A beautiful mess

I suddenly want to ask him.

I wonder what John Nash would have made of the Republican presidential field. God knows it’s going to take someone of his genius to handicap it.

A day after the tragic death of the celebrated mathematician and his wife, Alicia, in a New Jersey car crash, another top-flight Republican, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, effectively entered the race while being interviewed for a Sunday talk show. That brought the Republican field of credible presidential hopefuls to at least 15.

I had never heard of Nash before the Academy-Award winning film depicting his life, “A Beautiful Mind,” entered theaters in 2002. And it wasn’t the Princeton University prodigy’s brain that lured me into one; it was the face of the film’s beautiful co-star Jennifer Connelly, truth be told. But a pivotal scene from “A Beautiful Mind” lingers with me to this day when I think of a singular driving dynamic of modern American politics that has the country running in circles.

In the film, Nash stumbles upon his Nobel-Prize-winning game theory, the “Nash Equilibrium,” while at a pub with Princeton classmates in the 1950s. All are interested in the same flaxen-haired beauty standing with a group of friends by the bar. Nash reasons that the optimal mating strategy for each of them — for all of them — is for each to forgo wooing “the blonde” and to pursue one of the other women instead. Nocturnal solitude for all would otherwise result: The blonde, overwhelmed, would choose none of them; her friends, feeling like fallback choices, each would walk away insulted.

Nash saw then and there in the bar, in a Hollywood eureka moment, that maximum benefit is achieved, where groups are involved, when each player pursues the optimal strategy for himself and for the group based on the mutual understanding that each of the other players will do the same.

Nash’s Equilibrium changed the way complex, non-zero-sum gain dynamics are viewed in global marketplaces, economics, warfare, sports — even, presumably, in presidential hopefuls where 15 well-qualified candidates are pursuing the same prize. I wouldn’t dare hypothesize how Nash would view this burgeoning Republican primary field, but it doesn’t take a math genius to recognize the Republican embarrassment of riches as a potentially emerging mess. (At least 30 Republicans are now declared or exploring candidacies.)

Where I see Nash most in play in American politics, though, lamentably in play, is in the political industry itself. Viewed from a helicopter, it reveals itself today as a complex, continuous and cooperative dynamic between the political left and right in which each side optimally benefits. Who wins and who loses battles in the short term has become almost immaterial, at least where the industry is concerned. As long as the fight goes on, all is copacetic. The purpose of the game in the larger picture is to keep the political organisms alive to fight another day.

This dynamic is probably easiest to recognize in political fundraising. Each side, comprised of hundreds of individual PACs and committees spread across the country, requires opposition to fire up its base. It’s what makes money roll in. (“Dear friends: Guess what those Bozos are doing to us now?!”) As awful as it sounds, groups like Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the NRA need one another. The Hatfields were nuthin’ without the McCoys.

In political communications it takes two hands clapping to make noise. Conflict is required to achieve maximum public attention for each hand. It’s why smart campaigns and advocacy groups want their press materials in the hands of the opposition. The optimal purpose of a communique is not to sing on its own, but to elicit a reaction that will deliver an opportunity to further a strategic goal. The other side is engaged in the same game, and each side knows it. And so it goes. This is true not just in electoral campaigns, but in issue campaigns at every level, playing out 365 days a year.

Politicians on the stump, similarly, are worthless without a bogeyman. Imagine a political incumbent or aspiring candidate speaking to a group effectively without presenting, at a minimum, a straw man. It doesn’t work. It cannot work. It’s against the nature of politics as we understand it.

Yes, the issues matter. They matter desperately. And so does winning. But it’s the fight itself that’s most worthwhile, ultimately, to professional advocacy groups. Conflict is their essence; it’s their organizing principle. They can’t exist without it. It’s why so few public policy organizations fold their tents when victory is achieved. There’s always another battle just ahead, and then another.

These are the groups driving American history day by day. It’s a scary thought, but one for another day.

I’ve been working in politics for almost three decades, and I see this interdependency of interest groups growing ever more organized and automated. It is bolstered by the many communications channels now available through which to argue. Digital media is like political fertilizer.

Strikingly, most participants in this political dynamic fail to see that they’ve become part of it. They genuinely consider themselves idealists. And they may very well be, idealists sharing a bubble with equally earnest opponents.

But as the merry-go-round turns, millions of Americans unsurprisingly are finding themselves enraged at a political system that takes care of itself first, at the expense of the greater good. Millions more are left with a profound ennui for modern democracy, and have given up on the political process entirely. They see the American political machine at its worst, as clearly as night and day.

I read this week that John Nash once called politics “a hopeless waste of intellectual effort.” I never had an interest in meeting him while he was alive, but now that he’s gone, I suddenly want to ask him just what exactly he meant by that.

Maybe he could have drawn it on a chalkboard for us.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.

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