Thursday, January 19, 2012

Politics as Team Sports

From the Post:
On the morning after a bellicose debate performance that had the audience leaping to its feet, Newt Gingrich got this challenge from a retired Marine officer who had come to hear him speak at an art gallery here.

“What I’ve been looking for in my candidate is, we’ve got to bloody Obama’s nose,” Vence Jelovchan said.
“I don’t want to bloody his nose,” the former House speaker replied. “I want to knock him out.” 
Read enough of this kind of stuff, and you realize that many Americans don't see politics as a way to pick the wisest leaders for the country, or the ones with the most intelligent policies. They see it as a struggle between our team and theirs over a prize called "power." People identify with their parties like they identify with their home town teams, like they used to identify with their tribes. To this retired Marine, Obama is a smugly successful quarterback of that hated rival, the Washington Liberals, and his fantasies are like those of people in New York or Pittsburgh who dream about watching their linebackers bury Tom Brady under a ferocious blitz.

There is, I think, no escaping this. The desire to identify to with a group and root for its success is too deep in humankind ever to be excluded from democratic politics. The alternation of parties in power is probably essential for democracy in the long run, so everybody but the crankpots gets a chance to celebrate his team's success. (The crankpots get their jollies from seeing how stupid the mass of the people is, and how superior their own intellects.) One of the consistent findings of political science is that the more closely people follow politics, the more firmly they identify with one party or the other. Democracy needs citizen involvement, and people get involved as much to be part of a team as to work for any particular policy.

Yes, issues matter to some degree. But I think for most voters they serve largely as badges of team membership. Sometimes coalitions fracture over particular issues, as the liberals split between muscular humanitarians and pacifists over whether to intervene in Bosnia and Libya. But usually these disagreements are papered over for the good of the team. All most people need to know about an issue is, which is the conservative side and which is the liberal side? They then fall into line accordingly. It is something of a mystery to me how, for example, school reform based on standardized testing came to be a conservative cause, but, well, there it is.

To me the real danger in this comes when awful positions are embraced by one team or the other, and then thoughtlessly supported by millions of loyal team members. Thus we have had to watch American "Christian" leaders, including conservative Catholics, defending torture, never mind what Jesus said and the Pope teaches.

Lately the Republicans have taken what strike me as crazy positions on taxation and government spending, for what I think are at bottom emotional, team membership kinds of reasons. Should one of them become President, we will find out how serious they are. George W. Bush, as it turned out, was serious about cutting taxes but not about cutting spending, so we got ballooning deficits. Would President Romney really cut domestic spending by as much as he says, or will the arithmetic get the better of him? I wonder.

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