Clinton, Trump, and Reverse Sour Grapes

You’ll have to pardon me, but this is a political post—not sports politics, like stadium deals, but politics politics, presidential politics. But as I wrote a while back, the way we generally follow electoral politics is as a sport, so understanding how we relate to sports can help us understand how we relate to politics. So with that in mind, I want to use the closing days of the Trump-Clinton race to think about how we talk about losing.

One of my favorite sports paradoxes is the expression, commonly heard from a losing team or its fans after a game, “They didn’t beat us; we lost.” It’s paradoxical because “we lost” implies “they beat us” (except in the case of a forfeit, I guess), and yet it makes intuitive sense: in theory, a sports result reflects a gap in performance between the winner and the loser, and that gap can be created more by the winner’s good play (“they beat us”) or by the the loser’s poor play (“we lost”). “They didn’t beat us; we lost” suggests that in this case, the gap was 100% due to the latter. Partly, this is bitter self-excoriation: we could have won if we had played up to our potential. Partly, though, it’s a way of denigrating the winning team. The message to the winners is, “you don’t get credit for winning; in fact, you’re irrelevant to the contest. We alone determine who wins. Fortunately for you, we failed ourselves this time, but given another match it would probably go differently.”

Obviously, this is a form of sore losing, for which I propose the name reverse sour grapes. The ordinary form of sour grapes says that a loss doesn’t count as a loss, in effect, because the goal wasn’t desirable. Reverse sour grapes says that a win doesn’t count as a win because the winners didn’t prove their superiority over the losing team. Either way, the losers are spared the humiliation of having been beaten in something they wanted to win.

This is relevant now because Hillary Clinton, by all indicators, is about to blow out Donald Trump in the November 8 election. (A nice thing about politics as opposed to sports is that, since the actual “scoring” is done by voters rather than by the candidates themselves, it doesn’t feel like a jinx to talk about the likely results in advance. The odds of Clinton losing may be the same as the odds of an NFL kicker missing a 30-yard field goal, but it wouldn’t be Clinton missing the field goal; it would be the voters, or perhaps the pollsters.) Naturally, people who would prefer a candidate other than Clinton to be president are looking for ways to feel better about her impending victory, and that’s exactly what sore losing provides.

The most basic form of sore losing, in politics and in sports, is to claim that the game was rigged, the officials were biased, etc.; a loss doesn’t count if the competition wasn’t fair to begin with. We’re seeing plenty of that this year, but it’s crude and conspiratorial, and beneath many people’s dignity (though not Trump’s). Sour grapes won’t work here, obviously—you can’t pretend the presidency isn’t desirable (although “well, she won’t be able to get anything through Congress” is a move in this direction), so reverse sour grapes is a popular option. In the presidential race, I’ve seen two forms, which are mirror images of each other. The first holds that the defeated opponent is the only opponent the winner could have beaten; any other opponent would have won in a rout. This is the form you adopt when you wanted your team to go up against the winner, but they were eliminated before getting the chance. In sports this would mean the team from your league or conference or side of the bracket lost where a different team—your team—would have won (as when some bitter Cardinals fans claimed that the Dodgers intentionally let the Giants into the playoffs, out of fear that they would have to square off against the Cardinals). In this presidential race, you’d use this if you were a Republican who wanted someone other than Trump to be the nominee. All of these tweets are from the last week:

There are many, many more. (By the way, lest you think I’m egg manning, note that some of these accounts have thousands of followers.)

The other form of reverse sour grapes is to say that the winner was basically irrelevant, because the loser was so weak that anyone could have beaten them. This is the preferred stance if your chosen team would have faced the eventual loser but got eliminated before getting the chance. In this case, that means Sanders supporters who think that a Democratic victory would be just as assured with him as the nominee.

