Political discourse is at a place where it’s hard — if not impossible — to see it as productive. Most times, it doesn’t even seem like folks who are arguing have a vision for anything being accomplished by that argument, other than hearing words yelled.

Facts have been weaponized and are lobbed as projectiles, not used as tools to build a bridge from one perspective to another. Opinions are worn like armor, used to protect ourselves from the bombardment of facts. We scream for our ideas to drown out the screams of others for theirs.

If sports are modeled after war, as many people say, our political discourse has taken a form modeled after the way we talk about sports.

Politics as Sports

Let me first draw the parallels, and highlight how this mentality can be harmful, before I suggest an alternative way of approaching things. In sports, and in politics-as-sports…

We’re loyal to a team.

Sometimes that loyalty comes from our family, sometimes we pick our team to piss off our family. Sometimes we study the statistics and pick a team based on who we like the most, and other times we choose based on our favorite color.

But what’s important is we have a team — a team. Just one. And that you cheer for that team loud and clear, win or lose, year after year.

We chide people for changing team loyalties.

We despise “fair-weather” fans. That is, we despise people who like a team because it’s good. In fact, we go so far in that direction that we celebrate attachment to a losing team to the point where it’s sadomasochistic:

Oh, you’re a Cubs fan… now? I was born a Cubs fan. I was a Cubs fan when they lost — year after year. I come from a family of Cubs fans. Three generations of watching them lose. Three generations of depressing seasons, losing records, heartbreaking but-this-is-the-one-shit-no-it’s-not seasons. I drank myself out of a job because of the Cubs. Do you still have your job? You’re no Cubs fan.

Even more, we hold people to things they’ve supported in the past forever (“Yeah, but you used to be a fan of _____.”), make no room for them to grow or change, and attack them when they do — even when they change because they didn’t want to keep being loyal to something terrible.

We use “we” language even though we’re not playing.

We’re not actually on the team, but we think of ourselves as part of it. When our team loses, we lost. When the team wins, we won. The team’s mood is our mood, the team’s beliefs are our beliefs, and the team’s sponsors are our sponsors.

It’s possessive and maybe should be creepy (the way we take ownership of other people, of their actions, and attach ourselves to strangers), but it’s not. It’s fantastical and maybe should feel childish (the way we imagine ourselves as the players, and allow our moods to be dictated by their decisions), but it doesn’t.

Sometimes, when our team loses we’ll take it out on other people, or an entire town. We’ll riot, burn things down, flip cars, scream at strangers. Actually, we do that when we win, too.

And we have rivals, and we hate them because we hate them.

The team we’re loyal to has a team that they hate. They might hate them because of some past contest, some lore from decades ago, or something else (they’re the only other team in our area). It doesn’t really matter why we hate them; it matters how much.

And we hate them a lot.

We hate the rival team so much we curse the very idea of them: don’t you dare mention that name in this house. We hate them so much we hate their supporters. We’ll scream at them, just for wearing the other team’s colors. We’ll disown someone in our life for becoming one of them. Hell, we’ll even fight them in a bar, or on the street, or in a stadium — physically punish a stranger for liking something different from us. And people will cheer.

Politics as Something Different from Sports

The parallels between how we treat politics and how we treat sports could be further elucidated. In fact, they’ve grown so similar it’s unsettling, especially to someone (like me) who doesn’t care much for sports (read: at all) but cares deeply about politics.

It’s unsettling because, to the outsider, deep-set, irrational loyalties in sports (to the point of bloodshed) may seem foolish, but it’s a self-contained foolishness. It doesn’t much leave the arena. Let those people work themselves up (and beat themselves up).

But deep-set, irrational loyalties in politics affect all of us, even those who don’t have a team. There is no leaving the arena when the arena is the world, and angry, mindless, passionate political superfans have the capacity to burn the world down, just to see their rivals in pain.

So what’s the fix?

We need to cultivate a political discourse that is everything the above isn’t. To get out of this quagmire, we need a political playing field where:

  • The team doesn’t matter as much as what that team is doing, what they are standing for or against, and the platform they’re standing on.
  • We support people growing, learning, and evolving, as society grows, learns, and evolves. Where we don’t chide people because they have a new perspective, but celebrate that they’ve expanded their viewpoint in light of evidence.
  • We distance ourselves from the politicians we support, such that we can hold them accountable to their failures without burdening ourselves with that failure, and recognize when they’ve done wrong without having to view ourselves as wrong. We need to see them as our employees, our “civil servants.” We need to start to see them, not us.
  • And we don’t see people who support different politicians from ours as inherently, irrevocably, and irredeemably bad. More importantly, we recognize that the most important alliance is amongst the electorate as a whole, allied against a political class that works against their interests.

And how do we enact it?

We can think small, on the interpersonal level, while thinking more systemically. Both can be done at once.

We might start to recognize the harmful similarities between politics and sports, and call the out when we notice them. Point out, or ask questions, when we think someone is rallying for their team, instead of supporting an idea they think will make the world better.

And we might consider the role of the free press, as well as elections and referenda, to hold this same line on the system level. Push journalists to throw away the sports fan mindset, and to stop asking questions, producing headlines, and publications that foster it. As well as voting based on platforms, ideas, and outcomes; instead of matching the colors of our face paint to the party logo.

But first we need to start with ourselves. Even as I write this, I’m recalling dozens of examples where I’ve been more sports fan than informed citizen, more hooligan than suffragist.

This, for me, starts by putting away the pennant and retiring my jersey. Before we try to change the harmful ways someone else might be approaching political discourse, it’s helpful for us to investigate our own.