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Everyone in American politics thinks their side is losing. How is this possible, and how can we counteract the zero-sum message of all against all?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Doom, disaster, despair.

America is done for. Its days of greatness are in the past. Our economy is in tatters; ordinary people are struggling, falling further behind. Our civil liberties are slipping away. Enemies are closing in all around. What’s worse, that other party (you know the one) has a death grip on the levers of power, and it’s wreaking havoc on our way of life.

This is a story you’ve probably heard. Maybe it’s one you believe yourself. What you might not know, especially if you inhabit a social-media bubble, is that it’s an unusually bipartisan sentiment. Both sides of the aisle feel like they’re losing.

This fascinating fact comes from a September 2022 Pew survey, which asked, “Thinking about the way things have been going in politics over the last few years on the issues that matter to you, would you say your side has been winning more often than losing?”

Strikingly, 72%—almost three-quarters of Americans—said that their side was losing more than it was winning. That’s a record going back to 2016, when Pew began polling the public on this question.

We haven’t always been so gloomy. In 2016, during the Obama presidency, liberals were more upbeat (although even then we were almost evenly split, as befits the perpetually pessimistic, Eeyore-ish left). In 2020, at the end of the Trump administration, conservatives were riding high and thought they were winning by a 2-to-1 margin (although that soon took a nosedive). What’s unusual is that liberal sentiment scarcely budged after Biden’s victory.

Obviously, a literal interpretation of this result is impossible. Just as everyone can’t be an above-average driver, liberals and conservatives can’t both be losing more than winning. The conventional wisdom of zero-sum politics dictates that a victory for either side is a loss for the other.

Why does everyone think they’re losing?

It’s likely that one reason for this is the tendency of news and social media to amplify the worst stories, while overlooking trends of quiet progress. If you go by the headlines, it seems as if loss and disaster are omnipresent. Even when positive stories get written, human negativity bias means we pay less attention to them.

Another reason that plays into this is that each side wants what it doesn’t have. I’ve heard it said that liberals are angry because they have cultural power but it hasn’t translated into political power, whereas conservatives are angry for the opposite reason.

In most movies, TV and advertising, gender equality, racial diversity and LGBTQ rights are principles that go without saying. Even if you think corporations are only paying lip service to these values, they are still acknowledging them—and that message of acceptance means something, even if it’s only symbolic. However, actual power remains concentrated among wealthy, conservative white men, which fuels the liberal perception of rampant hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, conservatives have the opposite problem. America’s broken political system gives white, rural areas disproportionate power, allowing them to win elections even when they’re in the minority. This feeds the delusion that they alone represent “real” Americans. But their policy victories can’t disguise the fact that they’re aging and dying, while the public is becoming more diverse, secular and tolerant with every passing year. No matter how they kick and scream, the mythical past they want to recreate slips further and further out of their grasp.

However, the biggest reason could well be the breakdown of trust in American society. The widespread loss of trust inevitably leads to paranoia, to seeing everyone not in your tribe as an enemy whose goals are opposed to yours. It leads to a worldview where there are no win-win solutions, where anyone’s gain must be at your expense. It leads to a worldview where people are willing to die to stop others from getting ahead.

The ultimate endpoint of the paranoid worldview is that other people, whose values and beliefs are different from yours, merely existing is a loss for you. The only way to win is to stamp out dissenting viewpoints entirely. It’s not hard to see this mindset at work in American politics—and to envision where it ends up.

Rediscovering non-zero-sum

There can be only one antidote to the toxin of all-against-all paranoia. We need to insist on the possibility of non-zero-sum outcomes: the win-win solutions that benefit everyone. Right-wing philosophy, because it exalts selfishness above all, denies that such a thing can exist. We need to show how this is wrong.

Progressivism, properly understood, is founded on non-zero-sum thinking. It’s the optimal solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma—by trusting each other and making the cooperative choice, we all end up better off. When everyone makes the selfish choice, we all do worse.

As an example, we advocate separation of church and state because it benefits everyone when the government doesn’t tell us what to believe or not believe, or make laws based on the peculiar beliefs of one sect. Who’s in power can change from one election to the next, and the church that’s on top today may be an outcast minority tomorrow. Secularism is a truce that ensures no one is either the dictator or the serf.

We advocate free universal education, including free college, because it benefits everyone to have a more educated society. It makes the country more economically productive, which makes us all wealthier, but it’s also intrinsically good to have a more informed public, more able to make wise choices for the maintenance of democracy.

We advocate free movement and immigration because everyone should have the right to live and work where they choose. It’s good for individuals when they can escape repressive societies, live where they can be free, and secure a more prosperous future for themselves and their families. It’s also good for society, because it makes us all wealthier when people can move to where they can make the best use of their talents.

This won’t sway conservatives who, as already mentioned, are so entrenched in their politics that they’re willing to die rather than surrender a perceived advantage. But those die-hards aren’t the majority. We don’t need to convince them, but we have to stop their assumptions from becoming normalized—that someone has to lose for someone else to gain.

We can neutralize this caustic message by spreading the gospel of non-zero-sum thinking. We can create a society where everyone wins. The solutions aren’t only possible, they’re everywhere, and bringing them into reality is what progressivism is all about.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...