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POLITICS AS A TEAM SPORT

By: Daniel Krawczyk & Michael Lundie


So much political disagreement centers around party politics. If someone voices almost any opinion we immediately seek to identify which team they play for? The reality is that most Americans don’t play for either team, but many act like they do. Why must everyday Americans immediately pick sides when we discuss policies, events, and what we want to see from our government? In this post we explore the reasons why team-thinking pervades American life and what we can do as everyday citizens.


As we experience these midterm elections one repeatedly hears the criticism that our political leaders’ actions are only motivated by schemes to influence the upcoming election. One may wonder: Will they ever get around to governing with our long-term interests in mind? It’s tempting to start laying blame as we consider this situation. Can’t we somehow change this?


The fact is politicians must focus on getting re-elected, remaining in power, and having the numbers needed to support policies. They are required to do so if they are ever going to accomplish anything, or even merely to stay employed. There’s simply no way around it. It’s part of their job description. Whether we like it or not, pretty much everyone must operate within our two-party system.


A sports analogy is helpful. The game is politics. The league has two teams. The national committees are the front office. The candidates are draft picks. Candidates who win consistently are the star players. Senate leaders are the coaches. We the voters are the fans. The voters often pick a team and stick with it. Much like a rabid fanbase, the voters cheer on their star players, root for success in elections, and have family bonding moments over their longtime support for the team. Political rallies are victory parades welcoming the team home after the title has been won. The parties even have signs, t-shirts, color-schemes, mascots, and bobble-head souvenirs! It’s a deep analogy and many Americans’ behavior falls directly in line with team-based thinking.



The politics-sports analogy helps us to make sense of action on the national stage. The national party committees exist to formulate strategies to keep their team in power. The star players succeed by criticizing their opponents. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer will never tell you that the other team is doing a bang-up job. Rather, they must consistently claim that their party has a monopoly on truth, justice, and the American way. They do so because it’s their job. Just as no coach is ever going to tell you that the other team is clearly better and that they have no plan to deal with it! If a party has an edge, they will use it. A cohesive party will defeat a fractured one. Just as you win as a team in sports, you win as a party in politics. Politicians nearly always maintain a steady narrative in which they are the good guys, have the better ideas, and should be the favored team. Slanted media outlets further encourage such behavior because it’s their job. People depend upon the team narrative to stay employed, so it’s easy to see how they oversell it to the public.



The sports analogy also helps make sense of everyday Americans’ behavior. Nothing riles up the fanbase like reveling in their dislike of the team’s arch nemesis. Sports fans know this and so do politicians. Negative campaigning is effective because people respond to it. Negative emotions often have primacy over positive ones. They are about survival. So, it’s easy to become overly invested in the success of one of the teams and buy into the narrative of good versus evil. Problems emerge when people get carried away believing in the heroism of their team’s cause and the villainy of the nemesis. Soon you can find yourself pining for a world in which your party governs the entire nation at all levels. Party propaganda outlets promote this as a utopian vision to strive for. But stop for a moment and consider the ramifications: just as in sports where a favored team steamrolls the underdog in every game, runaway elections only please the most hardcore fans. Everyone else loses interest.


In every sport the celebrated games are the close ones, the one’s decided in the final moments in which heroes emerges to claim the championship for the team. Everyone loves to see an even match with great heroics on both sides. We can root for those same trends within our two-party system. America at its best demands the best out of both parties. It demands that everyone put forth their best ideas to do the most overall good. After all, it’s our country. Both teams play for us. We all win in the long-term if the sport thrives with two strong teams.


What we should root for is a well played game in politics, just as we do in sports. Take debates, for instance. What defines a good debate should go beyond our impression of how well our preferred candidate performed. A good debate is one in which both candidates come prepared to advocate for their respective party’s policy positions as ably as possible. This brings the best out of both candiates. However, just like fouls and low blows can ruin a sports event, we all lose out when the debate devolves into slanders and ad hominens between the candidates about each other’s character and love of country. Root for a good debate, just like one should root for a good game.


Against this sentiment, one may counter that both teams playing their utmost effort will produce acrimony, whether in sports or in politics. That is inevitable. And perhaps it was only ever a mirage to imagine a world where decorum and civility rule the day throughout campaign season. Fair enough. Even if the political equivalent of fouls and low blows are inextricable from how the game is played, what does seem possible is a reality where the campaign mindset represents “game time” where there is a clear ending point. And that ending point is when the game (i.e., the election) is over. At that point, we clear the stadium, change out of our sports jerseys and fanfare, and return to our normal lives. This would mark a refreshing departure from the current state of affairs, where campaign season never seems to end.


Most of us will have a team preference. We’re going to tend toward liking one party more than the other. We’re tribal beings after all. Just remember in political conversations with other Americans you don’t have to act like an obsessed fan. You don’t have to vote like one either. You don’t have defend every party position as if it’s a sacred American value. Both parties have better and worse ideas. Rival fans should be able to enjoy the core values instilled by the game of mutual appreciation. Likewise, those on the opposite sides of a political contest can appreciate politics as a domain for exploring shared values and differing perspectives on solutions addressing issues that affect our communities. Bear in mind, you don’t play for the team and ownership isn’t paying your salary. Instead, step back and think like a league commissioner. Require both parties to earn your support by playing the game well. Be a fan of the sport, not the team.


“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.

-John Adams


I'm a football fan, a sports fan, a fan of competition.

-Matthew McConaughey

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