges the zero sum game is something Martin Luther King articulated years ago…the “inescapable network of mutuality.”
Taken together, the principles of sufficiency and mutuality take direct aim at the zero-sum game and are the necessary ingredients to combat the conservative movement’s embrace of “us vs them” in a win/lose battle.