Holding Center: The sports-like culture of politics is problematic

Who can beat Donald Trump? The question has recurred throughout the past three Democratic debates. Likewise, much of the post-debate discussion has centered on which candidate has enough fight to take on Trump in a “head-to-head matchup,” as one CNN poll put it. The candidates, boasting their ability to beat Trump handily, come off more as athletes engaging in pre-game smack talk. The language, and the attitudes they convey, are often more reminiscent of a boxing match than of a political election.

And why shouldn’t the candidates speak this way? Elections are much like a game: Their goal is to win control of the House, the Senate and the White House. If your team, red or blue, can collect all three at once, then you win the game — or at least the round. This mentality is by no means new, but the current election cycle has brought it to the foreground. Democrats want to send their strongest player to bat against Trump, the candidate who can best represent their team and, to a lesser extent, its policies. 

The obvious problem with this sports-like attitude is that it detracts from the important issues. It seems that more analysis is dedicated to the candidates’ ability to win the presidency than their suitability to hold it. Instead of focusing our attention on what the candidates might accomplish with the position, we are determining whether or not they can win it.

Even the word “winning,” as commonplace as it is in political discussions, has deeper social implications. A poll taken by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study found that 41% of people with strong partisan leanings said that winning an election is more important than seeing their preferred policies put into place. This means that a large portion of voters from either side only cast their ballot to beat the opposing team. 

For many, winning has become an end in itself. Policies and ideas become secondary; all that matters is that the other team doesn’t get to see their own put in place. With this mindset, voting for the opposing candidate becomes voting for the enemy team. This leaves us with party lines that are rarely crossed, over which productive discussion becomes increasingly impossible. 

To the party’s biggest fans, the means of scoring a win are unimportant. The same study that measured their prioritization of winning also found that partisans of both sides give their team a concerning amount of leeway when it comes to securing that victory. In fact, 38% of partisans said they would authorize their party leaders to use “any means necessary” to win elections. The list includes voter suppression, lying and even physical violence against the other party — it’s all in the game. 

We see the issue laid bare with the most recent development in Trump’s impeachment process. According to an unnamed whistleblower’s report, the president withheld $400 million in aid to Ukraine in an attempt to extort them into investigating his Democratic rival Joe Biden. It was a clear abuse of power and an impeachment-worthy offense, but despite the 223 House Democrats who have supported an impeachment inquiry, not a single Republican has joined their ranks. Their side will continue to “win” as long as Trump remains in office. The terms of that win are immaterial.   

The growing possibility of impeachment has also made evident the dangers of treating politics as a sport. Trump tweeted out that his removal from office would cause a “Civil War Like fracture,” and a few Republicans have followed his rhetoric. Iowa Republican Representative Steve King shared an image referencing a civil war between red and blue states. One side, the image jokes, has “about 8 trillion bullets.” This attitude conveys that violence and division are preferable to losing, when losing is not an option. 

Unfortunately, the treatment of politics as a sport will likely persist as long as there are party affiliations. It will exist because people care about their politics, and that is not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s when that care turns into fandom and when winning overshadows policy, that it becomes a losing game for everyone. 

Dillon Cranston is a sophomore writing about politics. His column, “Holding Center,” runs every other Wednesday.