Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Athleticization of Politics

A common liberal talking point is that religion exerts undue influence over modern politics. While I certainly don't disagree, I do recognize that the influence religion can have is limited strictly to the content of political discourse; it does not seem to shape the form or structure of political discourse. Religious belief may cause one to take a particular side on a given issue, but the fact that the issue is equipped with "sides" in the first place is traceable not to the hand of God, but to the juggernaut that is modern professional and collegiate sports.

The ubiquity of televised competitive athletics is the single most pernicious and destructive force ever unleashed on American civic life.

In this country, people are generally introduced to pro sports before they are introduced to politics. This naturally causes them to try to fit politics into the pro sports worldview. The problem is that there are two fundamental mismatches between the athletic and democratic mindsets: (1) competition versus cooperation, and (2) self-containedness versus integration.

Sports are competitive. They require winners and losers. Representative democracy was intended to be cooperative, not competitive. The founding fathers realized that the system could not afford to designate losers, because even the losers would still be part of the nation; the promise of the nation was that it would include, as much as it could, everyone within its borders. (The only political system explicitly based on the notion of winners and losers is totalitarianism.)

Applying the competitive mindset of athletics to a system intended to be cooperative totally perverts that system's dynamic. The ultimate goal of political discourse is to make policy, not score points for your team. Take the debates, for instance. A debate is supposed to be a collaborative search for common ground. It is supposed to be an exercise in compromise that answers the question, "Given that we have differences, what should we do?" Thanks to sports, though, debates have degenerated into mere opportunities for both sides to trade zingers and witty one-line putdowns. They are showcases for each side to emphasize how different they are from the other -- something that we already fucking knew! At the end of the debates, everybody argues about "who won the debate" instead of focusing on the fact that, in reality, everybody lost the debate, because the debate didn't resolve anything -- it didn't result in any actual compromises being made.

Sports teaches people that compromise is synonymous with losing, but in a representative democracy, compromise should be synonymous with winning. Failure to compromise is the losing outcome. If people didn't come to politics with their worldview already irreparably warped by pro sports, they would be capable of recognizing this.

This brings me to the second mismatch. Sports are self-contained, while politics is integrative. The consequences of winning or losing an athletic competition are confined mainly to the record books; the outcome of a game does not dictate how the players are henceforth allowed to live their lives. (Imagine if, after losing a game, a team were exiled from its home city, or its members imprisoned or fined; conversely, imagine if, after winning a game, teammates were given special tax breaks, or granted immunity from prosecution for crimes they haven't yet committed.) If the Yankees win the World Series, New York City doesn't suddenly qualify for additional federal funding; if the Cowboys lose the Super Bowl, Dallas doesn't suddenly see a decline in its sanitation. (The amount of money athletes earn is the only real-world variable directly correlated to their win/lose ratio.) The lack of real-world consequences trains people to think the strife is valuable in itself.

Politics is not self-contained. The "game" is played, but its outcome has a direct bearing on how not only the players, but indeed every person in the entire nation, are henceforth allowed to live their lives. There is a larger point to the interaction; the interaction itself is not the point.

In a previous post I mentioned Daily Kos and Little Green Footballs. These sites basically ignore each other except when one says something so offensive to the sensibilities of the other that the other is obliged to ridicule it. Daily Kos will say something intended simply to rabble-rouse within its base, and LGF will single it out for ridicule. Meanwhile, another liberal site, LGFWatch, exists simply to engage in this exact same process with Little Green Footballs. This chest-thumping juvenilia is what passes for contemporary political debate.

Imagine how this dynamic would be transformed if both sides were the true patriots they claim to be. Instead of constantly being on the lookout for the fuckups of an opponent, they would be constantly on the lookout for the valid points of a partner. This would be in keeping with the mindset of a true democratic republic. But because it conflicts with the mindset of pro sports, it will never actually occur.

Until this nation grows up and realizes that pro sports are a vapid triviality, with no bearing on the realities of life, our political discourse is doomed to vacuous, knee-jerk, back-and-forth "point scoring." Which is a polite way of saying, as long as sports are popular, we're fucked.

1 comment:

URaunt said...

I agree with your analysis of competitive athletics and your criticism of the manner in which political debates are conducted. They are not debates!
I have taken several workshops in effectiveness training, a 70's sort of communication process. It uses something called active listening where each participant responds by acknowledging and demonstrating his understanding of the content of the other person's statement and then expresses his disagreement or agreement with it, and his feelings about it. And it goes on like that toward a win/win conclusion based on mutual agreement on any agreeable parts or with an agreement to disagree.It isn't debate either, but it is cooperative, and eliminates gotchas.