America 2020: the dark power of a zero-sum narrative

Today is August 31st 2020. Here in the US, Coronavirus is still spreading & killing thousands every week — and we watch the party in power blatantly flout their own guidance and declare that it’s over.

Instead of returning to school, our kids are learning from home — while families struggle daily to manage a changing situation, and educators are bullied into putting themselves in harms way.

Unemployment is skyrocketing, especially among the most vulnerable –while the stock market is propped up by short-term economic tactics that will cause long-term harm.

We’re heading into Fall 2020 with fear & uncertainty. And we know from history that times like these are ripe for exploitation. People don’t know who to trust — and desperately want to hear a comforting narrative that explains what’s going on and convinces them that things WILL get better.

Amidst chaos and confusion, a zero-rum narrative that taps into tribal divisions and demonizes “the other” can be especially powerful — and incredibly dangerous. We saw this on display at the RNC last week. We see this as we watch white nationalists brandishing guns and confederate flags roaming our streets, threatening protesters and welcomed by police.

Our leaders are inciting tribal warfare. And like all corrupt leaders who welcome democracy’s downfall, they’re happy to incite chaos so they can scoop up power, money and military control.

Here’s the thing. A zero-sum game has a fixed set of resources — which means that anything “the other side” gets will diminish what’s left for you. This narrative is driving the denial of Covid, climate change, national debt, racial strife — everything. Here’s the thinking: “Resource are limited, it’s all going to shit so let’s grab the biggest share & dehumanize our enemies.”

What’s the alternative? A positive-sum narrative that taps into our shared humanity by presenting a challenge we win together by crossing tribal lines.

That’s the power of democracy — when it works.

By definition, players in a positive-sum game can grow the pool of resources by working towards a shared goal. Some societies thrive and create more for everyone by cooperating and behaving like “one tribe.” Some societies find ways to peacefully co-exist and channel their competitive zero-sum energy — like holding Olympics to glorify athletic prowess.

Right now, many white Americans are gripped by fear — and channeling that fear into a zero-sum racist narrative that rips open old wounds and reignites the original sin of our country.

At the same time, many Americans are horrified by this narrative — because we know that our strength and growth has always come from the vibrant energy of immigrants looking for a better life — looking for the opportunity to create something new.

Democracy is ripping at the seams, and the next few months will determine our fate. Can we come together and unite across tribal lines to play a winning game? Or will we fall prey to the dark power of a zero-sum narrative?

UPDATE 9–5–2020: this video on Systems Thinking digs deeper into the narrative power of storytelling. It’s a powerful expression of the themes I’m exploring here.

Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur

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