(By the way, left-wingers are capable of deploying the first form of reverse sour grapes too, as the below tweet shows, whereas a conservative can’t very well claim that Bernie Sanders would easily get elected president:)

I want to keep the political analysis to a minimum here, since it’s neither my point nor my specialty. I’ll just say that these points seem self-evident to me:

  1. Clinton certainly would have had a much more difficult election against almost any other Republican candidate, and it’s reasonable to think she’d be the underdog in such a race.
  2. Similarly, it’s reasonable to suppose that Trump’s many liabilities would have made it hard or impossible to defeat any Democrat, even one with views well to the left of the mainstream like Sanders (or Zombie Debs).
  3. At the same time, in a time of intense polarization like this one, very few candidates win the presidency by 10 points. Even Obama in 2008 only won 53-46. To say that another candidate would have “easily” won by that margin sounds less like analysis and more like hurt feelings.
  4. I voted for Sanders in the primary, but no Democratic nominee has had a program as far left as Sanders’s since…I don’t know, George McGovern? That makes it hard to say with confidence how such a platform would fare in the general election, even against Trump. Confidently suggesting, in effect, that there’s no point past which a left-wing platform would cut into a candidate’s support sounds to me like wishful thinking; I share the wish, but not the thinking.

But my point here isn’t to litigate the accuracy of these hypotheticals, which being hypotheticals cannot be accurate or inaccurate. And that’s exactly what I find annoying about reverse sour grapes: the hypothetical (if we’d played better, if you’d been up against a real opponent) frees us up to make whatever extreme claims the natural petulance of losing drives us to make, disguised as irrefutable analysis. You can beat me on the field, but not on the field in my head.

The other problem with reverse sour grapes is that it entails narrowing our thinking on a subject of real interest: how did the winner pull it off, and would they be able to adapt to beat a different opponent?

Christman is responding to an Ezra Klein piece that praises Clinton’s debate performances, and I actually agree with Christman that Klein’s piece is gushy and simplistic (the claim amounts to “her polls are better after the debates than they were before, so the debates obviously made a huge difference,” which has a serious post hoc/propter hoc problem). But going to the opposite extreme—that Clinton’s performance was indifferent or even laughable but she was bailed out by an even worse opponent—is simplistic too. First, on the narrow point, it won’t work to portray Clinton’s debate performance as identical to her try-too-hard social media outreach (“Alicia Keys”); yes, there was an occasional clunker like “Trumped-up trickle-down,” but in general she was substantive and wonkish. Treating a male candidate’s specific and policy-driven debate performance as kooky and trivial would merely make no sense; for a female candidate, it’s offensive, whether one wants to see that or not.

And on the broader point, of course, Clinton actually did mention an Alicia in the first debate: Alicia Machado, whom she used to totally sandbag Trump. Based on the dustup with the Khans, Clinton’s team knew that Trump could be baited into dragging out a feud; based on his past history, they knew that he would double down on misogyny. That perfectly set up the Billy Bush tape, which led to the sexual assault revelations, and here we are. Obviously, all of that is dependent on Trump being a horrible candidate and person…yet none of Trump’s primary opponents took advantage of any of it. Nor is it obvious that the Machado angle would have occurred to Sanders, and, if not, whether his preferred line of attack would have been as effective.

Reverse sour grapes insists on treating the winner as a fixed entity: sure that worked on Trump, but if she tried that on someone else she’d be destroyed. It’s limited in that it doesn’t consider how, in the counterfactual, the winner’s strategy would change too.  Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich probably don’t have a Machado in their closets, let alone a history of sexual assault. But it’s a mistake to think only in terms of Clinton’s tactics (mention Machado, goad Trump on his history) and not the attributes that made them possible: patience, psychological insight, political imagination. I have no idea whether any of that would be enough to beat a tougher opponent, given her own liabilities. But it’s unserious not to give it any consideration.

Sore losing is indulgent: losing hurts, and we want something to dull the pain. It’s a perfectly understandable impulse, and we’ve all given into its various forms at some point or another. But as a form of commentary, whether in politics or sports, the only proper response is a Yiddish saying, “As di bubbe volt gehat beytsim volt zi gevain mayn zaidah”: If my grandmother had balls, she’d be my grandfather.

Image credit: “The Balloon Drop at the End of the Democratic Convention” by Lorie Shaull is used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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Why don’t we give the championship to the team with the most wins?

On May 28, the Golden State Warriors’ season looked to be on the verge of coming to an end. The consensus favorites to win the NBA Championship—they had won 73 games, the most in NBA history, beating the record of the 1996 Chicago Bulls—the Warriors were now losing the Western Conference Finals three games to one, on the road against Oklahoma City, down five points at the half. A win would keep their championship hopes alive; a loss would bring the season to an end. “Either way,” I wrote on Facebook—I’m a Warriors fan—“this has been an incredible season and nothing can detract from that.”

