All things considered, the results of a weekend series between the Braves and Yankees impact my life more than the actions of the United States government over the same time period.
Last week in a political theory seminar I made this comment and ignited a rather heated debate about the foundations of our nation's government and the values of its citizens. It began as a clever little analogy, but, as is common in seminar classes, the analogy became a test case for larger ethical issues. What is it about sports that make them so much more captivating than national politics? More importantly, should an upstanding citizen in a republic such as ours feel ethically comfortable with caring more about baseball statistics than balanced budget amendments?
To answer the second question first: Yes, we should have no problem whatsoever with loving baseball more than our politicians.
Pragmatically speaking, the government really has very little power to change things. The boundaries of the Constitution and the tardiness of bureaucracy dictate that very little significant change ever happens on a national level.
So for the majority of us who live at the margins, significant political consequences do not exist. However, if the Yankees sweep the Braves and I have to hear my Dad and every other New Yorker I know squawking in my ear until the postseason, it impacts my life in a very real and annoying sense. That having been said, why do I love baseball so much, and how could I be led to love politics more?
Baseball and sports in general, trump politics in the minds of Americans for several reasons. Fundamentally, baseball is easier to understand than national politics. Baseball, insofar as it is a game with fairly consistent, well-defined rules, offers its fans a consistent product. From game to game, a fan of baseball can apply the same cognitive scheme and produce consistent results. I can easily track and compare the relevant game statistics and empirically define what it takes to be a winner and a loser. Politics, on the other hand, is infinitely more complex and dynamic, making it difficult to know what the relevant statistics are to track from politician to politician and party to party. How can I get behind a team in politics if I have no idea where they come from and where they are going this season?
While politics is more complicated on face, the presentation of politics to the public doesn't organize information in such a way that it is easily understood. Every day on ESPN I am presented with all of the relevant highlights and statistics in convenient table formats that allow me to point out what is working and what is not.
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Everything is empirical, organized and beautiful. News programming on the other hand presents politics in the most vague and normative ways possible, always gossiping about parties and interest groups and the color of Al Gore's tie; never showing real results. If I see home runs in a statistics box, I know what they mean, but if I see a bill being passed on C-SPAN, I never get statistics on the efficacy of that bill once it is passed--that kind of information is hidden from the public in the depths of an anonymous Congressional report.
Another way the media exalts baseball over politics is in the creation of superstars. I remember Derek Jeter falling over into the stands to catch a foul ball for an out, I remember Luis Gonzalez hitting a bloop single to win the 2001 World Series, but I can't even begin to distinguish one politician from another. George W. Bush had something going with the Iraq war, but around the ten-thousandth hunting analogy, I had lost interest. For the most part, though, the media does everything it can to make all the politicians look the same--this only hinders the development of political interest.
If one senator is championing health care reform, and another is sleeping on the Senate floor during the debate, I want to know about it. I need to know who is a Lou Gehrig, and who is a Ty Cobb. If it is important for Americans to care about politics, it is fundamental that we care about politicians. Sure politics may not be as overtly interesting as baseball, but to some degree I think it's a matter of presentation.
So assuming it is good for the country to have people take an interest in politics, we need to reorganize the way that people receive political information. On the one hand, people need to have relevant information grouped and presented statistically such that we can compare our politicians and our parties and make quantitative judgments of them. On the other hand, we need to feel personally connected to our political stars--to feel their joys and pains in real time.
The answer lies in a realm somewhere between ESPN and reality television. Taking the statistics of the former and the faux-psychological intricacy of the latter, an opportunistic media conglomerate could easily fashion a cable network that presents all the information people need and want to know about politics in interesting and understandable ways.
Every politician would have a stat sheet, just like every baseball player. While we saw the highlights of the day's congressional debates, we could see overlays of our favorite representative's voting history, his time of possession on the house floor, and other titillating nuggets of personal information.
Every policy would be treated to in-depth analysis, complete with details about where money is going and why, the success of previous policies, and information about the various politicians supporting and opposing it--all organized and presented visually with quirky expert commentary so that people could understand and enjoy it. Take this basic format, spice it up with some snazzy theme music, killer graphics and Dick Vitale, and voila: political interest.
But until that vision becomes reality, you won't catch me wasting my time with politics. You'll find me in the back of a crowded bar with a half-empty pint glass, crying about how despite the great numbers, my boys in Atlanta choked again this year.
Andrew Waugh is a Trinity junior. His column appears every third Thursday.