It all comes down to today, to the final match-up that will determine the champion of the Sport of Democracy. The season has been long and arduous, and many worthy contenders have been forced from the field, leaving two titans glaring at each other across the pitch, bloodied and begrimed from the contest, digging deep, to give their one-hundred-and-ten percent in the climactic confrontation as the fans roar.
And it’s all a bit much.
I had always known, even observing from my homeland across the “world’s longest undefended border,”* that Americans loved their sports metaphors. Yet, it was only when I moved to the United States 15 years ago that, watching from within the stadium as it were, I could fully appreciate how deeply sports, as a lens, and as a category of knowledge, frames and so completely shapes American political narratives.
This should not be surprising. It is a commonplace that sports – particularly football – are America’s civil religion, the one truly unifying institution that (mostly) transcends class, race, and faith. Americans who would normally have nothing to do with each other are united in their team colors. While it is true that people still describe my spouse’s cousins’ union – he is a Bills fan, and she is a Patriots fan – as a “mixed marriage,” it is at least a marriage in the Church. It is no accident that professional football has been the one secular activity acceptable to American Christians on Sunday since the National Football League’s first season a century ago.
Other cultures take their sports seriously, of course. Every Canadian can name the player who scored the winning goal in Game 8 of the 1972 hockey Summit Series (it was on our money!), and God help the geezer who wears Liverpool colors in a Manchester pub. (That they’re actually the same color doesn’t matter.) But only in America has sport itself been elevated to the level of a hegemonic institution. When I moved to Chicago a couple of years ago, everyone – everyone, including the sisters at the Catholic college where I taught – asked if I was a Cubs fan or a Sox fan the way southerners ask what church you attend on Sunday. “Neither” was both an incomprehensible and unacceptable answer.
Sporting events in America are unparalleled spectacles that evoke the sacred weight and ritual function of the original athletic contests of the Greek Olympic and Delphic Games, combat in the Roman Coliseum, and the ōllamaliztli game played in Tenochtitlan’s Teotlachco. They are no mere games, but vast events of public praise for the highest social values of valor and (masculine) puissance, where spectators and players alike must be seen to offer proper deference and obeisance to all that is good and holy.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the language and rhetoric of sport so thoroughly pervades American politics. It is not only the ritual of sport, with its team colors (red and blue), mascots (pachyderm and ass), catchy cheers (“lock her up”) placards, pennants, and fan gear (MAGA hats and blue Biden-Harris T-shirts) which mediate our political participation; the logic of sports defines our political knowledge.
The binaries of the two-party system certainly lend themselves to the zero-sum thinking of professional sports; there can be only one president, just as there can be only one champion. A lot of people who weren’t even alive at the time can tell you who won the presidential election and the World Series in 1952 (Dwight Eisenhower and the Yankees, respectively), but who were the runners-up? Who lost to Ronald Reagan in 1984, who lost to the Patriots in Superbowl LI? More ominously, the sporting narrative of American politics seems to focus almost solely on “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
Perhaps it could not be any other way; the American election campaign, which seems to begin less that a year after the last election, is an absurdly long and grueling process.† It is even longer than a baseball season which begins with Grapefruit League games in February, and doesn’t conclude until the last World Series game at the end of October. It is hard for news organizations to report on such a lengthy campaign, particularly considering that most of the policy points are carryovers from the last election, and the really big issues of philosophy and ideology are questions that the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, and all the rest, would rather not ask.
So the coverage invariably settles on lurid scandals – remember when Access Hollywood was the champion of the Fourth Estate in 2016? – and personality puff reporting. Unfortunately, that kind of journalism has its limits. You are either appalled by political peccadillos or you are not, the shock value soon wears off; and there is only so far you can spin stories about how Bernie Sanders is an obnoxious Jew or Beto played bass in a third-rate punk band. Unfortunately, advertising and online subscriptions aren’t going to sell themselves so the news biz (which is, after all, a business) needs something to keep eyeballs glued and revenues coming even when nobody cares about Stormy Daniels anymore.
