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Zero-Sum Outcomes: Great for Sports, Bad for Governing

I confess to spending this past weekend watching college football, with my main interest being the outcome of the Alabama game.

I wasn’t interested in who had the most momentum, who had the better offense or defense, or any other factors that may or may not have contributed to the outcome. I only wanted to know the score, who the winner was.

This is what is known as a zero-sum outcome, which is fine for football or for any other sporting event. But it is not the best way for a political system to function.

Just imagine the chaos of challenging the outcome of a sporting event disputing who had the most penalties or the most yardage, even if they didn’t have the most points, or who had the most injuries.

Those things are noted after the game, but they have no bearing on the determination of who won and who lost.

But politics is not a zero-sum game. When political parties enter candidates for public office, there is more at stake than just winning or losing.

In a zero-sum political contest, winners constitute a majority. As such, they may believe that their win gives them the right to “rule over” the losers.

The problem with this way of thinking should be obvious. Sometimes, the losing party comprises nearly half of the voters – or, in the case of several recent U.S. presidential elections, a majority of voters.

Their representation cannot be discounted simply because they voted for the candidate that lost. The whole community is involved, and in most cases, it is a diverse community.

When candidates are elected to public office, there is an expectation for them to assume the role of public servants.

As such, the “winners” must represent all the people, not just the ones who voted for them.

In political life, once the election is over there is no longer “the other side,” or “them versus us.” After the election, it’s just “us.” Or, at least that is how it should be.

A republican form of government, by definition, does not function by “majority rule.”

In our political system, the winning party chairs key committees and sets the agenda for executive or legislative action.

However, the minority party cannot be regarded as irrelevant. The concerns and issues they raise must be viewed as valid and entitled to be heard by the whole body politic.

It is a recipe for disaster to create a scenario in which the majority, with perhaps only the slightest percentage of advantage, “rules” over the minority without giving them a voice or a vote.

Being in the majority certainly creates an advantage for policy initiatives, but to disempower or disenfranchise the minority, regardless of how large or small it may be, simply is not what our founders had in mind.

Many of the checks and balances that are built into our system are there to protect political minorities, creating the opportunity for them to be heard and have a part.

In fact, some of our founders were not entirely sold on political parties at all.

John Adams wrote, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.”

This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution. But it is the “greatest political evil” only if political parties surrender themselves to a winner-take-all mentality.

This is hard for us. Our culture has been deeply influenced by a zero-sum way of thinking.

The notion that the majority is intended to work in cooperation with the minority, even while having the power to control the agenda and having the final say with a simple majority vote, is lost on many legislators and members of the executive branch.

The failure to embrace the validity of the minority and the importance of compromise as a political tool open the door to authoritarian government.

And if the party in charge gives itself to a single person, a lone individual winner, we clear the way for despotism to rear its ugly head.

A historical lesson from Baptists might help here.

Over the course of time, Baptists came to champion two important principles: the priesthood of all believers and the autonomy of the local church.

These nearly forgotten ideals of church life ensured that the church would not be ruled by a majority or by a single individual. The principles also served to protect the unity of the church.

Where disunity in churches has prevailed, the culprit will usually be the result of enforcing a zero-sum outcome.

It has been true for Baptists, and it is true for America.

James L. Evans

James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies" (Abingdon Press (2011). He has recently launched a religious/political opinion column dubbed “Faith Matters 2020.”