When people compare politics to sports, they do not mean the comparison to be flattering. Voters, we are told, treat politics as irrationally as sports fans do football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. (The less said about soccer, the better—a good principle for life in general.) In this analogy, the Democratic and Republican parties are the equivalent of sports teams, and the reason why voters often ignore the issues and stick with their chosen party is explained in terms of long-standing attachments to the Green Bay Packers or the Chicago Cubs or the Boston Celtics or the Detroit Red Wings. Politics, like sports, is tribalism, you see, and those who have risen above tribalism have no desire to watch sports and no irrational attachment to a particular political party. (The fact that such people vote overwhelmingly Democratic is proof, in their eyes, of their rationality.)
Drinking beer with some fellow Rockford Wildcats cross-country coaches while watching the Chicago Bears secure the third pick in the 2017 NFL draft on New Year’s Day, I suddenly realized that this comparison is, as Harry Frankfurt would put it, pure bullshit. Yes, there are often irrational attachments in politics—my Polish grandfather, before he died in 1972, made my devoutly Catholic grandmother promise never to vote for a Republican, a promise that increasingly haunted her as the Democratic Party both nationally and in Michigan turned rabidly pro-abortion—and in sports, especially for those of us who grew up in the years when such powerhouse teams as the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers developed national, rather than local or regional, fanbases. But even setting aside the fact that most of human life consists of irrational attachments (and that such attachments are largely what make us human), this is where the overlap between politics and sports ends.
Because party affiliation, in fact, is almost always more irrational—in effect, at least, if not necessarily in cause—than team fandom. And I’m not referring to the fact that most people choose their favorite sports teams based on proximity—an implicit patriotism, which cannot be replicated in a two-party system in a country that spans a continent. One need only to compare the experience of sitting through a televised presidential debate in a room full of partisans with that of a room full of Bears fans watching their team go down to an inevitable defeat to see the difference. Sports fans are much more rational. While they may complain when a referee makes a bad call (and even when he makes a tough but good one), they don’t blame the ref when their team blows an easy play or fails to prevent the opposing team from scoring. Ask Chris Wallace—the best of the 2016 presidential debate moderators—whether he received the same treatment from the fans of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
When a quarterback throws an interception, or a running back fumbles because he doesn’t have the ball properly tucked away, even the most diehard fan won’t make an excuse for him. But partisan voters routinely give politicians a pass, even when they deliberately go back on their promises. (The fallout from George H.W. Bush’s “Read my lips” is the exception that proves the rule.) No one would long remain a fan of a football team whose only play was a “Hail Mary” pass, but some of the most diehard political activists spent months last year praising the intellectual brilliance of an essay comparing the 2016 election to Flight 93—the political equivalent of such a team.
In the final weeks of a losing season, friends sitting around watching a game spend much of their time debating which players should be cut and which coaches should lose their jobs. Can anyone imagine voters treating congressmen and senators the same way? (And when’s the last time anyone would say that Congress had a winning season?)
The reality is this: Americans take sports far more seriously than they do politics, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. In order for politics truly to compare with sports, we would need greater decentralization in this country (in the form, perhaps, of multiple parties, and preferably regional ones), and voters would have to hold politicians more accountable than they do now. A player only gets one shot at the big leagues, but a politician can fail over and over, and still come out a winner.