The ultimatum game is often played in economic experiments in which two players interact to decide how to divide a sum of money that is given to them. The first player proposes how to divide the sum between the two players, and the second player can either accept or reject this proposal. If the second player rejects, neither player receives anything. If the second player accepts, the money is split according to the proposal. The game is played only once so that reciprocation is not an issue.
Let’s try an example. How about you and I play the game? I'm given $10 and can offer you as much as I want. The fairest thing to do would be to split the money evenly. But instead I offer you $2 while I keep $8. What will you do?
It turns out that Player 2 in this scenario is often unwilling to accept just $2 and rejects the offer resulting in neither player getting anything. Player 2 thinks, if the game isn’t fair, then no one should be rewarded. Is that what you thought?
Politics of late has been played like the ultimatum game. The majority party has often made offers that the minority is unwilling to accept. The result? No one is rewarded, everyone is punished, and nothing gets done. In this version of the game, everyone is a loser, and when I say everyone, I mean you and me.
Today is an important day in the United States. Like every election day in our nation’s history, it is our opportunity to prove that democracy works, that Americans cherish freedom so much that they place the selection of leadership in the hands of the citizenry. In our great nation we now believe that all adult citizens, no matter their ethnicity, religion, gender, economic status, height, age, hair color, favorite ice cream, or political leanings have the right, the responsibility, and the privilege of voting. And every person’s vote is equal. It’s an amazing, powerful, and frankly extraordinary idea.
But at the end of this day, half of those that voted are going to be disappointed. The race is pretty tight. This is no landslide victory for either side. Instead there will be winners and losers and the echoes of hard words, bent truths, and disappointment left behind. This is where we all get to step in, because in our political ultimatum game, we get to play again and again. And this time around we need to play differently. This time we need to play better.
Our job as citizens is two-fold. First, I encourage you, in fact I demand that you go out today and vote. It doesn’t matter if you are in one of those states that polls have determined is “already decided.” You must vote. In a world where so many cannot safely or fairly choose their leaders, we must not take this incredible freedom for granted.
Second, we each have an opportunity to remind ourselves, our neighbors, and our politicians that compromise is not a dirty word. This election is not a mandate for one side or the other. At best it is a mandate for better play in the ultimatum game. Majority leaders must do a better job of making fairer offers, offers that are inclusive, that accept that both sides have good ideas. Minority leaders have to accept some of these offers, even if they are not completely fair.
Our society has to create a new definition of “winning.” Winning isn’t just about getting everything. In these fractured times, we must accept some allotment of defeat in order to gain some measure of victory. We must keep our eyes on our goals and win not by decimating our opponents, but by healing conflict, agreeing to keep on talking, and always moving forward.
I am asking you to work hard to encourage this behavior in your leaders, in your neighbors, and in yourself. We have just experienced months and months of conflict and anger. It’s time to put this aside and get on with the business of rebuilding this great nation. We simply must listen, strive to embrace diverse opinions, and find and accept the merit in opposition plans. Winning is compromise.
That’s my ultimatum.