On Winning

Yesterday I came across an article in the Washington Post which actually frightened me. Not because of the events described, but because of the portents it holds for our future. The North Carolina House of Representatives, at a time in which many of the Democrats in the House were at a 9/11 Memorial Service, decided to hold a surprise vote to override the governor’s budget veto. It’s a vote they couldn’t have won if all members were present.

This is fully within allowed procedures of the house, so people decrying this as “criminal” are incorrect. In fact, “criminal” would be a better reality because it would mean there was, in theory, some recourse to pursue. What the North Carolina House Republicans did was covey that they don’t want to work with “the other side of the aisle,” because the only thing they care about is having their side win. They showed they aren’t partners in governance, but ideologues who despise any world not run by them. They won a battle, unethically, and lost the ability to have principled engagement with anyone who isn’t already in step with them. And they did this because, in our culture, winning has become the highest virtue.

And make no mistake, while this was a despicable act on the part of Republicans in North Carolina, the idea of winning has become an overriding concern across the political spectrum. The one thing our political left and right agree upon is the moral certainty that comes with being on top of the pile. They just take different routes to get there.

Look, I like winning. When I play a game or root for a team I want to win. But that’s the point, my desire to win is linked to games. In a sporting event, or playing Parcheesi 1, striving to beat your opponents is fine. Even in an election, where there are winners and losers by definition, the desire to win is great. But whether it’s sports, board games, or a political election winning is not a virtue.

Winning is just… winning. You aren’t morally compromised if your team doesn’t win a championship 2. You aren’t unworthy of love if you lose a board game 3. Your ideas aren’t worthless if you lose an election 4. You lost a contest, your value as a human-being isn’t diminished. Nor should you be made to feel as though people find you unclean for doing so. Losing is not a moral failing.

And that’s the problem with what our politics have become. If the only way to be virtuous is to win then there can be no compromise. There can be no cross-spectrum solution in which everyone gets something but no one gets everything. In our hyper-partisan, winning-focused, culture a solution where “they” get anything is considered a loss.

You can’t run a republic like that 5. Attempting to do so will only lead to more and more resentment on the part of the governed. It typically ends in violence, which we’re already seeing. Actual civil war is not out of the question the more polarized we become.

Winning is not a virtue. A virtue, according to our national aspirations 6, is to recognize our need for one another as we continually re-imagine this strange and wondrous culture which we share. And if we don’t figure it out, we might lose all of it.


  1. An underrated game if there every was one. I played Parcheesi with my PopPop more times than I can remember. Great times. 
  2. Though blowing smoke at your fan base by telling us your analytics are genius, when they are clearly not, is a moral failing. I’m looking at you, Phillies. 
  3. If this was the case, I’d be screwed. I’ve tried playing table top party games. I always lose. 
  4. Ideas can be worthless regardless of how an election turns out. 
  5. Nor can you run a republic, meant to represent the general population, as representatives only of large corporations. But that’s another story. 
  6. Which we are always falling short of, hence the need for this reminder.