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A year of political chicken

Jan 03,2024 - Last updated at Jan 03,2024

PRINCETON — The year 2023 ended on a sour, cheerless note, with looming elections in 2024 intensifying fears about the fate of democracy and the global order. In addition to the Russian presidential “election” in March, there will be European Parliament elections in June, the US presidential and congressional elections in November, and a general election in the United Kingdom sometime before January 2025. With the possibility of a populist wave on both sides of the Atlantic, there is plenty of reason to worry about the future of democracy.

Of course, populists do not always win elections, and even if they form the largest party in parliament, as in Poland and The Netherlands this past fall, that does not necessarily mean they will control the government. The scenario that is really keeping people up at night is the fact that Donald Trump has been leading US President Joe Biden in polls in states that Biden must win. But a Trump victory also may be less likely than both Trumpists and anti-Trumpians believe.

Such polls — taken a year ahead of the election — tend to stimulate angst and add to the sense of Trumpian momentum. But if we take a step back, we may find that the picture is more complicated. The current political dynamic in the US is unfolding along the lines of a game of chicken — a classic proposition in game theory. The template comes from James Dean’s “Chicken Run” in the movie “Rebel Without a Cause”, where two gang leaders race stolen cars towards a cliff to see who veers away from danger first. American democracy, and the world, is being subjected to the same terrifying experience.

Both major parties are poised to nominate weak candidates whose one commonality is old age. If re-elected, Biden would be 82 on Inauguration Day, and Trump would be 78. Trump has promised to be much more radical than he was during his first term. His goal is to bring “retribution”, and to govern dictatorially to purge the US state of those who oppose him. Yet, he seems increasingly incapable of forming coherent sentences, and he remains as oblivious as ever to elementary political facts.

Senility in high office has been disastrous at key moments in history. German President Paul von Hindenburg was 84 and suffering from advanced dementia at the time of the 1932 elections that brought Hitler to power. Similarly, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s during the Great Depression.

Of course, it is Biden who is most often painted, incorrectly and unfairly, as doddery. In fact, he remains very sharp; but he is limited by the fiscal and economic legacy of the pandemic. Though inflation has been receding, it has left many voters rattled, even in a strong economy. As the incumbent, Biden will bear the blame for this, regardless of whether it is his fault. Moreover, Biden needs to lower the temperature of US relations with China, even though Democrats and Republicans alike regard that country as a dangerous enemy.

The key to this election will be the mutual recognition by each side that the other side’s candidate is weak. Biden’s appeal among Democrats previously owed much to the fact that he beat Trump in 2020, when many other members of the party may well have lost. But now, one wonders whether a younger leader would be more effective in mobilising voters, especially younger Americans who might not vote at all.

This is where the game of chicken comes in: Two old men are racing towards a cliff, and each side needs to keep its weak candidate heading toward the cliff to persuade the other side to keep its weak candidate in the race. If a more vibrant candidate with less baggage were to come in at the last minute, they would have strong odds; but if the other side still had time to swap in a better candidate as well, it would be anyone’s game.

Oddly, Trump’s strong polling has the potential to change this dynamic. If the Republican Party is forced to see Trump as a winner, it is more likely to stay in the race and hurdle over the cliff. Under these circumstances, it makes sense for supporters to defect (in the language of game theory) from the disastrous Trump bandwagon while they still can. Lo and behold, that is what we have started to see with Nikki Haley’s emergence as a plausible alternative. Should the Republican dynamic shift, that will send a strong signal to Democrats to move to a younger candidate.

This US election logic matters because it is tied up with another game of chicken. Russia is facing economic and military exhaustion, higher inflation, and even signs of protest from the families of soldiers stuck in a suicidal conflict. But President Vladimir Putin has been betting that if he can hang on long enough, the other side will give up and cut its support for Ukraine. If Americans become disenchanted and Europeans grow more divided, that could deliver the populist electoral tsunamis that he needs in Europe and the US. A Trump victory in November would mean that Putin’s bet paid off; he will have won the international game of chicken.

But this second game is dependent on the first. If another Trump presidency is ruled out by the complicated interplay of the Republicans and Democrats’ electoral calculations, the prospect of Ukraine being abandoned will fade. Better still, a general recognition that reckless games are best left for Hollywood would usher in a new era of political sanity.


Harold James, professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University, is the author of “The War of Words: A Glossary of Globalisation” (Yale University Press, 2021). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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