The appeal, and vacuousness, of sports team politics
Jan 13, 2012

The appeal, and vacuousness, of sports team politics

Last Tuesday, the second game of the playoffs took place in New Hampshire with front runner Massachusetts Mitt leading the pack going into game three in South Carolina. For six months of the regular season the candidates squares off again and again and again, jostling for position in the rankings going into the playoffs. It has been a chaotic season with early hopefully like Bachmann and Perry seemingly down for the count, with Cain kicked out due to sex scandals, and late hopefuls Gingrich, Santorum and Huntsman desperately hoping to win a game and not let Paul, ever the underdog, secure the second place finish. The winner of this conference faces off against the clear winner of the other conference, Obama, next November.

I am talking, of course, about the GOP Presidential nomination contest. Drop the names, however, and I could have been taking about any vaguely unfamiliar sporting contest. This similarity helps to explain many issues.

Looking at the analogy of sports, we can see quite clearly why we might be interested in things like the nomination contests. There is a clear battle going on between established, celebrity players who we can boo and cheer for. Political issues get raised in debates with the main purpose of raising the issues being a way to score points, either for oneself or against another. Polls allow us to keep score. Candidates will play offensively and defensively. There are clear rules in an established game. There are twists and turns, scandals, rises and falls. As in, all of the excitement of a clash that comes from sports translates into the political arena.

I will just admit it: I enjoy following the GOP contest. Regardless of the societal implications, it isn't particularly valuable to me personally as a political blogger. I gain some insight on how the right, and its leaders, think and act, but much of the six months thus far of following the details of the campaign is fairly low quality. But it is entertaining. Just in the same way the avid sports fan wants to watch all the games, know what is happening to all the players, keep tract of the stats and generally talk about and become engrossed in this world of sport, so too do I, as a political junkie, find amusement in following this train wreck of a contest.

However, it is for precisely the same reasons that sports are quite entertaining, but not very valuable, that this contest is the same. What is valuable, in my mind, is a robust adversarial discussion of the pertinent issues of our times. Ostensibly, that is what the endless debates and campaign speeches ought to be about, with the people choosing the candidate with the best issues and values. In reality, it is far from this. What discussion of political issues occurs, it isn't really for the purpose of political discussion, but as a way to score points against each other. With the exception of Ron Paul, the actual policies and values are incredibly homogeneous between the candidates. Most of the discussion is constrained to empty rhetoric and platitudes. It is largely personalities, not politics, that are dominating the outcomes. And there is enormous feedback from polls where the perception of momentum has led, in turn, to essentially every candidate to have a surge in the polls. In short, the quality of the political discussion is severely lacking because the goal is not to have a good political discussion, but to win a very different game.

The media loves this:
We are now getting close to twenty debates in this contest, far more than normal. Viewership has been steadily very high getting millions per debate with a high of over seven million for one debate. There is now an easy and cheap, guaranteed body of news stories to write, and the subject for endless punditry, all of which is lapped up by the public. This problem extends from the height of mainstream media, all through the alternative sources I like to watch, down to the fringes like this blog (I have not exactly restrained myself from talking about this contest). Especially in a contest that has been so long dominated by Mitt Romney and his perception of inevitability, the media will constantly trumpet rises in their candidates and try to extend the idea that this is an interesting, relevant contest despite enormous rarities like a candidate managing to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, a sure sign of their invincibility. Everything from the format of debates, to the dependence on polling for stories, to the emphasis on gaffes, to the types of questions given to candidates is about perpetuating an interesting conflict, but not at all about getting to the core of political issues.

The problem with such a long, dominant campaign:
In Canada, modern election campaigns are typically about five weeks long. There is endless positioning before this, of course, but really focusing on the election and getting extensive coverage of the election is a short period of time. In the US, the campaign is essentially for about eighteen months. This is when one or both of the parties start the nomination process for the presidential candidates. The six month long drawn out period of actually holding caucuses and primaries and eventually selecting delegates runs from January to June and then it is open season until the actual elections in November.

I have now amassed a rather large number of political sites whose feeds I aggregate and view frequently. It was quite astonishing to see just how stark the transition was from normal political coverage to election coverage. Over the summer, the principle topic was all the deficit ceiling and budget crisis negotiation issues. Included in this was the compromise to the Supercommittee that had the power (although in the end it accomplished nothing) to make multi-trillion dollar changes to the government. However, by the time that the fall rolled around even the number one political story had faded away in the face of the endless noise about the GOP nominations, the Supercommittee negotiations and the like we're all barely even covered. Let alone all the innumerable issues and stories that are not the number one political story going on in Congress. Even the debt ceiling and budget showdown issues had something of a sports team feel to them as a battle of titans to see which of the celebrity leaders would win, something that is covered with much more enthusiasm than the kind of bipartisan consensus over issues like the NDAA.

A reasonable heuristic to see if something is worthwhile is the retroactive test. That is, if after something is all said and down, whether we think we have learnt things or gained understanding for following the minutiae of it. Clearly who is elected President, or even a losing nominee, makes a big difference on the country and the contest is critical at framing the political debate. However, looking back, knowing all the twists and turns of, say Herman Cain's rise, is utterly inconsequential.

Whatever value there may be in the political discussion that arises from the extended presidential election contests, it is trumped out by the lost opportunity costs of spending eighteen months devoting such a large percentage of our attention to such a low quality discussion that focuses overwhelmingly on polls, personalities, and platitudes and crowds out discussion of real political issues. It warps our entire perception of politics in a deeply disturbing way. It is the greatest sports team conquest that politics has, and we desperately need a higher quality discussion.

The point of this post was to get at the parallel between the GOP nomination contest and the structure of a sports contest. I think it stands on its own. In a subsequent post, I will use the sports team analogy to make a more general point about the us vs. them, sports team mentality in politics that is so pernicious in politics, particularly in the US. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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1 comment:

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