In politics, we take for granted that winning is a (or the) key to progress because we connect winning to access to power and power to our ability to deliver. And we assume that if we deliver on our promises, we move society in the “right” direction. But if any of the links in that chain fail, our assumptions about functional representative democracy start to strain. We take winning so much for granted that we’ve begun to treat it as a moral good and to build our civic culture and political identities around winning rather than around the principles that matter to us. BUT how winning is connected to outcomes and what kind of power we wield matters. AND if that power is not leveraged effectively or shaped by the right principles (or even used at all), then that assumption — that winning means progress — at best falls apart and at worst might mislead us entirely.
As we look ahead to 2022 and because of how damaged our politics are both on the electoral campaign side and on civic governing side, we might not be able to rely on winning to get us what we actually want and need. The lack of clarity in moral leadership, the pettiness of our arguments, and the lack of interest in delivery mean that winning is less correlated with getting the future we want — partially because we are less articulate about what that future looks like which leaves us holding on to the weak correlate of winning rather than embracing a clear vision with clear policies that will support it and clear markers of progress to guide us. Our obsession with winning also shapes how we campaign, who we engage, and what we say. Exactly how this culture shapes our parties, how we interpret and use data, and how we campaign is probably a whole other essay. But the more we focus on 50+1 (and on our opponents getting 50-1), the narrower and more exclusionary our worldview becomes, and the less and less incentive we have to expand our ideas, to be inclusive about the future, or to encourage people to participate in civic life after election day at all.
In addition, the politics of outrage and conflict encouraged and promoted by our unhealthy media systems means most political positions are defined in opposition and end up inherently backward-looking. Given the hyperpolarization of national duopoly politics in particular, our opponents losing is often interpreted as winning. In this case, winning may mean we don’t get what we don’t want but has less and less to do with getting what we do want. Increasingly, public service is less and less about delivery and more and more about using institutional positions to build cultural power rather actually serve people. Public service has become a means to cultural power — see Devin Nunes leaving Congress to run President Trump’s new media company — rather than an exercise in borrowed power in service of a better future.
And at the risk of deeply burying the lede here, beyond its contribution to our political dysfunction, this emphasis on winning and the idea that winning is a moral good also reflects a consistent failure of modern American culture confusing achievement with morality. In so many spaces we see winning and achievement justifying moral bankruptcy (see Urban Meyer and Brett Kavanaugh), and our willingness to do that is rooted in the requirement at the heart of our zero-sum political economy that growth is good. It is a consequence of the slow industrialization of meaning that we struggle to distinguish good from successful.
In the pitched, partisan battle that is current American politics, it may be the case that we must continue to fight and win the broken fights because ceding institutional power to people who do not believe in service, in community, in the value of borrowed power and stability of institutions is dangerous. But it may also be the case that we desperately need to invest in new pathways to the future we want that may not go through our current institutions until we can reform them and the incentives to which they respond. Winning may be necessary to survival but is not sufficient to progress.