With the rain starting to fall and the leaves beginning to turn, Americans are burrowing deep into their favorite season. Mesmerized by the bloody clashes. Compelled by the test of wills. Riveted by the desperation of a Hail Mary or the breathless analysis of a pundit.
Yes, this politics stuff is fascinating, rivaled only by football and reality TV for its diversionary power and containing more than a few elements of each. Why, no less an expert than Barack Obama has compared politics to football, explaining: “A lot of players, a lot of specialization, a lot of hitting. … A lot of attrition. But then every once in a while, you’ll see an opening. You hit the line, you get one yard. You try a play, you get sacked. Now it’s like, third and 15. You have to punt a lot. But every once in a while, you’ll see a hole. And then there’s open field.”
An apt analogy. Yet it is essential to understand the fundamental difference between governance, which is what Obama was talking about, and politics. As the past several months have reminded us — frequently, painfully — politics often is about as uplifting as watching the Cleveland Browns on an endless loop while strapped to a goal post. It is difficult to find inspiration in a presidential contest between a narcissist and a raving, maniacal, unhinged narcissist.
Still, the parallels between America’s two favorite pastimes are unavoidable. We are told that this is “the most important election of our lifetimes,” a bit of hyperbole applied to every quadrennial since Aulus Metellus was in the Roman Senate (Politifact might need to double-check that one), while football brings us a “must-win game.” We are told that “turnout’s going to be important,” while football delivers insight such as “turnovers are going to be important.” And we are subjected to minutiae such as Donald Trump’s comments about a beauty queen or the Packers’ success rate when it is third-and-7 in the first five minutes of the second quarter.
As Washington Post columnist George Will likes to say: “Football combines the two worst things about America. It is violence punctuated by committee meetings.” Which pretty much describes the condition of the nation’s politics.
Yet while we can make light of the similarities between politics and football, there also is a need for some serious analysis. Because one aspect of sports that has bled over to the game of politics is that of intractable partisanship, the kind that leads to the deeply held belief that you either win or you lose and there is no hope for the cleansing middle ground of purgatory.
Win for the sake of winning
Last year, researchers at the University of Kansas and the University of North Carolina found: “Many average voters with strong party commitments — both Democrats and Republicans — care more about their parties simply winning the election than they do either ideology or issues. Unlike previous research, the study found that loyalty to the party itself was the source of partisan rivalry and incivility, instead of a fundamental disagreement over issues.”
Or, as a brilliant columnist for The Columbian wrote earlier this year: “Football is a sport of aggression and anger and the imposition of will through brute force, with little regard to thought or compromise.”
OK, that was me, and it sounds pretty good a few months later. Because what is truly frightening about this election is not the idea of Hillary Clinton choosing Supreme Court justices or Donald Trump licking Vladimir Putin’s boots, it is the aftermath of the election itself. Trump, using all the power of his infantile intellect, already has suggested that if he loses it is because the election was rigged and that there might be a “Second Amendment” solution.
That is where the parallels go too far. Because instead of suggesting that we are akin to Seahawks fans against 49ers fans when it comes to politics, it might be helpful to remind us that we all are Americans.