Politics as a Team Sport?


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The Republican Party vs. the Democratic Party: the biggest rivalry in politics.

Lakers vs. Celtics.  Yankees vs. Red Sox. Packers vs. Bears.  Frazier vs. Ali. Duke vs. UNC.

Rivalries like these make sports interesting.  Whether caused by geographic proximity, aggressive actions, or just a number of good games, rivalries are entertaining.  Watching the scales tip back and forth amongst the trash talk turns spectators into fanatics. The deep-rooted rivalries throughout sports have filled a tribal need, giving fans a feeling of pride, warmth, and security that comes with being a part of a group.  

In today’s political climate, every election is a rivalry game.  A general election feels like a bitter Yankees vs. Red Sox series.  Supporters in blue versus supporters in red, unyielding in their loyalties. We do not vote based on policy.  We do not vote based on the character of candidates. We simply check the box based on the “D” or the “R” next to the name.  Of course, we have seen exceptions to this rule, as exhibited recently when Alabama, a very red state, narrowly elected Democrat Doug Jones over Roy Moore, a Republican accused of sexually harassing four teenagers.  On some occasions, common decency trumps partisanship.  However, that is not always the case.

A study that examined the relationship between behavior of partisans and sports team members found that 41% of people with strong partisan feelings agreed that winning elections is more important than policy goals, compared to 35% who said that policy is a more important motivator for them to participate in politics.  A co-author of this study, Patrick Miller, said that “We’re not thinking about politics in the way that most Founders wanted, which is to think about issues, be open to compromise, and not be attached to parties.  We’re looking at politics through a simplistic partisan view in which we think our side is good and their side is bad.”

Another study, published by the Pew Research Center, has found that Democrats are moving further left and Republicans further right. According to their study, in 1994, 64% of Republicans and 70% of Democrats fell under the classification of “consistently conservative” or “consistently liberal,” respectively.  In 2004, these numbers were, for the most part, unchanged, with the percentage of consistently conservative Republicans rising to 70% and the percentage of consistently liberal Democrats falling to 68%. By 2014, however, there was a major spike, with the numbers leaping up to 92% and 94%.  With these leftward and rightward shifts, our country is becoming more and more polarized.

Additionally, there is a rise in hostility.  According to another Pew Research Center study conducted in 2016, 52% of Republicans and 70% of Democrats consider the opposing party to be “more closed-minded than other Americans.”  In 1994, 74% of Republicans and 59% of Democrats viewed the opposing party “unfavorably”; in 2016, those numbers were up to 91% and 86%. The percentages for Republicans and Democrats who view the opposing party “very unfavorably” have risen from 21% and 17% respectively to 58% and 55%.  Essentially, we have lost respect for one another, and with it the ability to communicate and grow.

Among other things, these shifts in the way our democracy is operating have a lot to do with how people are receiving their news.  It is not just the people, but also the news outlets themselves who have succumbed to the sports-rivalry-like outlook on politics. If I “like” “Occupy Democrats” and “the Other 98% on Facebook, two left-leaning news outlets, my feed is going to look a lot different than a conservative subscribed to “Breitbart.”  However, both of us will be exclusively reading articles backing up our own viewpoints, becoming more convinced that we are on the right side of the debate, and our partisan roots will be digging themselves even deeper.  

As we go on living in the Post-Truth Era, these sentiments are evident in more mainstream news sources.  Fox News’ relationship with President Donald Trump makes them feel like a state media outlet.   Catering to both the President and to their widely conservative audience, Fox News’ ratings have gone through the roof.  Meanwhile, Trump’s hostile denouncement of CNN’s “fake news” is echoed among his supporters.  Essentially, conservatives don’t trust CNN, liberals don’t trust Fox News, people on both sides only hear the news that they want to hear, and the partisanship in this country spirals out of control.

Another issue with the news coverage of politics stems entirely from the treatment of politics like a team sport.  “The ESPN Effect” is essentially treating political television like entertainment television for the sake of ratings.  In the words of CNN’s Jeff Zucker, “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.”  In “approaching it that way,” he means that CNN used some of ESPN’s programming tactics for the sake of ratings, including “pregame” sets outside of debate halls, countdown clocks up until election day, and hiring a number of pro-Trump commentators to be used as “characters in a drama.”  This includes inviting on Trump campaign surrogates to discuss the issues, many of whom would make incorrect assertions or outright lie and still be invited back onto CNN panels.  First Take style debate panels are overtaking fact-based reporting.  As Professor Julian Birkinshaw put it, “We are living in a post-truth world, where alternative facts and fake news compete on an equal footing with peer-reviewed research and formerly-authoritative sources.”

