The Political Strategy of “Making the Other Side Better”
In an interesting recent Marginal Revolution post, my George Mason University colleague, economist Tyler Cowen, argues that we overemphasize beating the other side in political conflicts, while simultaneously neglecting the alternative strategy of “making the other side better”:
So many political strategies are centered around “beating” the other side(s), and claiming victory over their defeat. For evolutionary reasons, it is easy to see why these attitudes might have won out. Yet in general those approaches are a sign of a narrow vision. Beating the other side is a possible strategy, but it should hardly be the only strategy you attempt, even if we forget about the “you might be the one who is wrong!” worry.
Quite simply, a lot of the time you never beat the other side, though over time the terms of the debate do shift ground.
An alternative strategy is to try to make the other side better, even if you do not agree with the other side. You might try to make the other side saner and more open, and I do not mean by telling them how wrong they are. You do this, believe it or not, by supporting them in some ways, or at least supporting the best parts of the other side.
It is remarkable how few people pursue this strategy….
[T]he unpopularity of this strategy once again suggests that politics isn’t about policy, in this matter it is more often about internal norms of group solidarity and intra-group status.
Many of Cowen’s points here are well-taken. It is indeed true that total victory is rarely possible in politics. And it is also hard to deny that much political discourse is really about signaling “group solidarity,” indulging various cognitive biases, and other things that have little connection to improving policy. He’s also right that “improving the other side” should be an important objective.
At the same time, I think he overstates the extent to which that strategy is neglected. If “improving the other side” means getting them to move closer to your own (correct!) positions, there are many examples of people and movements that have sought to do exactly that.
It’s important to recognize that beating the other side and improving it aren’t always mutually exclusive. The former can often facilitate the latter. If your side’s policies turn out to be political winners, that may well incentivize the other side to adopt them, or at least stop opposing them. A famous example is the political success of many of FDR’s New Deal policies, such as Social Security. After they helped the Democrats win numerous elections, most Republicans came to accept them. When the GOP finally recaptured the White House in 1952, after five straight defeats, it was with a president (Eisenhower) who accepted most of the New Deal, even if sometimes grudgingly.
Later, one of the great triumphs of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK was that opposing part
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