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Some games are over after one win or loss. Democracy is not that kind of game.

Jan 19, 2017

The Next Idea

It’s said necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Innovation is often born out of crisis or conflict – a war, a pandemic or a financial crash.  Sometimes the conflict can be constructive, like the invention of a new miracle drug. And sometimes the conflict can be destructive, like, for instance, a contentious election.

A protest on the streets of Los Angeles (perhaps similar to the one that sparked DeGraff and Buster's conversation)
Credit Clinton Steeds / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

Recently, I was being driven from one client site to another across a southern state. My driver was an affable older fellow named Buster. On the radio, we heard a report about how thousands of young protesters had blocked the streets of Los Angeles. In rather colorful language, Buster said that the election was over and these people needed to get on with their lives. I responded that the election was over, but surely the conflict wasn’t.

He asked me what I meant, so I gave him an analogy. There are two types of games – finite and infinite. Finite games have winners and losers, rules, and time limits, like football and chess. But infinite games don’t have winners or losers, agreed-upon boundaries or clear endings. The central idea of the game is to keep playing it. Think about how skateboarders challenge each other with maneuvers of ever-increasing difficulty. There are no clear winners and losers, only the understanding that tomorrow they’ll be back at the skate park to have another go.

Obviously, elections are far more than a game, but the analogy works. So, I asked Buster, what would happen if he thought the election was over – a finite game – while those young protesters didn’t share his opinion, considered it an infinite game, and kept playing. He responded that they would probably create mischief like hacking web sites, leaking confidential data and maybe even trying to game the next election. I asked him whom these young protesters wanted as their president. He said, “That socialist Bernie or maybe somebody worse.”

It was becoming clear that we were at different ends of the political spectrum, but we were careful to keep the conversation amicable for the long drive. We talked about our families and the challenges of fatherhood. We discussed the galvanizing events of our lives as Baby Boomers – the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, Watergate, 9/11. These moments focused our generation. They brought us together. They created the necessity for us to do things in a different and new way, for better or for worse.

I asked Buster if this election might be, in fact, a galvanizing event for these young protesters. He gave it some thought, said he didn’t know and looked concerned. We left it there and kept the conversation to fishing and football the rest of the way.

"Let's hope that all sides take the long view of this infinite game we call democracy."

In 2015, there was a subtle change in our democracy. For the first time in almost a century, Baby Boomers stopped being the voting majority. Now it’s the Millennials, those who reached young adulthood around the year 2000. With time, this gap will get larger. Thus far, the crises of this younger generation have mostly not been event driven. Rather, they’re ongoing challenges – crushing student debt, high housing prices, finding healthcare coverage and getting jobs. This slope of downward mobility has been slow and almost imperceptible.

The last time an American generation responded to a slow-moving crisis, the result was the New Deal of the 1930s – a complete reworking of our political and economic system. Many of these social innovations are still with us, like social security, federal deposit insurance and unemployment insurance. But it’s possible that this election could become the Millennials’ turning event; the first real crisis of their generation that brings them together. Now, of course, there are diverse voices in each generation.

The other question is which side Generation X will take – the boomers or the millennials. Those born between 1960 and the early 1970s are the smallest generation America has ever produced. But as the Boomers fade, it’s Generation X that will tip the scales of the next few elections. They are the ambassadors, translators and emissaries of the generational culture wars. They will decide whether the changes and innovations will be constructive or destructive.

Neither Buster nor I know how this game plays out. What I do know is that the game goes on and how we win in one round will often determine how we lose in the next. Let’s hope that all sides take the long view of this infinite game we call democracy.

Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of business administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

 

The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.

 

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