Up to this point, I have talked about some problems with the way we view politics.  One thing I have not done is propose a solution. There is no easy fix to this problem.  You can’t convince a Celtics fan to suddenly not hate Kobe. However, like most news-coverage related problems, a solution comes with the ability to weed out opinions and focus on the facts.  When following current events, I try to recognize bias from both sides and base my own opinions on the concrete facts.

Also, remember that we, as citizens of the United States, are all really and truly on the same team.  Do not let a party platform dictate your belief system. Do not actively contribute to the divide. If you disagree with someone, feel absolutely free to debate, show them the facts, and attempt to change their minds.  However, in a political climate fueled by personal attacks, coming straight from the top, do not follow our President’s example.  Keep the discussion civil. The trash talk we see between divisional football rivals does not belong anywhere near the realm of politics.  Sticking to the issues and not feeding into divisive rhetoric does not make anyone “soft”; it simply proves their desire for a debate to result in some sort of progress.

Subsequently, try to understand other people’s perspectives.  If your news feed doesn’t venture past Fox News and Breitbart, try to expand, if only to understand opposing arguments.  Watch some CNN or MSNBC with an open mind.

Additionally, be okay with being wrong.  Rootedness and stubbornness are plaguing our political system.  When I see debates in the comments section of a Facebook or Instagram post, there is a constant theme.  They begin with calmly made points, devolve into personal attacks, and eventually end with a slew of people complaining about others not “respecting their opinions.”  The people of our country seem stubborn to the point that their “opinions” are immobile. No matter how much factual evidence some people are presented with, their “opinions” will not budge.  

This is a hard issue to solve.  Respecting an opinion that is inherently incorrect and easily disprovable is a ridiculous thing for anyone to do.  However, stubbornness is seldom solved by goading. In many cases, attempts at dialogue result in the rigid, already inaccurate viewpoints becoming more deeply ingrained.  

To anyone reading this, I would say to allow your ideology some mobility.  If you are proved wrong, do not fear your own personal growth. Education is a great thing. Do not be afraid to learn from the opinions of others.  

Remember that you are not being forced to support anyone or anything.  When you see spokespeople for either party going to excessive lengths or stretching an argument out to an illogical extent, do not buy into their ridiculousness.  Listen to the experts, not the partisan hacks. For example, when 97% of climate scientist agree that climate change exists and is a consequence of human activity, citing clear-cut evidence, but Donald Trump, along with a slew of his appointees, deny its effects, know who to trust on the matter.  When in doubt, read the research for yourself. Do not allow party loyalty to force you into holding an inaccurate and easily-disprovable belief.  

Not changing one’s opinions after heavy counter-evidence is an issue from the top down.  We see Senators and Congressmen stubbornly voting on the party line in spite of major changes in public opinion or new information.  In the 1970s, united party-line voting occurred in 60% of House and Senate votes; that number has risen to about 90%.  It is clear that some of those in power are contributing to this nation’s divide.  Of course, there are some exceptions. For instance, this past September, John McCain announced that he could not “in good conscience” vote to repeal Obamacare without having a bipartisan conversation on the issue.  McCain’s decision to do so shocked many, but, to me, the assertion that a singular Republican going against the party line is shocking, in itself, is somewhat frightening.  

To all of the people running this country, I would suggest reading into the facts and voting on what will improve our nation, not on what lobbyist, interest groups, those funding your campaigns, or your party leaders demand.

For the students reading this article, we are the next generation of leaders.  We have a choice to make. Do we want to exacerbate this issue and further toxify our nation’s political climate, or do we want to fix the way our nation operates?  No matter what those in power are doing, the change for the next generation begins with us. Initiate that change now by participating in meaningful discussions and keeping your ideologies somewhat adjustable.  Be passionate, but also be open to new information.

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Sources: New York Times, SAGE Journals, University of Kansas, Pew Research Center, Facebook, Newsweek, USA Today, Variety, Politico, Awful Announcing, Forbes, IOP Science, NASA, CNN

Photo Source: Flickr