winners and losers

Sometimes, when a really big thing happens — a big thing like a natural disaster, a scientific discovery, a terrorist attack, or a government shutdown — political commentators try to determine who the “winners and losers” of the Big Thing are.

This is a metaphor. In this metaphor, the Big Thing is a game and the people affected are the players. The “winners” are the people who benefited from the Big Thing and the “losers” are the people it inconvenienced or harmed.

In some ways, the metaphor is a good one. In both games and world affairs, people can be petty, vindictive, callous, and self-serving. Sometimes they’re lucky. Sometimes they cheat. Sometimes everybody follows the rules and nobody takes home the prize.

The main difference between an actual game and a political game is: Actual games don’t matter. Sure, a few egos are at stake — maybe the feelings of a few superfans — but nothing tangible hinges on the end the game. No matter who wins, thousands of people aren’t going to die or go hungry or lose their jobs as a result.

By contrast, political “games” really do affect people who aren’t wearing a uniform or a headset.

Talking about the “winners and losers” of these “games” makes it easy to forget about the actual humans whose actual lives are all tied up in the outcome. It also encourages the people holding the cards to score cheap points any way they can.