It’s exactly what a loyal fan is supposed to write, but I knew it was a lie; the only honest statement would have been, “…nothing can detract from that, except the Warriors not winning the championship.” Like everyone else, I knew perfectly well that to set the record for wins in a season and then fail to win the championship would completely change the tenor of the Warriors’ season: from a historically great team, the greatest team in NBA history, to a historic disappointment, a historic underachievement. No one would ever bring up their dominance of the league without adding that, when it really mattered, they had blown it.

And yesterday, that’s exactly what happened. After making that comeback against the Thunder, after leading the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers three games to one, the Warriors withered in the face of an unprecedented performance by LeBron James, scored no points in the last four-plus minutes of Game 7, and finished the season as runners-up. And, as I had known would happen, the reassessments of the Warriors’ greatness began immediately:

The Warriors’ loss completes a remarkable trend: in the four major American sports leagues, none of the record-holders for most wins in a season won the league championship that year. In baseball, the 2001 Seattle Mariners; in hockey, the 1996 Detroit Red Wings; in football, the undefeated (until the Super Bowl) 2007 New England Patriots; and now, the 2016 Golden State Warriors.

Why do we do it this way? After a team has outperformed all the others, why do we make it pass through a playoff gauntlet against those same vanquished teams in order to be crowned champions? The actual facts of the answer are pretty prosaic: in the early days of baseball and football in the United States, you had multiple leagues competing to be the preeminent professional league in that sport. When a minor league came to rival the main one—the American League reaching parity with the National League in baseball—or a larger league absorbed a smaller one—the NFL merging with the American Football League—it made sense to simply have a playoff between the winners of the formerly independent leagues, who wouldn’t have faced each other during the regular season. And today, with thirty teams in each league, the entertainment and financial incentives to make the championship open to more teams via a playoff makes the idea of moving away from that system a non-starter.

Still, it’s worth noting that this is not the case all over the world. The top-flight European soccer leagues handle their league championships straightforwardly: whatever team is at the top of the table at the end of the year is the champion, period. The leagues do have knockout tournaments, like England’s League Cup and Association Cup, but these include all the teams in the league, the highest and the lowest, and are independent of the league championship. Sometimes the championship is high drama—in 1989, Arsenal won the English championship over Liverpool on a last-minute goal in the last game of the season—and sometimes it’s settled weeks before the end of the season. But it’s always definitive: if you win the most games, you’re the winner.

I can’t lie: as a Warriors fan, I find that cold rationality pretty attractive right now. The Warriors this season won 73 games; the Cavaliers won 57, in what is widely thought to be the inferior conference. Why should four points in one game—an in-and-out three-pointer here, a missed free throw there—cancel out the 16-win difference between them?

It doesn’t make sense. But of course, if sense is what you’re after, you shouldn’t be following sports in the first place, and if what sports fans wanted most of all was the unambiguous knowledge of who’s the best, track and field would be the most popular sport in America. The possibility of a lesser team beating a greater one in the playoffs has given us some of the greatest stories in sports: the “Miracle Mets” beating the powerhouse Orioles in 1969; David Tyree’s catch to help stun the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII; and—I’ll grudgingly admit—LeBron’s superhuman block of Andre Iguodala in Game 7 on Sunday. Uncertainty is bad for settling the quantitative question of superiority, but it’s great for storytelling. The victory of scrappy, hard-luck Cleveland, a city with an unpromising economic outlook and no championships in over fifty years, over the Bay Area, a tech boomtown with money to burn and major sports championships in each of the last two years, wouldn’t be possible without the equalizer of the playoffs.

The reason the playoffs aren’t going anywhere is that they’re so lucrative, but the reason we fans love them so much is that they’re democratic. By pure happenstance, the major American sports leagues—pure hypocrites when it comes to the question of American values—have managed to embody one of the most central and elusive tenets of the American Dream: the idea that the underdog has a real shot. What the playoffs offer to fans is possibility—often desperate, sometimes absurd, but real nonetheless.