Last week’s election saw a contested race between a Democrat and a WWE tycoon. Which got me thinking – to what extent does pro-wrestling prepare for the Senate? Or perhaps, the more fruitful question might be, how can modern-day politics be compared to spectator sports, and modern-day partisanship to spectator rivalries?
I am not the first to conflate the two — Marxist and neo-Marxist thinkers are the most detailed critics of modern sports within a capitalistic system. First, they argue that modern sports are highly specialized and institutionalized, creating a stark contrast between career athletes and their mostly overenthusiastic and un-athletic fans. The extreme professionalization of sports encourages a spectator culture, not a participatory one. Similarly, the political system has become so complex that even politicians themselves are unable to fully comprehend all the issues, let alone the people whose full-time jobs do not requisite an understanding of national politics. The healthcare plan has become a complicated entity encompassing over 1000 pages — last summer Democrats and Republicans blasted each other for not having read the bill in its entirely. Many of its supporters have become confused by its sheer density. Recent polls from ABC, Gallup, and Huffington Post all demonstrated that the Health Care Bill has lost majority support because even proponents do not understand all of its complexities.
The second Marxist indictment is that sports distract people’s energy from revolutionary causes. Clearly, if you watch sports and have never thought of yourself as a revolutionary, you are their perfect specimen of evidence. After all, if you spend three hours supporting the hockey team, that is three hours that you are not rallying to restore Sanity and Truthiness.
Finally — and this is the most important point for this article — sports provide a safety valve for the potentially dangerous aggression created by the repression of capitalist society. Surplus repression which cannot be transformed into economic productivity builds up frustration which threatens to upset the entire system. Sports, the capitalist’s safety valve, allow the release of the potentially dangerous aggression created by the imperfections of the economic system, redirecting the rage and anger away from the system and towards the opposing team. The loyalty and emotional involvement which should be a part of one’s class consciousness is wasted on the home team. From this Marxist logic, then, perhaps we can attribute the modern-day partisanship I just characterized to economic disparity.
This is not a new observation — McCarthy, Poole and Rosenthal all noted that income inequality and polarization go hand in hand. Income inequality has been has been increasing since the 1970s, and the United States is one of the only developed countries in which inequality has increased since 1980. But while it is not a new problem, unemployment rates are currently soaring at around 10% and economic depression is in its most severe state since The Great Depression.
In attempting to reconcile the grim economic situation, politicians have been polarized into two teams, one team of the belief that the government has spent too much, and another, that the government has not spent enough. But partisan politics often prevents people from working towards a common good, and any decision-making results in a tyranny of the majority, fueling the resentment of the minority and reinforcing party politics. This election, moderates have all but been extinguished from the Senate, either by their own choice (see Evan Bayh of Indiana) or because they lost their own primaries. At the same time that moderates are quickly becoming a dying breed, independent voters have become the largest voting block. As independents, they are disillusioned with party alliances, but rather than reacting against the system (as Marxists would have it), their vote supports factionalism yet. A good way to think about this phenomenon is to compare it to the Red Sox/Yankee rivalry: Red Sox fans often get upset that Yankees get more money, but instead of getting mad at the Major League Baseball Organization that creates these injustices, they expend energy in useless rivalries instead of useful reformations of the system.
David Brooks recently commented that this election was fueled by “rage.” Indeed, rage and disillusionment fueled a dirty election — some even said the dirtiest ever — and President Obama so beautifully quipped, “when pundits start shouting, and politicians start calling each other names, it can seem like a return to civility is not possible, like the very idea is a relic of some bygone day.”
We can therefore understand the Tea Party to be a quasi-libertarian manifestation of this catharsis, as a self-proclaimed “conservative” movement that focuses almost entirely on the fiscal irresponsibility of the government. Both the Tea Party and their critics barbarize each other, and in sports and politics, extreme support for team and party inevitably result in dehumanization. A Marxist would be quite disturbed by the rampant partisanship — today’s political parties threaten to destroy each other instead of the government itself.
If the Marxist approach is too pessimistic for you, a postmodern approach is quite optimistic.
After all, Postmodernism is cynical about truth, and if there isn’t any truth, then there isn’t any sense in trying to reconcile for a common good. What is important, however, is seeking community within your “team” affiliation. Richard Rorty, the most important progressive philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century, is actually completely explicit about this issue when he states that he doesn’t believe that progressivism — his party — is ‘true.’ But he still believes he must fight with his tribe; that’s his whole thing about “irony and solidarity.” He is ironically detached from his ideas because he knows they can’t be objectively ‘true,’ but he remains in political solidarity with progressives nonetheless.
Similarly, statistics demonstrate that ever since the late ’50s, people are less inclined to live in politically mixed areas. Compounded with psychological studies which demonstrate that being around like-minded people intensifies our own opinions, there is little wonder why partisanship is at its worst. In a postmodern world, people seek out evidence that confirms what they already believe (this is why one’s political leanings can be inferred from the books on his shelf); they are seeking evidence that makes them a better member of their team, rather than evidence that leads to objective truth. Social solidarity has replaced abstract truth as the appropriate metric for political discourse.
The great game of politics has been played since the beginning of time, and in spite of the victories and losses, no one has emerged an absolute leader, no one thought an objective philosophy. In the end, it is the people who are sitting closest to you on the same side, wearing the same colored shirts and rooting for the same team, that really matter.