It seemed only fair to find the last presidential debate on foreign policy doing battle with Game 7 of the NLCS over which competitive event would grace the sole big screen TV of the Kappa Sigma house. Political junkies clashed with Giants fanatics, with the presidential debate narrowly winning out once the Giants took a commanding 5-0 lead in the bottom of the third.
It was post-channel switch when it hit me: the mood in the room hadn’t really changed all that much, and, in an odd way, the nature of the do-or-die series deciding game really didn’t seem that far off from the tension surrounding the final debate.
Here we had fans of both the candidates and of mostly the Giants, who didn’t know either man or any player on any team, yet were as passionate as can be in supporting their man, or their team. Certainly, various political tendencies were a bit more subtle during the debate-watching, but a click scroll through my newsfeed only confirmed my hunch: sentence-long opinions were being blasted across friend circles and Twitter feeds, memes celebrating the Giants win and mocking Romney’s lack of geography skills were being produced at near-instantaneous rates. Public pages for Obama and Romney were being liked and various quotes blown up over pictures of the candidates’ faces were being shared while hordes of Bay Area folks posted various updates along the lines of “HOLY S#*T GIANTS GOING TO ‘SHIP’!!!”
In game, and in debate, pitches were dueling with batters, while Obama and Romney traded lyrical blows back and forth, trying to score various rhetorical points while seeming to want to avoid most of the trickier foreign policy issues (really, no mention of the economic crisis in Europe that could actually drag us “towards Greece” as Romney likes to say? No mention of the environment?). Post debate highlight clips were compiled in a SportsCenter-like manner, as zingers – the political equivalent to slam dunks and home runs – were run over and over again as if they actually had any political substance.
It was nauseating, to be honest, and the more I thought about it, the more I began to see more clearly the connection between competitive athletics and presidential elections.
Which I can’t admit to feeling too hot about.
Sports have rules and laws and etiquette and strategies that are all meant to result in the designation of various winners in various events. And in politics, we in turn have winners of debates and of elections. The difference between politics and sports, though, is that political winners actually have a public responsibility once the game is over. Clever rhetoric and effective advertising may get you into the White House, but it isn’t going to solve any problems. Still, it seems to be the primary substance of the current electoral process.
I almost feel as though we saw a window into the underbelly of democracy last night, the inherent game of electoral politics in which the primary incentive in these debates isn’t to legitimately talk about the issues (or even attempt to cooperate on the issues), but rather to sway voters through poll-tested anecdotes and one-liners. And in a post-Citizens United world, the incentive seems only higher to pander to powerful factions farther from the middle aisle – cooperation is taboo. Like in sports, you help your team, and your team only.
And presidential elections – they’re the Super Bowls of politics, the one time every four years when people actually seem to give a damn about what’s happening in the nation and in the world at large. Sports are delicate, high-flying affairs in which single moments can or break seasons or careers. That’s not how politics should be treated, yet we’re going to spend the next week talking about horses and bayonets and polls and predictions rather than actual foreign policy issues. The vanity of it all seems to be especially evident when we think about the consequences of foreign policy: unlike discussing marginal rates of taxation, when you talk about foreign policy, even when you mask it in various Orwellian bullshit of “comprehensive military strategies” or “being tough on Iran,” you’re talking about life and death, of Syrians being blown apart by their own government, Pakistani citizens falling before the drone colossus.
I’m sure I sound pretty middle school whiny right now. But I just can’t feel good about this current electoral cycle. I’m watching a game of gaffes and punditry, memes and commercials, one that transforms issues into talking points, favors attack over cooperation, and leaves me flipping between ESPN and CNN with equal zeal as if its the Giants who’re going to deal with Israeli settlements, and it’s Obama or Romney who will be holding the Commissioner’s Trophy in a week.
Think Obama can pinch-run for the Giants or Romney can pitch for the Tigers? Tell John at firstname.lastname@example.org.