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Tit for tat

Gavin Newsome: payback as justice. Source: Wikipedia

Gavin Newsome, governor of California, deserves great credit for what may be the most inspired political tactic of the year. He slammed both right-wing Texas and the right-wing hacks on the Supreme Court in a single move. Newsome will work with the California legislature to enact a law that allows private citizens to sue gun manufacturers. The law is to be modeled on the Texas law that allows private citizens to sue abortion providers, a law which the U.S. Supreme Court so far has refused to strike down. Letitia James, the New York attorney general, has called for legislation in New York that would follow California’s lead.

Though “tit for tat” sounds petty and mean, it actually is an effective strategy in game theory. There also is the theory that it was tit for tat which, over time, led to the development of social cooperation and altruism. In tit for tat, you cooperate as long as your opponent cooperates. But if your opponent plays a dirty trick, then your next move is to strike back with an equivalent dirty trick. Both players stand to lose until cooperation resumes.

Are the right-wing hacks on the Supreme Court hackish enough to tie themselves into knots to uphold the Texas law while overruling a California law? They may well be.

For decades, the United States was governable because norms were in place that fostered cooperation and fair play. But today the Republican Party has seen that its only means of getting and keeping power is to violate those norms. Thus political tit for tat, with smart countermoves like California’s, is now necessary.

Democrats have been infuriatingly slow to play hardball with extremist Republicans. The tit for tat should have started years ago, say, 1995. That was when Newt Gingrich, Republican speaker of the House, shut down the government in an attempt to get cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and other social programs. (Or was it because Clinton made Gingrich sit at the back of a plane?) President Clinton won that standoff. But Republicans paid Clinton back by trying to impeach him over Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich never got paid back for that.

One of the things I learned in my six years as a Democratic county chair is that, even in small-pond politics, political payback is necessary. When harmful political players play dirty, they must pay a price for it. If they don’t, the dirtiness not only will continue, it will escalate. Democrats wasted years trying to play nice with extremist Republicans. That’s part of how we got to where we are today.

There is a big difference, though, in how tit for tat is played. Nasty players will do things that are simply mean and harmful. Better players will find ways to make tit-for-tat moves that strike a blow for justice.

Newt Gingrich: a pioneer among extremist Republicans playing dirty. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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