There is a classical psychology experiment, the Ultimatum Game, which is designed to explore how people make economic decisions in a controlled environment. A total payoff amount is to be divided between two subjects, one of whom is chosen by lot to determine the proportions to each player. The second player can either accept the offer or reject it, in which case neither player receives anything. In the related Dictator Game, the second player does not have the rejection option.
If both players are considering only maximizing their own economic interests, player 1 will opt for a skewed distribution in his own favor and but will avoid a 100%:0 split in the Ultimatum Game in the virtual certainty that the other party will reject it. In the Dictator game, there is no penalty for selfishness, and in some populations, nearly half of the “dictators” choose that option. There are significant cultural, age, and gender differences in the proportion of subjects who choose selfish, equitable, or even altruistic strategies, with male American college students having the highest level of selfish responses. The predominance of this demographic in psychology research and extrapolation to people as a whole has contributed to a decidedly jaundiced view of human nature as viewed by science, for example in Howard Bloom’s The Lucifer Principle.
The lesson from the Ultimatum Game which seems to me most relevant to the 2016 American Presidential election is that afforded by the results when player 2 is offered a split that favors the other player but still gives him something. Strict economic interest would predict accepting a small payoff in favor of nothing, but some players will reject a 70:30 split, and the numbers go up as the level of inequity increases. It has been suggested that the rejection is based on a desire to punish egregious selfishness, in the hope that in future interactions the individual will see that his own self-interest lies in a more just and equitable strategy.
Inequity of division of wealth is a prominent feature of American society, and the level has increased in recent years, causing deterioration in the circumstances of many people of median income. The eight years of the Obama administration, despite populist rhetoric and lip service to programs that should have benefited the middle class, if anything accelerated the trend. In view of this, a candidate who promises more of the same appears to the public rather like a selfish #1 player in the Ultimatum game.
At the beginning of the election season there were at least a few candidates who offered a positive alternative to the “business as usual platform”, but by November many voters felt that they were faced with the “accept or reject” option, since Hilary Clinton was firmly committed to the policies of her predecessor, and there was very little evidence that Donald Trump was competent to run the country. The lackluster voter turnout, in a hotly contested presidential election with no incumbent candidate, indicates that significant numbers of people dealt with this situation by not voting at all.
There were at least two third party candidates (Jill Stein and Gary Johnson) who were neither idiots nor committed to business as usual, plus a last ditch effort to revive Bernie Sanders’ candidacy as an independent, but the American public was subjected to relentless messages to the effect that voting for a preferred candidate other than the two principals was in effect a vote for the principal candidate least favored – Trump in the case of Sanders or Stein, Clinton in the case of the conservative former Republican Johnson.
It will be interesting to see what sort of a lineup faces voters in 2020, assuming there is a normal election in that year. It’s rather too late to mount a constitutional amendment to radically change election laws (for example, by getting rid of the electoral college) and have it take effect by November of 2020, even if there were enough popular support for such an effort to make success likely; however, economic collapse, the outbreak of a major war, or a grave natural disaster could change the political landscape considerably. The natural disaster scenario is the one element that neither political party nor their backers has the power to orchestrate.
People on both sides of the political spectrum, under the guise of the midterm elections, are putting out feelers for the 2020 Presidential elections. Our own liberal, ineffective (in the sense of furthering the well-being of the people he represents) Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley has evidently thrown his hat into the ring. Even in the unlikely event that the present positive economic climate persists for another two years and no new international crises surface, Trump isn’t a viable candidate for re-election. Clinton’s poor showing against an obviously unqualified Republican opponent in 2016 ought to give the Democratic Party qualms about reviving her candidacy. Consequently, both major parties and looking at contested primaries. What does seem likely for 2020 is another protracted, ugly, contentious contest resulting in the selection of a person lacking the integrity and the leadership skills to take the helm of a major country. That’s the more hopeful scenario. History has shown us that a democratic system, in a time of crisis, can fall prey to a demagogue with the unquestioned ability to lead a nation down the road to perdition.
Dictator Game – Wikimedia Creative Commons