Bringing a copy of Dale Carnegie to a game of chicken?

Is the President bringing a copy of Dale Carnegie to a game of chicken?

A comment from “CSH” at Jonathan Bernstein’s fantastic A Plain Blog about Politics really struck me.

…at least these days, politics isn’t really horse-trading the way folks define it. Horse-trading involves consideration; it requires both parties to feel better off for having made the trade. When you give me, a small businessman, a dollar for a Milky Way bar, presumably we are both happier with the trade than without.

Obama’s approach makes a lot of sense in the context of horse-trading as we typically conceive it. Obama singing the praises of Reagan would be like me, the small businessman, singing the praises of the Milky Way bar you want, which should increase the amount you’re willing to pay for it, thus eventually making me happier as the small businessman.

But politics these days isn’t really like freely-entered trade where consideration accrues to both sides; its more like a game of chicken between hot rods on a Friday night on a deserted country road.

In which context, Obama’s logic and praise for his opponent sounds like saying that the car across the way is really impressive and fast and well-built…intimidating…the result of which should be that the teen across the way hits the gas a little harder, with a bit more abandon, than he might have otherwise. Interesting.

The analogy isn’t perfect. A bargain typically doesn’t start by praising the other person’s merchandise (as opposed to the person himself, his or her concerns, and the legitimacy of his or her point of view: Dale Carnegie’s central lesson). Still, the underlying point is very strong. In a game of mutually-advantageous bargaining you do all you can to make your opponent feel appreciated. In a game of chicken you do all you can to make him feel despised: if he thinks you think he lacks the courage to drive straight, he knows you’ll drive straight—and he’ll turn.

The President has had trouble appreciating this until recently because until now there’s never been a party willing to crash the government and the economy in order to please a hyper-partisan base.  All of Washington’s games until recently have been mixed or impure bargaining games: both sides assume they will gain something, the only question being which will gain more. But I think that Obama has come to realize what the game is.  And I think he’s learning how to play it much better than either his opponents or his progressive critics realize.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

12 thoughts on “Bringing a copy of Dale Carnegie to a game of chicken?”

  1. The President has had trouble appreciating this until recently because until now there’s never been a party willing to crash the government and the economy in order to please a hyper-partisan base….But I think that Obama has come to realize what the game is. And I think he’s learning how to play it much better than either his opponents or his progressive critics realize.

    Maybe. I hope you’re right. But isn’t it a little wishful to say that someone who takes years to learn the rules of a game is suddenly going to become a master player? It’s not as if the rules weren’t obvious to lots of others quite a while ago. What took Obama so long?

  2. At the root of traditional politics, there was always concern about the well-being of the United States, or at least certain parts of it. Much as I was appalled by, say, Kissinger or Nixon or HW Bush or Bob Dole, I knew deep down those guys were pro-US. They were genuinely concerned with the well-being of America and (most) Americans. Or, at the very least, they were worried about appearances.

    Nowadays, either out of ignorance or malice, you’ve got a big group in Washington and in the country at large that’s prepared, as Andrew says, to “crash the government and the economy.”

    I agree that Obama is playing better, but it’s a lousy game, and he’s in a tough spot. It’s the same game that the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 were playing above Shanksville, Pa. When one side is only interested in doing damage, the only available play involves damage reduction.

    Ultimately, it’s not up to Obama to fix this. The citizens of the United States have to fix this. For the first time in my life, I’ve got a substantial amount of doubt that we’re up to it.

      1. Consider it an application of the experimental method. Is Obama really a neo-liberal budget hawk committed to austerity? Or is he simply politically unable to deliver what his people need? Let’s give him the wherewithal and find out.

  3. And I think he’s learning how to play it much better than either his opponents or his progressive critics realize.

    The country hopes you are not wrong. A good portion of the world does, too. I am not convinced humans can handle their affairs at this scale.

  4. My disagreement with the post is tiny. There is nothing wrong with praising the product you want to buy in some bargaining games, particularly retail. Remember, the seller is offering a galaxy of product attributes; the retail buyer’s role has one dimension: price (or maybe quantity). Praising the product disempowers the seller, as it takes product attributes off the table and focuses the negotiations solely on price.

  5. Please note, the President is the President. He claims the right to murder Americans basically at will. His “justice” department is a joke. They wiretap at will.

    If he had the FBI spend time monitoring every single elected official’s movements and conversations in Washington, DC, within a month there will be sufficient blackmail material to get anything the President wants done, done.

    It works for the “defense” industry. It works for the “intelligence” industry. It worked for J Edgar Hoover.

    Now explain the moral difference to me of starting a war with Libya and murdering people there to blackmailing congress critters and senators. None, absolutely none.

    1. You apparently want a dictator, not a president. Call yourself what you will, but that’s not a liberal perspective as far as I’m concerned.

  6. Politics is only “horsetrading” among the politicians itself. For those outside the government, the result, whoever wins, is the classic “deal you can’t refuse”. Literally, you can’t refuse the deal the “horsetraders” arrive at, unless you want to go to jail.

    So it is quite natural that, to the extent politicians begin to genuinely represent people outside the government, they will cease to engage in that horsetrading, because they will stop seeing what is being traded as theirs to trade.

  7. Andrew,

    Thanks for taking up my argument. Not that my opinion counts for much, but I think you’re probably right that Obama has adjusted his strategy to account for this new, more nihilistic version of ‘negotiation’ coming out of DC.

    A big learning from this topic for me is that a politician can (could) strategically praise his opponents for reasons other than empty glad-handing and the like. One can imagine Reagan and O’Neill, hashing out TEFRA over poker and drinks over several Friday nights, with Reagan noting casually how intriguing was a particular one of O’Neill’s desired goals. The flattery might have caused O’Neill to place more value on that specific deliverable, which may have prompted O’Neill to offer more consideration to achieve that particular goal (which would ultimately be good for Reagan).

    That sort of thing makes quite a bit of sense in good faith negotiation – assuming that good faith negotiation is actually occurring.

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