Every fall, loyal fans around the country converge to watch “their” college team play against its rival. Some rivalries, such as the Ohio State—Michigan rivalry, are so entrenched that many diehards will consider the entire season a success so long as that single game returns a favorable outcome. While such sports rivalries may be genuinely exhilarating, recent research has illuminated a disturbingly similar trend in politics. Voters increasingly place more value on a partisan label, such as “Democrat” or “Republican,” than they care about actual government policy.
The studies are clear: American politics is on a downward trend. A 2015 study found that a plurality of voters (41 percent) cared more about their political party winning elections than the government implementing policies compatible with their personal views. Even worse, the study found that 38 percent of voters cared so deeply about winning that they supported skullduggery tactics like voter suppression, ad hominem smears, and inappropriate parliamentary obstruction.  A similar study in 2018 found that voters demonstrate more hostility to those with an opposing ideological label than those with differing viewpoints on policy . Voters also increasingly engage in negative partisanship, a term describing political views and actions springing more from hatred of the opposition than from positive feelings towards one’s own tribe.  Americans are enraptured in culture war politics, political theater, and cults of personality. While the underlying reasons for the increasing “sportification” of politics in the U.S. and elsewhere are multifarious, the institutional structure of the U.S. Congress, coupled with an increasingly sensational media sphere, may be partially to blame.
The U.S. Congress is set up in a way that emphasizes party labels rather than policy divisions. Congressman are divided by party, with a visibly stark aisle separating the two parties. Legislators even sit on opposite sides of the room and speak in alternating party succession during committee hearings, keeping party differences constantly salient in the minds of both members of the legislature and citizens watching the proceedings at home. Opportunistic partisans take advantage of this division by launching attention-grabbing, made for television barbs at the opposing side, or by purposely disrupting the proceedings through spurious points of parliamentary procedure. The Senate filibuster system enables senators to engage in theatrical grandstanding, in order to cultivate a public persona as a “fighter,” while avoiding policy substance. In one infamous 2013 example, Sen. Ted Cruz engaged in a twenty-one-hour quasi-filibuster over Obamacare repeal. Rather than discuss the intricacies of the law and why he felt that a different provision would be superior, he spent his speech railing against Democrats, reading Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, and pontificating about the relevance of Duck Dynasty on American society. Sadly, he was rewarded for the charade. Even though the government subsequently shutdown for three weeks, Cruz instantly vaulted from an obscure freshman senator to a leading light of the conservative movement who would make a deep run in the 2016 Republican presidential primary.
The media is complicit in the sportification of politics by covering it through a lens resembling a reality television show or soap opera. It is hardly surprising that a reality T.V. star, such as Donald Trump, would come to prominence and ultimately become a political heavyweight in such an environment. Cable news shows like CNN and MSNBC focus on the soundbite-ready personality scandals of the day, whether it be “Sharpiegate,” a misspelling on Twitter, Obama’s tan suit, or coffee-in-hand salutes to military personnel in front of Air Force One. These so-called “scandals” suck the airtime away from substantive discussion of the fundamental problems facing the nation, while exacerbating political tribalism.
When partisan newspapers and cable shows do cover actual news, they tend to do so in an incomplete, slanted way. Similar to a football fan who correctly boos from the rooftops when a pass interference call against the other team was missed, and is dead silent when he sees his team get away with the same offense, news outlets may report on legitimate stories yet still give a biased perspective by downplaying opposition politician’s virtues and amplifying their vices. Twitter’s 280 character-per-tweet restriction and meme culture further incentive pithy rejoinders and witty roasts over genuine discussion. When both conventional media and social media covers politics as a sport, citizens will soon come to view it that way too.
While partisanship and political theater is now deeply entrenched, its impacts could be mitigated through some simple personal and institutional reforms. Congress could reduce the emphasis on party by eliminating the aisle and sorting congressman in the main chamber and on committees randomly, by alphabetical order, or by seniority. Individual citizens could disincentive sensationalism by intentionally boycotting disreputable or partisan news agencies that prioritize rage engagement over substance. Finally, to the extent that political theater may be here to stay, such theater could be domesticated. Congressmen from both parties could rendezvous together privately to separate political issues into two lists: trivial issues that they can grandstand on to excite their respective bases, and essential issues that will be negotiated behind the scenes (away from the cameras) rather than shut down to a halt through partisan gridlock. By doing so, the government could function better while still providing some of the circus entertainment Americans crave.
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