Politics as Sport (And Guess Who the Losers Are?)
The growing pressure on Washington Redskins owner, Dan Snyder, to change the team’s name prompted TIME Magazine to suggest in its November 4th issue an “alternative name more fitting for a sports team in the nation’s capital.” The lighthearted proposals included: The Washington Gridlocks, the Washington Whistleblowers, or the Washington Deficits.
(A disclaimer here: I do not follow sports. This was embarrassingly evident one evening when, acronym challenged as I am, I asked some guests at a dinner party in Florida what FSU stood for. The look of incredulity on the faces around the table prompted my defensive retort: “Sorry, the only FSU I know is the Former Soviet Union.” Unfortunately that didn’t make it better. Nor did I acquit myself on another occasion when I was asked if I knew about Crimson Tide. I replied by asking if it was an especially virulent form of ocean-based algae.)
Perhaps because of my general ignorance of sports, the TIME article made me smile. Indirectly, the magazine hinted at one of my long-held assertions. Politics in America has become more like a football game than “the art of the possible” – a means for debating and resolving policy issues. For many reasons, not the least of which is the competition to attract television viewers and Nielsen ratings, politics has become a game of winners and losers; a clash of showy rivalries. These passionately, sometimes obsessively-held team allegiances are based on loyalty rather than substance or performance. This is part of the fun in sports, but it is no laughing matter in politics.
During the recent budget standoff I could not help but feel like I was at the Super Bowl. It was as if the country was divided like fans at a national football field. On one side of the stadium the Democrats cheered, pompoms fluttering. On the other side, GOPers were roaring and honking horns, except for some who were grimly quiet. After brief stints of action on the political field, broadcasters provided endless replays and non-stop commentary, breaking down which side had more momentum going into the second half.
Excessive attention was placed on the freshman from Texas, whom tea partiers regarded as the GOP’s most valuable player. But it turns out the rookie was anything but. He let his team down by fumbling the ball while eyeing the bleachers. It soon became clear that he never had the goal [post] in sight.
In the weeks following the shutdown it was not much better. Instead of having a hard-headed national discussion on how to avoid further brinksmanship and finally come to a deal, we were subjected instead to endless post-game analyses of who won, who lost, and why. On October 23, weeks after the impasse had (temporarily) ended, Express, a scaled-down version of the Washington Post, had an insert. On the left side of the centerfold the headline read, “GOP Feels Shutdown Hangover.” I started reading. Then, attracted by the right page headline – “Who’s in a Better Position to Win?” – I was expecting an analysis of what the budget and debt standoff would mean for the midterm elections. Instead, I discovered I was reading the sports page!
I grant you that sports are a wonderful pastime for fans everywhere; they offer endless hours of enjoyment and serve as an innocent way to blow off steam. But the sports culture has now permeated the politics of policy in an alarming way, most significantly by trivializing the national stake we have in cooperation and collaboration.
This country has significant challenges, not the least of which is the refusal of our elected officials to practice the art of governance and compromise—one of the bedrock requirements of our system.
We are in the midst of revolutionary changes on many levels at home and abroad. If we can do more to think of ourselves as one team, we are more likely to find ways to address our challenges. Much good can be regained if we define progress as something other than the score.
So, if Dan Snyder takes TIME Magazine’s suggestion seriously and concludes that the name of his team must have some reference to the nation’s capital, I would suggest he consider something fun like the “Washington Cherry Blossoms” or the “Washington Monuments.” If those names do not sound like a fighting man’s team then perhaps the “Washington Legislators” would be more appropriate. That way there would be no more questions about the culture of politics and sport. And, if Snyder’s team plays well at least one set of Legislators would actually be making things happen.