By Mark Bauer
In a recent New York Times’ column, scholar Yuval Levin poses the question: “Why Do Our Politicians Keep Pursuing a Losing Strategy?”
This question might vex you, especially if you’re part of the growing number of Americans who believe the two parties aren’t adequately representing the interests of voters. In 2021, a staggering 62 percent of Americans said that Democrats and Republicans are doing such a poor job that we need a third party, according to a Gallup poll. If the majority of voters across the country feel that way, how the heck do we keep going to the voting booth expecting things to be different?
We’ve been on this merry-go-round for the last three decades. Levin points out that since 1992, control of Congress has swung back and forth between Republicans and Democrats more rapidly than in any previous time in American history.
“The effects of this flux have been perverse. You might think that two minority parties would each feel pressure to expand its coalition and become a majority, but actually both have behaved as if they were the rightful majorities already,” Levin says. “Each finds ways to dismiss the other’s wins as narrow flukes and treat its own as massive triumphs.”
That paragraph stood out to me. As a day trader, I recognized this behavior immediately. It’s the same psychological effect that causes most day traders to fail, and it’s the same psychological hack deployed by casino operators to keep gamblers spending money. Both day traders and gamblers can become so focused on the reward from random wins that they discount their losses, even as the losses continue to mount and eventually overshadow the relatively small number of wins.
You might also recognize this behavior as addiction. It happens when feel-good chemicals are released in the brain when we engage in certain activities, causing us to continue to engage in those activities in pursuit of the feel-good chemicals we experienced before. The dopamine hit from those chance wins is enough to overcome the bad feelings from losing.
Mark Douglas highlights this pitfall for day traders in his book, “Trading in the Zone.”
“The problem with any addiction is that it leaves us in a state of ‘choicelessness,’” he says. “To whatever degree the addiction dominates our state of mind, to that same degree our focus and efforts will be geared toward fulfilling the object of that addiction … we feel powerless to act in any other way than to satisfy the addiction. An addiction to random rewards is particularly troublesome for traders, because it is another source of resistance to creating the kind of mental structure that produces consistency.”
Read that last line by Douglas one more time: “An addiction to random rewards is particularly troublesome for traders, because it is another source of resistance to creating the kind of mental structure that produces consistency.”
What does this have to do with politics? It’s possible that our current electoral system has us in a vice. The two-party system makes each and every election feel like an existential crisis, and the only way out of that crisis is to vote for the Republican / Democrat party. If you win, you’re elated. If you lose, you feel dread; you might even feel like your life as you know it is slipping from your grasp. Because we can’t stand the discomfort of that dread, we’ll do whatever we can to make sure we can avoid it—even if it means voting in a way that hasn’t proven it will create long, lasting, sustainable change.
So what are we to do? We literally have to change the way we think. We have to be honest with ourselves about the fact that what we’ve been doing the last 30 years hasn’t been working. We have to recognize that real, impactful change is a heck of a lot more work than we care to admit. We have to understand that focusing on that hard work might result in short term losses, which will fill us with dread.
None of these things are easy pills to swallow. During one particularly bad stretch of trading, I was spiraling. Each day I dug myself in a deeper hole. I needed to stop trading so I could evaluate what was going wrong, but I didn’t feel like I could afford to stop–each day I’m not trading is a day I’m not making money. In reality, I couldn’t afford *not to* stop. My head wasn’t straight; I didn’t have a consistent strategy. I was hemorrhaging money.
It was only when I stopped and took a step back to take inventory of my problems that I was able to create emotional distance. My problem no longer controlled me and I was able to identify where I was going wrong.
In the same way, we might feel like we can’t stop voting the way we have. If we do, the *other side* would win. But we have it backwards. What good are we doing by going at it the same way we have the last 30 years? If we listen to the bottom line, the answer is clear as day: We need to find a better way. Admitting that truth is the first step out.
Mark Bauer is a producer, entrepreneur, day trader and former Independent candidate for Congress in Texas. Previously he spent 10 years as a legal journalist covering the legal market in Texas and regulatory issues in Washington DC.
Mark’s primary interests involve using content and storytelling to help different groups of people better understand one another.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.