The power of a non-zero narrative

Like many of you, I watched the Republican & Democratic convention speeches — and was struck by the stark difference between the core narrative of each event.

The Republicans were rallying around a story of competition for scarce resources – with a fearsome opponent who is trying to grab your share and harm you. In contrast, the Democrats were weaving a narrative around reaching across boundaries and cooperating to create more abundance for everyone.

It struck me that game theory has something to say about politics here.

Schoolyard games & political speeches

In game theory, there are two types of games we humans like to play: zero-sum games, where opponents compete for scarce resources and rank-ordered superiority — and non-zero-sum games, where partners collaborate to create more abundance for everyone.

You can see these games played out on schoolyards – and political stages – all over the world. Some kids (usually girls) like to play cooperative games – like “family” or double dutch — where the object is to have fun together doing something you can’t on your own. Others (usually boys) gravitate towards competitive games – like throwing contests or organized sports – where there are clear winners & losers, and the object is to find out who’s best.

The RNC Narrative: “I alone can fix this”

A zero-sum narrative is about determining who is most deserving – who’s on top – who gets the resources and reaps the rewards. When you fan the flames of xenophobia, incite suspicion & paranoia, and signal to white pride leaders that you’re speaking their language – that’s a classic zero-sum narrative of us-vs-them.

Right now we’re seeing the same fear-based strategies and racist dog-whistles that Richard Nixon used to capture the Southern Democrats after Lyndon Johnson pissed them off by championing civil rights legislation. This playbook is built around a call for law-and-order — and not-so-subtle codes for racial hatred.  All built on a zero-sum narrative that assumes there’s not enough to go around.

The DNC Narrative: “Stronger Together”

In gaming terms, a non-zero-sum narrative is about banding together to create more abundance for everyone. This was the through-line of the DNC narrative- speech after speech, the message of “stronger together”  was reinforced.

This inclusive, co-op narrative is directly linked to Obama’s 2008 campaign message of “Yes We Can” – immortalized by in this brilliant song, inspired by Obama’s DNC  acceptance speech.

Here we are in 2016, seeing Obama handing the baton to his former rival – a woman he clearly respects, someone he invited into his inner circle after the election. Now THAT is a masterful co-op move. The Democrats are doubling-down on this reach-across-the-aisle theme, and inviting everyone to gather under an inclusive, optimistic tent.

Women Leaders and the Non-Zero Narrative

The DNC wasn’t just about Hillary; we saw many powerful women leaders take the stage – including Michelle Obama, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) & Rev. Leah Daughtry – with powerful, accomplished men cheering them on and acknowledging their power. In the words of the great sage Tina Fey – “Bitches get stuff done”

Our problems can’t be solved by individuals

I’m thrilled that the United States is catching up to the rest of the world and promoting women leaders – people who understand that problems we face today CANNOT be solved by individuals. I deeply believe in the non-zero narrative that tells us to put our energy into collaborating and banding together to solve problems – because as game designer, I KNOW that’s how shared abundance is created.

And women leaders can own that non-zero narrative like nobody’s business. #ImWithHer