Have you ever played Mao? Its a card game, kinda like Uno but with a wicked twist: no one knows the rules. In fact, no one talks in the game at all. Depending on the version you play, there are some standard rules but new players can only find out the rules by receiving penalty cards. Once someone “wins” by going out, that person can make up a new rule. Any rule. Like every time someone plays a seven, you must pantomime a farm animal; or tell a about a secret crush; or hijack someone else’s chair. The constant new rules means you never play the same game twice.
While mixed up rules and a trial-and-error learning curve makes for a fantastic game night, its not so fun in politics. But unfortunately, the morphing game of Mao has become a strikingly apt comparison to the partisan politics America has today. American politics has become a circus of extremes. Compromise is seen as weakness and once “our side” gets into power its time for as many new rules or changes to the game as possible. Oh, and penalties for everyone instead of talking things through.
Over and over again, Americans speak out against polarization in the government. In fact, partisanism is one of the many of things that drives voters away from participating in the political process. It is the people with the most intense political beliefs that tend to engage with the system.
Polarization has been on the rise in the past ten years, during the Bush and the Obama administrations. Two presidents known for passing bills to extended their executive powers, and wielding the threat of veto ferociously. The opposing party reacted strongly in both cases. President Obama built on Bush’s war powers, passed massive health care reform, and failed get a budget through congress. In response, congress has become deeply combative. Combative in the way two toddlers throw sand at each other. This discourages many normal people, especially young ones, to engage in politics, which tends to resemble playground-level bickering.
The other cause of increased polarization comes from the low participation in the primary process. Americans hardly care to vote in major elections, much less the smaller selection ones. It has not been strongly impressed on the next generation that your primary vote probably counts even more than the one you cast on election day. The media should shoulder some of the blame here.They focus on the biggest elections the day they happen, and pay no attention to how candidates are chosen or local elections that impact people’s everyday lives.
The primaries for 2014 ended yesterday, leaving two months of serious campaigning left. Democrats won the last round, electing a truly polarizing leader, and pushing through the kind of legislation that only half of Americans agree on. Leaving half of the population underrepresented. But in November, we can choose to elect leaders who will focus on issues that really matter to Americans. In the game of Mao, all rules are subject to an unspoken vow of sportsmanship. Let’s elect people who will bring that attitude to congress in 2015.