The Sport of Politics

Welcome back! It’s the one-year anniversary of my first post here on The Spiel, and I’d love to spend this post reflecting on how it’s gone so far. However, my excitement at this milestone is tempered by the fact that it’s been almost two months since my last post here. Now, granted I’m more of a baseball fan than anything else, so my fandom always goes into hibernation a little bit during the long shadows of winter. But it’s not like there haven’t been sports stories in all of that time: the concussion crisis in football (they even made a movie about it, not that anyone saw it), the Patrick Kane case, Carly Fiorina’s tweet about the Rose Bowl, the Rams moving back to LA (as we discussed in this space a few months ago). And of course there have been a few (generally less depressing) baseball news stories in the last couple months too; a friend of mine even posted this story to my Facebook to get my thoughts, and I couldn’t summon an opinion. I started to worry that I was already entering the blogger doldrums, after about a dozen posts spread out over a year.

But then the other day it finally hit me why I couldn’t sustain an interest in sports all of a sudden: all of my attention, for months, has been sucked up by Presidential Primary politics instead.

If war is simply politics by other means, as von Clausewitz said, then electoral politics, especially at the national level, is simply sport towards other ends. You pick your team (or it picks you), you religiously follow its ups and downs, and you root like hell. Maybe sometimes you’re torn about who to root for—this one was your childhood team, but that one plays where you’re living now and doesn’t have that player with the problematic headlines, and plus neither of them really share your foreign policy— in which case your conflicted feelings when your teams square off against each other becomes part of the pleasure of it all. Whatever the case, you follow them through the title run until the big moment, where you put on the TV to watch the results. If they don’t win, it’s a shame.

Reading this, your immediate objection should be that this is an awful thing to say because politics actually affects people’s lives. But I’ll stress again that I’m not talking about “politics” writ large, but about electoral politics. We complain all the time about the media limiting its coverage of politics to just the horse race aspects*, but we don’t often think about how many people who consider themselves “into politics” are consuming politics not selflessly, for the greater good, but as entertainment. If it’s just about identifying the policies that will help people and the candidates who will best implement them, why do we care so much about polling, to the extent that we made a celebrity out of someone (a former baseball statistician, by the way) solely based on his skill with polling models? If it’s just about persuading people to support our causes, why do we so often seek out arguments with ideologues who we know for a certainty are as unpersuadable as we are? Even when we do complain about the media’s shallow interest, it’s to some degree because we want richer entertainment—like fans wishing that a baseball announcer would stop talking about grit and the will to win.

*As an aside, the use of “horse race” to describe electoral politics has to be one of the most inapt metaphors we have. A horse race is a quick, one-off event and the winner is known immediately; there are no tactics or surprising developments to speak of. An election campaign lasts all year, with daily updates to obsess over, 90% of which will be forgotten by the time it all ends. It’s the closest match to a baseball pennant race I can think of, even before considering that Election Day is right after the World Series.

A lot of political behavior can be better understood by analogy with sports fan behavior. Take the whole “BernieBro” phenomenon; I hate the term and I’d rather not use it here, but it seems to have stuck. Basically, there’s a perception that Sanders supporters online are much more likely to respond vociferously or obnoxiously when their candidate is criticized than other candidates’ fans are. Some have dismissed this as pure, cynical, pro-Clinton partisanship, but the idea is not strange to anyone who knows fans: all fanbases have the folks who yell “bias!” when someone predicts their team won’t do well, but especially fanbases that have chips on their shoulders from a pattern of perceived dismissal and condescension from the big boys. It would be bizarre if there weren’t a tendency for fans of a campaign like Sanders’s—the political equivalent of a small-market underdog team—to unload on perceived disrespect against his campaign, the same way a lot of Royals fans got kind of unhinged about being disrespected despite going to the World Series twice. (I’m on thin ice here, but this could also help explain why this discussion has a decidedly gendered component.)

