The Sportification of Politics and the Possibility of Governing

Things have changed in the political arena. That’s the unavoidable conclusion we have to draw from the last year. No matter who or what you voted for, one thing we might be able to agree on is that things have changed. There are, to be sure, a number of troubling trends. The role of a free press in a democracy is in shambles. Many would argue that their wounds are self-inflicted.

Technology has enabled a broad disintermediation of the pundits and pollsters as the middlemen (and women) between the electorate and the candidates. A twitter war between a president-elect and a comic on Saturday Night Live passes for political discourse. Amid all these unnerving developments, I observe another trend which I am calling, for lack of a better term, sportification. Sportification has three main features:

Photo Credit: awinner Flickr via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: awinner Flickr via Compfight cc
  • the reduction of an activity to a binary zero sum transaction in which one side loses and the other side wins
  • power in the activity is ultimately derived from the accumulation of fans that support your side
  • fans (a shortened form of the word fanatics) are, by definition, uncritically devoted to their side independent of the facts

There is a reason that political contests are looking more and more like all of the worst aspects of professional football or soccer games – sophisticated cheating, trash talking, hooliganism, cynical marketing, increased on-field violence, and staggering exchanges of money. “Fans” on each side rabidly support their “team” independent of who the “players” are in a given year. Beating your opponent decisively, especially your arch rival, is the only thing that really matters. It has become more than winning, it requires demonizing your opponent. Politics has become “sportified.”

We may be entering a world in which political power is purely a function of your “fan base” and your ability to manipulate that power to literally “game” the system. Traditional qualifications for political position like relevant experience are supplanted by the sheer size of your fan base and your ability to appeal to their animal instincts and tribal loyalty. Since fans live in their own social media bubble seeing only messages that reinforce their devotion to their own team, no one changes sides easily once they are locked in.

I find the win/lose sportification of politics particularly troubling because it undermines the heart of democracy –  compromise. Compromise is what makes governing in the public’s interest possible. In politics as an extreme sport, elected officials have no interest (and increasingly no skill) in governing. Politics is just one long win or lose competition in which the leaders of the losing team announce after a loss that they will not rest until they have beaten the winner. Governing be damned, we need to get revenge for the loss. Winners not only want to win, they want to change the rules so that they are guaranteed to win permanently. We need to make our rabid fans happy because happy fans will pay for the expensive process of further sportification and the outsized salaries and celebrity that go with it.

Don’t get me wrong. I like sports. I enjoy playing them and I enjoy watching them, especially when the players remember it’s a game and respect each other and the rules. I just don’t think sports, especially the current version of many professional sports, is a good model for politics. When you win a game, that’s it, the game is over. When you win in politics that’s the beginning. Now you have to govern and to govern effectively you have to compromise. You often even have to settle for a tie. The way we govern is what defines our country and that definition is in danger.

I distinctly remember my grandmother sending us off to watch a college football game in the 1950’s and saying “I hope it’s a tie.”  She had such empathy, she didn’t want either team to lose. At the time, I thought that a tie would be the worst outcome possible, now I know better.




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One response to “The Sportification of Politics and the Possibility of Governing”

  1. Excellent, Giles. This is a brilliant–and sadly accurate–analogy.

    I can remember where I was standing in her kitchen when Grandma said she hoped it was a tie. I couldn’t believe it then and it was years before I understood. We need her wisdom and empathy now.