Playing Chess In Public Policy

Friday, May 29, 2020
In chess each player begins the game with the same 16 pieces: one king, one queen, two rooks, two knights, two bishops, and eight pawns. The most powerful chess piece is the queen, and the least powerful piece is the pawn. The object is to capture your opponent's king. To reach this objective, a player's pieces are used to attack and capture your opponent's pieces, while at the same time supporting your own pieces and protecting your king.

Politics and public policy are like chess. Unlike chess, politics is not a polite and gentle game. In fact, politics is a blood sport in many circles, where victors vanquish their foes. It isn’t as if this is some current phenomena either; Yale University historian Joanne B. Freeman writes in her book, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War, that 19th-century House and Senate members were a rough crowd. Freeman states they were “frequently drunk, often armed, and quick to take offense — and political disagreements regularly turned physical.”

It could be reasoned that today is mild in comparison, but I am also not certain we are far from the actions of our ancestors; we have simply traded weapons for keyboards. It is worth remembering that you cannot make friends of your enemies by making enemies of your friends. Too often politicians do not understand their own base of support and lose their followers. It may be from clinging too long to wrong ideas, or not engaging directly with people who may share similar ideas but offer differing approaches to solutions.

Morton Blackwell summarizes political conflict this way: “To succeed inside a political party, one must cultivate an ability to sit still and remain polite while foolish people speak nonsense.” That is probably easier said than done. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius had two rules in dealing with differing opinions: The first rule was to “keep an untroubled spirit.” The second was to “look things in the face and know them for what they are.” In other words, don’t be bothered by opposing ideas and keep to your principles. We are all shaken by circumstances and frightened by challenges. No person, no organization, nor any political party has all the answers.

I would argue that civility actually matters in politics. Ravi Zacharias nailed this issue when he said: “respect for the right of another to be wrong does not mean that the wrong is right.” We need more statesmanship in our world. Statesmanship is not just playing the game of politics well, but making that very game possible. Wendell Coats describes statesmanship as “an activity directed toward securing the conditions for politics to occur, as the basis for agreement about general courses of action, and for moderate reconciliation of differences among fellow citizens.” The same is true in public policy - we must account for differing opinions.

Good policy is intertwined with good politics. Never personalize the issue. Instead of screaming at each other from opposite sides of the political spectrum, imagine policies focused on helping those it is designed to help. When it comes to dealing with COVID-19 Pandemic issues, taking a long-range view, as we have on other policy issues, will require years of fiscal discipline, policy prudence, and deep community engagement. In education policy, we have to maintain funding for public education, which gives impetus to our economy. It is good policy, as well as good politics.

Choose your battles carefully in politics, and fight for what really matters. Not every issue or personnel matter is important. However, it is true personnel is policy, because the people you place in leadership roles make decisions that either support or hurt your agenda. While we should strive to have a diversified group of people to help build consensus, it does not serve the public to have a contentious leader in charge of an area that makes you lose ground in policy areas, or with your political base. Every problem in politics or public policy requires your time, energy, and political capital. Sally Percy, writing in Forbes Magazine, asks a very thoughtful question leaders must always ask: Is this your battle to fight?

In discussing chess, Rudolph Spielmann writes about the goal: “Play the opening like a book, the middlegame like a magician, and the endgame like a machine.” Chess is a journey of pain, sacrifices, determination, and triumph. It can be argued that it mirrors the public policy process. Just like politics, you may learn much more from a game you lose than from a game you win.

JC Bowman
Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee

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