Obviously, everything I’ve written so far represents a deeply privileged viewpoint. A huge number of people don’t have the luxury of looking at politics as entertainment; elections affect all of our lives, but for some, here and abroad, they’re a matter of life and death. I also don’t mean to ignore the people who do get involved, who devote their money and time and effort into making a difference, in and out of elections. Lest you think I’m a pure dilettante when it comes to politics, I’ve been in that role myself—I’ve organized trips to protest marches; I’ve dialed phones and knocked on doors; I’ve raised money (in 2008 I offered my friends oil changes in exchange for donations to the No on Prop 8 campaign). The chance to get involved is one of the starkest differences between sports and politics—no one signs up to phonebank on behalf of the Yankees (though I guess pressuring city government to give the team a plum deal to stay in town is a version of that, in a tragicomic, false-consciousness kind of way). But too many people don’t take advantage of that chance, and I’m always wishing I’d do more for political causes the same way I’m always wishing I’d give blood. I’m not saying that looking at politics the way we look at sports is correct or preferable; I’m saying it’s what happens a lot of the time, and we shouldn’t pretend that high-minded motives are the only ones.

So while saying that politics kept my mind off sports might at first seem to be an indictment of sports, that it hamstrings us as citizens by filling the part of our attention that should properly be fixed on weightier matters—the whole panem et circenses thing—I think it actually serves as a better indictment of politics, or at least of what people like me mean when we use that word. In all of the political discussions, arguments, and quips I’ve been consuming and creating this primary season, I haven’t seen or made one call for people to take part in any political action other than voting, except—very occasionally—calls to volunteer to try and get other people to vote. All of the discussion is around who should win and who’s going to win, none of it around all of the causes (and even elections) outside the presidential level that need advocates. In fact, I’ve probably spent as much time following the Republican primary as I have the Democratic one, which is pure spectating on my part because there’s zero chance I would consider voting for the Republican nominee. So how could I claim that I’m not following politics primarily as entertainment? And do you think I’m the only one who’s engaged in this way?

I’m not trying to say that following politics shouldn’t be fun; that would be like saying that eating healthy food shouldn’t taste good. However, if your consumption of politics, like mine, is dominated by the fun parts—the back-patting of people already on your side, the schadenfreude, the predictions—you aren’t really following “politics” at all. You’re following sports.

Now, the entire existence of this blog is devoted to the idea that there’s nothing wrong with following sports! Among other things, sports, though meaningless on their own terms, are a forum for discussing all kinds of matters of import. Just in one year of sporadic blogging, I’ve gotten to think about issues of philosophy, of labor and power relations, of the role of the media. Politics, which is not meaningless, does no worse by this measure: the discussions around the primary, aside from the important policy discussions themselves, have led to all kinds of interesting reflections on the meaning of “progressivism,” or on the tensions between socialism and the concept of reparation. We should feel no embarrassment acknowledging when politics is being used as thoughtful entertainment, and I think to do so would improve our political discourse.

The Internet has allowed the sports fans interested in intelligent discussion, as opposed to ranting, to find each other and develop rhetorical moves that allow that discussion to happen between nominal rivals: empiricism, a presumption of good faith, and an agreement to separate the individual from the cause. In politics, though, a lot of usually thoughtful people feel the license to abandon the sense of detachment that they bring to sports and go for the jugular like the worst Bleacher Report commenter. You can see it in the different way we treat predictions: sports bloggers are much more likely to make fun of their own wrong predictions than other people’s, but pundits who confidently predicted that Trump would fade by the end of Fall get raked over the coals. You can see it in the rancor intelligent people wield as a point of pride, and in the constant presumption of bad faith (“You’re just looking for a job in the Clinton administration”/”You just don’t care about women”). Yes, the rancor is explainable in that these are real issues that affect people’s lives: how can we talk about civility when lives are at stake? (And of course sometimes the bad faith accusations are justified.) But we are for the most part not treating issues as real when we argue about them and do nothing else.

Let’s acknowledge when we’re in this for the intellectual fun and the dramatic ups and downs, so that we can approach these subjects in the way most likely to bring light on them and keep people engaged. And if we can’t bring ourselves to say that we’re following politics as fans, if it makes us too uncomfortable, then it’s probably the sign of a guilty conscience, one that might be assuaged by getting out there and doing politics as opposed to playing politics.

Image credit: “Washington Nationals Racing Presidents” by Scott Ableman is distributed under CC BY-NC-ND.

2 thoughts on “The Sport of Politics

  1. Pingback: Clinton, Trump, and Reverse Sour Grapes | The Spiel

  2. Pingback: On Sticking to Sports in the Age of Trump | The Spiel

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