One of the reasons politics is often so bad in practice is because what people care about within the political arena isn’t what a rational outside observer would say they ought to care about. For example, very few Americans have strong policy preferences, or at least strong policy preferences outside of the context of political parties. Which policies they support at any given time aren’t a matter of careful examination of those policy’s costs and benefits or their permissibility within existing legal frameworks, but rather whether they’re the preferred policies of one’s political tribe. That’s how you get Republicans flipping on free trade, for example, or Democrats abandoning their anti-war principles when a Democrat’s in the White House. Most Americans don’t care (much) about public policy. They care about political affiliation.
The result of this tribal definition isn’t just irrational policy views. It’s also part of what makes politics look more like team sports than the rational discourse of public minded interlocutors imagined by civic republicans. It’s us against them, and what makes them them is that they’re not us. When they win, it means we didn’t win, which means by definition we lost. So it’s important that we win, no matter the content of the political question at issue, so we that aren’t losers.
I thought about all this while watching preseason football.
Political tribalism frequently gets compared to team sports. We have a largely irrational connection to a particular team, resulting from the accident of birth or college attendance or, in my case, where my uncle had his honeymoon. (Really.) Then we stick with that team through the successes and the lean times (because nothing’s worse than a fair weather fan), and we’ve got at least one rival team we love to hate. (For me, it’s the Jets.) In fact, the analogy to team sports works so well that it’s tempting to think we could solve many of our problems with politics if we could just get people to shift their platform for tribalism from politicians or political parties to baseball or football or, if you really must, hockey.
But watching the tedium of preseason football, with players competing in games that don’t matter except insofar as they decide some roster spots, I realized why, once the political tribalism demon is fully out of the bottle and fed on a non-stop media environment, there’s so much difficulty redirecting it to less dangerous pursuits, like sports. Preseason games suck because, unless you’re one of those bubble players hoping to keep your job, there aren’t any stakes. The games don’t mean anything. So even though it’s football, and by August the long off-season has us starved for football, it’s almost always a mistake to watch. Games get exciting when they count.
And nothing–unfortunately–counts more than politics. These are the rules and policies and programs that will impact our lives every day, which determine the options on the table for us, and the actions we’re prohibited from undertaking. Politics is what decides who we lock up, who we reward, and who we kill. It’s got stakes, and thus excitement. And those stakes go way beyond even whether your long-suffering franchise makes the playoffs.
Which, as someone who would love to get people less interested in politics–among our most destructive human endeavors–is pretty depressing.