Democracy is like the game of Jenga

Jenga is the name of that game where wooden blocks are stacked one by one to build a narrow tower that grows very high then each player must remove one block at a time without the tower collapsing into a pile of rubble.
Running a democracy is similar. The tower represents the power of a collective effort, the power of vision, cohesiveness, unity of purpose, and power among nations. The tower generates gross national product, human services and military defense. Being a democracy, like Jenga, it is a fragile compilation.
The analogy must be stretched a bit to understand the game of democracy. Unlike Jenga, democracy adds blocks and takes blocks away simultaneously. That is the purpose of democracy: everyone can draw benefits from the tower but in turn must at the same time add a new block to keep the tower strong. Like Jenga, democracy is a fragile construction but is not limited to one architectural vision; democracy is many towers, many broad, low lying configurations and spreads in every direction.
The skill is the ability for citizens to draw a beneficial block from the unity of the tower but to give a personal block back for the good of the tower. For example, the tower provides freedom of speech but in turn requires that a citizen must return that right to the tower for others to use as well. To press the analogy one step further, unity of purpose is the antigravity magic that keeps the democracy tower from collapsing.
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It is obvious, of course, that today the democracy tower is in disarray. It seems there are many citizens who take a block only and do not add one back to the tower. Many of these citizens are billionaire oligarchs, extremist groups, career-obsessed politicians, oppressed classes and racists. The reader may note the inclusion of the oppressed. Citizens without the benefit of democratic unity often rebel by debunking unity and will refuse to cooperate in any effort to build unity. Currently, they are called Trump’s Base.
Again unlike Jenga, the rulebook is humongous and, in fact, never ends. The rulebook covers subjects like taxes, economy, safety and health regulations, education, rules for corporations and religions, rules for individuals, and on and on. It is a difficult read as well. All of this diversity is held together by that magical antigravity – national unity.
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Not all the threats to the tower of democracy come from individual greed or misunderstanding. A major threat to the tower is the design of the tower itself. In the game of Jenga, imagine if one player wanted a tower that looked like a Saguaro cactus, another wanted a tower that looked like a Prickly Pear cactus and a third wanted a tower that looked like a Bishop’s Hat cactus.


To make it seem more relevant, instead of cacti, substitute capitalism, socialism, communism, authoritarianism, plutocracy, or likely in the future, hegemony. In practice, a citizen may take a block from democracy but does not put a block back that provides the same function; the citizen replaces it with something different. For example, a citizen may benefit from a change in tax benefits but in return insists on compensating for the benefit by reducing the payout to Social Security – two different images of the tower!
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This treatise is running long. Take a breath and dive into another Jenga analogy: Suppose everyone is playing Jenga and understands the usefulness of the building squares. Suddenly, as the players draw more blocks, they begin to take on weird shapes like pyramids, octagons, spheres and ellipses. Trying to build the tower – let alone trying to benefit from it – becomes a virtual impossibility. Welcome to Artificial Intelligence (AI).
We must have compassion for our democracy tower. It is faced with AI, climate change, global pandemic, global migration, rapid polarization of human resources, massive economic shifts both in production and in consumption; the Gross Domestic Product has come loose from its leash, and instant global data knowledge from the Internet has the effect of a power hose washing away antigravity.
Democracy needs more than money and politics in November. It needs unity. Vote accordingly.
Ancient Mariner.

1 thought on “Democracy is like the game of Jenga

  1. I am intrigued by the idea of Jenga and I love that you used this as a metaphor many times. This is a unique game that is highly versatile also in my own work. I use a single game of Jenga that I have had since my Master’s internship in 2010. It has handwritten questions/game on it for rapport building with youth and families, I use it to determine “wishes” of youth that have experienced the most horrible things to see how creative/pragmatic they can be, I use it in family therapy to talk about communication patterns putting holes and bringing instability to a system when it is negative, so many versatile ways to use the game as a child and family therapist. I even use it as a way to model anxiety expression and management and as a way to communicate emotions throughout the game just to support youth and families with expression. There are many layers.

    As I was reading, however, one aspect of Jenga came to mind as you were talking about the stability/instability of the tower. Twice, and only twice, in the many 100’s of times I’ve played this game, have myself and a young boy, (both times it was a 9/10 yo) completed the game without any moves left, no extra blocks to move, wasn’t played to the absolute perfection of the rules but none the less, if any additional blocks were removed, the tower was going to fall.

    2 boys, made 2 different decisions at this point. Neither of us had won or loss at that point and it was down to what next? 1 boy decided to knock the tower down by taking out one of the pieces from the very bottom of the tower. The 2nd boy and myself took turns, dismantling the tower, 1 block and turn at a time to then put it away in a nice stack in it’s box… ready to be played again.

    Maybe this is the choice we are all faced with right now. Watch the system fall or try to dismantle it to support a new game and another play.

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