Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Politics As A Team Sport: "Ode to the Yankees"
(Warning: contains 100% of RDA for Rambling, and is manufactured in a factory that handles Rants)

Recently, I've started to feel as if political parties are rather too much like the sports teams we cheer for. Speaking in general probably isn't the best way to approach this. So here's my own story of early political formation, and why I no longer belong to a political party.

My parents didn't discuss politics in front of Katie and I, so it never occurred to me to bring up the subject myself. My politics at first came from reading TIME Magazine every week in middle school. This made me a Democrat.

(Nota bene: yes, I'm saying that TIME in general has a bias toward the left. That doesn't mean they're consciously unfair; they do a good job of presenting different opinions. But by the nature of forming a community of writers, reporters and editors, they come to see the world in certain shared ways, and that always comes through in writing. So the liberal viewpoint was, in the world as reported by TIME, the one in accordance with reality- to such a degree that it determined my first opinions.)

So as a naive 14-year-old, I trusted Clinton's honesty more than any sane person ought to trust their leader. Thus the Lewinsky scandal left me feeling betrayed, and I switched sides my freshman year with the rapidity of innocence. I never questioned or even articulated my foolish assumption that one of the major parties had to be right about it all.

And it was for an exceedingly superficial reason that I chose political parties then. Don't kid yourself that you were thinking straight in your first allegiances, either. They may be right or they may be wrong, but they weren't chosen by pure reason. A person's original political beliefs are chosen the same way I begin cheering for a non-Saint Louis sports team: because I know someone in the city, or because they look heroic in the first game I see them, or because they are rivals to a team I root against.

Of course, my political swap happened around the same time as I began to take my Catholic faith seriously, and to examine how the Church's morality applied both to my life and to my participation in society. Respect for life meshed with my recent trade to the Republican team; preferential option for the poor did not. But a funny thing happens in such situations, and mine was no exception. I'd previously had the image in my head of Republicans as Social Darwinists and Scrooges, an image which was shattered quickly. I mean, here were nice people I talked to, people who worried about poverty in America, people who donated and volunteered for private charities. So I must have been wrong about the prudent ways to help the poor! And in all my talking with the other Republicans, I got to hear about how wasteful government was, how liberals were really out to expand it for other reasons when they talked about the poor: "class warfare", et cetera. It all seemed so reasonable when you talked to the "good guys" and knew you couldn't trust the "bad guys" on the other side. I let my affiliation change my opinions, so naturally and quietly that I would have denied there had been any shift.

Before you use this as evidence of scheming Republican ways, ye of other parties, consider very carefully whether the same applies to you. How often has one of the following seemed true?

"They just talk about issue X to win votes, but we really mean what we say!"
"Our side has to use shady tactics sometimes to keep up in elections. Look at what they've done- isn't that worse?"
"Getting votes is the most important thing, so we don't want to make dissenting or extreme views public right now..."

More importantly, do you agree with 90% or more of what your political party stands for? The Republicans and Democrats certainly don't present coherent, complete, compelling visions of political philosophy: they bring in different planks to capture constituents, anything which doesn't outright contradict a more important plank. There's no a priori reason correlating one's views on lawsuit awards, the United Nations, stem cell research and the FCC. One begins to follow a particular team, and most often all of his or her opinions fall in line!

The problem is that it's always much simpler to believe that some people and some groups are good, and some evil. When we support a political party, we do so because we believe the actions they would take in power are preferable to the alternatives (or to the likely alternatives, depending on how one votes). No problem there; however, we often aren't content to stop there. There is an unspoken, irrational chain of logic that goes like this:

1. The actions of party A would be better than the actions of party B, SO
2. A is the good party and B is the evil party, SO
3. A must be right wherever A and B disagree, since it is the good party, SO
4. The people belonging to A have their hearts in the right place and are doing what they need to, while the people belonging to B are either malicious or duped, and their actions are noxious and calculated.

It sounds ridiculous when written out, and of course it is ridiculous. But it happened to me, and I see it in other people as well. Maybe it's our basic social instincts, belonging to a tribe, removing empathy for the enemy. Whatever it is, it seems to me that many acolytes of each political party get slowly suborned over time to agree with the full platform. Resistance is futile, and all that.

The rest of my story took place over the course of college: talking with insightful and ethical liberals and conservatives, witnessing and acknowledging dishonest behavior from the Bush Administration, coming to know the Church and her ethics of government, reading political philosophy from the ground up (Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Mill and the rest), and recognizing the fallen nature of humanity and politics in general.

I've been amazed at how deep party loyalty runs, especially when compared to religion. In the Catholic blogosphere, I'm amazed how much more often I find writers defending their political party where it conflicts with the Church. Some Catholic Republicans will say that the Pope can be disregarded on capital punishment, foreign policy and poverty (you'd be surprised how far "prudential judgment" get stretched). Some Catholic Democrats will pretend that the Church didn't really say that it is unethical to support legal abortion, and claim that the Democrats are in line with the "spirit" of the Church. Neither is ever willing to blog much about insisting that their party become more in line with Catholic morality; after all, it's too important to win this election first.

What's more, conservative evangelicals by and large tolerate agnostic Republicans just fine; it's the Democratic Christians they have all the vitriol for. Similarly, liberal atheists get along fine with those Democratic Christians and despise the agnostic Republicans. I find a lot of condescending behavior over religion, but the hatred is generally saved for politics. I suppose politics is more fractious because a political adversary appears to be working for evil, while a religious opposite simply misses the reality. In any case, politics is by all accounts thicker than blood.

That's why I feel that cheering for sports is analogous to participating in politics. We take a fair, inconsequential pastime and manufacture heroes and villains, good and evil. I want the Cardinals to win a World Series, though it wouldn't significantly change the lives of anyone I know; I cheer for Ohio State football despite having no family in Columbus, simply since I once knew the coach's daughter and started rooting for them. I pull for the Lakers to lose, and portray a silly win-at-any-price egomaniac (George Steinbrenner) as a sinister fiend.

I don't think there's any harm in all that drama (modulo the crazies who throw batteries/stab Seahawks fans/beat up first-base coaches), but in politics there are consequences to the victories and losses, so we let the fantasy of good and evil become the reality. We don't snap back so easily into the knowledge that they usually are trying to do what's best as much as we are. I can laugh through the "Ode to the Yankees", all the time really knowing that it's only hyperbole to say "Even though they win / it's a cardinal sin / to root for the Devil's team." It's not so funny in politics, where each side calls its opposite a party of murderers- and all too often people really do imagine the other side in terms that stark.

The frustrating part is that after several years of alliance with the Republicans, I've developed the habit of cheering for them. When I read a news article mentioning Bush, I still have the desire for him to succeed (much as I want Kurt Warner to do well with the NY Giants even after he left the Rams), though I as often as not realize that I disagree with Bush on the issue at stake. My mind is used to the catch phrases of conservatives and suspicious of the tropes of liberals. That disturbs me, and it makes me wonder at those on all sides who are convinced that their minds work solely rationally, and that thus the rational party is theirs. At least I know now that the human mind is more than rational-particularly in politics.

I still don't know whom I would vote for in the Presidential election. Quite possibly I'll leave that part of the ballot blank (angering, no doubt, everyone who knows me; Missouri is a swing state). Or maybe I won't. For now, I do believe that I'm better off outside of any political party; certainly I'm better off outside of any American political party I've seen thus far.

(Okay, I'm well aware I've exaggerated here, and I've offended most everyone in some way. Let me have it in the comments section.)

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