Two weeks from tomorrow, I fly back to the United States. I will be returning to a nation whose government is more of a shambles than ever. According to a recent New York Times poll, 82% of Americans disapprove of the job performance of the United States Congress. The other 18% were asleep.
It’s hard to know where to begin in any list of gripes about American politics, but here’s a starting point: politics is a sport. Everyone who plays knows it and acts like it. The Republicans are a sports team, and the Democrats are a sports team. You might think this is an analogy for comedic effect (“Obama is the goalie, but he can’t communicate with his defense and he’s also a midget, and the Republicans are a bunch of Wayne Rooneys, which is to say rich slobbish simpletons”). But it’s not meant to be funny. I’m serious.
Politics is a sport, practicing politics is joining one team in its eternal match-up against the other, and arguing about politics is just debating why the White Sox are better than the Cubs. There are issues, I’m sure, there are gravely serious issues, but those are irrevocably separated from what party does what or who says what or which television host is telling new lies. We’re out of money but have commitments to aging people, sick people, multiple wars, and all the usual business of running a country. We’re failing to educate children. We’re stuck with a culture which thinks The Da Vinci Code is cutting-edge religious critique. We’re caught up in the middle of massive climate change we don’t understand. These are not political issues. Political issues are: who was more stubborn during the debt negotiations, Barack Obama or Eric Cantor?
Stephen Colbert once tried to run for president, and this year he attempted to set up a Colbert political action committee. He was heavily criticized–and indeed disqualified from the South Carolina presidential primary–because there was widespread fear that if he actually gained political power, he would cease to merely entertain us and actually start screwing things up. That’s why I’m glad I wasn’t in America for the default crisis: American politicians are entertainers, and they actually started screwing big, big, big things up.
They’re not entertainers like Colbert, though; they’re not comedians (though there are exceptions). They’re playing a sport. Each party tries to score the most points, and then once they think they’ve scored more points, they ask the American people to pick a winner. It’s figure skating. Ugly, loud, corporate-sponsored figure skating by fat old white men.
The website Politico has assembled one of the most impressive sports reporting teams in American history. Every day you can track which presidential candidate is meeting with which donors or traveling in each state, and there’s in-depth coverage of who wins each round of the fundraising battle, plus the poll battles, the primary state poll battles, the daily catty retort derby, the saying the wrong thing on a talk show obstacle course, and the almighty religious appeal sweepstakes. Nowhere else but Politico, with its combination of seriousness and winking self-awareness, does one get so strongly the sense that one is watching some sort of deranged semifinal in Olympic Self-Absorption.
My second-favorite political analysis site is FiveThirtyEight (now part of the New York Times), run by a statistics whiz named Nate Silver. Silver came over to politics after a successful career analyzing–you guessed it–sports.
Unfortunately, the entertainers (it would be bizarre to call them athletes) in their Olympic competition for popularity, rewarded ambitions, and more immediately victory in each day’s “news cycle,” have been entrusted with serious business. A country going into default is a serious thing. Some of the performers have responded by walking away from the table early, painting the other side as the problem, and pleading to just raise the debt ceiling and get on with it. Other performers refuse to countenance any rise in taxes, even though a majority of Americans support it and even though a majority of Americans would be unaffected, because they and their team’s corporate sponsors would be the ones paying the higher taxes. One is tempted to say, “it’s all a joke.” That’s not exactly correct. It’s all a sport–to the players.
(This is one place where the Tea Party sees things right. They very clearly do not see the debt crisis as a sport, and their continued outrage despite huge spending cuts and lack of tax hikes for Tea Party radio hosts, illustrates this. Unfortunately, the reason they think the whole sports model is a sham is that they think politics is a war instead.)
I don’t like war. I like sports, but only when they’re, you know, for sport. In sports the highest stakes are golden bowls and happy audiences. And real sports are even capable of beauty:
If this reads like the rant of the cynic, though, it is not. Ultimately I am optimistic. The reason? It’s hidden at the top of this post: “We’re failing to educate children. We’re stuck with a culture which thinks The Da Vinci Code is cutting-edge religious critique. We’re caught up in the middle of massive climate change we don’t understand. These are not political issues.”
The human race has faced an infinite number of challenges in recorded history. None of them have been solved by politicians. They’re solved by ordinary, private people working alone or in groups, and at the end of the civilian campaign all it takes is one brave politician to make the solution official. That was Lyndon Johnson’s role in the civil rights movement. And it is why, politically speaking, LBJ did a heroic deed by losing the South to his party forever. It is also why, though LBJ may be a political hero, he is no Dr. King.
Making fundamental changes to America’s future was never Congress’ job. Their job is to get the hell out of the way. And that, imagined pollster, is why I disapprove of their performance.
The author would like to offer thankpologies to Zelda Knapp, who indirectly inspired this essay, but who also implied that she wishes people would stop talking about politics all the time. …Oops?