That “something” is the breathless and endless play-by-play commentary on the Sport of Democracy. Even before the primaries fizzle away into inevitability, political consultants and second-string politicians crowd onto talking head panels, cable news shows, and newspaper op-ed pages like so many has-been middle linebackers drawing incomprehensible scribbles on a telestrator. No business ever failed by giving the people what they want, and in a culture that has elevated professional sports to the level of sacred ritual, this is exactly what we want.
In the American mind, politics is strategy, and nothing more. Can this candidate mobilize support in the “battleground” states before the siren sounds? Will that party call in reserves from the left or right of its constituency? We obsessively follow the polls showing our candidate ahead, or behind, or ahead nationally but only neck-and-neck in Florida. Will they gain ground, or lose ground, and if they do, I suppose, will they punt? Our attention is rapt as the “race comes down to the wire.” We will be watching tonight, with peanuts, popcorn, and beer, until the last play is called.
The strategies, the plays, the intrigues are gripping, but focusing on them dangerously misses the point. The goal of an athlete or a professional sports team is to win and nothing more. Having won the NBA championship last month, the Los Angeles Lakers raised the trophy, collected their bonus checks, and went into the off-season to fly-fishing or hang-gliding, or whatever it is that professional basketball players do when they’re not shooting hoops. They were not motivated to win in order to implement a set of policies or to fulfill the goals of a political ideology that will affect the lives of 330 million Americans and possibly billions of people around the world.
What our obsession with the Sport of Democracy obscures is that this election, indeed our politics, is about far more that winning and losing, or who wins, and who loses; ir is about what they are competing to do. The contestants don’t merely have strategies, they have goals. Most importantly, they have ideology.
That is one of the reasons why our journalists have so much difficulty describing President Trump’s politics beyond the hoary binary signifiers of Republican and Democrat or “conservative” and “liberal.” All that these words tell us is what team he is on in the current season of the Sport of Democracy, but say nothing about what his victory – or, hopefully, defeat – will mean, and how it will shape the future.
Privately, many of us use words like “fascist,” conjuring an apparition from the distant mirror of historical memory that may or may not quite fit outside of its temporal context. Journalists struggled to find the right word, and invariably settled on “authoritarian” and many of us followed. In September, Matthew MacWilliams wtote in Politico that President Trump “is an authoritarian” and so are his followers, as if that settled it once and for all. Only, it didn’t; “authoritarian” is a category broad enough to contain the president, Rodrigo Duterte, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Mohammed bin Salman, and pretty much any other oppressive strongman regardless of their beliefs and ideologies. Kim and Mohammed bin Salman would certainly find many areas of agreement regarding what to do with political enemies, but they would disagree bitterly over why.
That is because “authoritarianism” is not a political philosophy or an ideology, but a practice or mechanism of power. There can be democratic “authoritarians,” like Andrew Jackson from our own history, just as there can be theocratic authoritarians like Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. “Authoritarian” merely describes the strategy: whether it’s a smashmouth offense or a passing game, whether it’s a zone defense or man-on-man. As such, it corresponds neatly with the way we have chosen to understand our politics while actually mystifying our understanding of the enormity of the political moment.
What happens today – what has been happening, in fact, for the last three years – is not merely a contest between teams or champions that will be decided when the votes are counted. Our obsession with the Sport of Democracy has kept our eyes focused on the field when we should have been watching the stands. The danger that we face in this historical moment does not come only from Donald Trump and his sordid political machinations, but from the legions of his fans. Whether the president wins or loses, their movement will go on, and they aim not to control the field but to tear it up.
We should not allow ourselves to be Monday morning quarterbacks tomorrow morning, looking backward and examining every play in the finest detail, dissecting both teams’ strategies. Rather, whether we win or lose, we must wake up at dawn, lace up our shoes, and start training for the long season that surely lies ahead.
* This border is currently closed to all but essential traffic.
† John Delaney declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 29 July 2017.