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National Issues

Politics-As-Sports Mentality Can be Destructive

Recently, a bizarre theory about Egypt’s pyramids became big political news. Buzzfeed uncovered video of a 1998 commencement speech by Ben Carson in which he says that the pyramids were built by the Old Testament’s Joseph to serve as grain silos.

When CBS News asked Carson whether he still held this theory, he responded, “It is still my belief, yes.” This quickly became comic fodder. Hillary Clinton and Jimmy Kimmel shared a good laugh about it. I was laughing right along with them. But then I wondered whether I should be.

Like most of my generation, social media is my primary source for news. When it comes to politics, I am well aware of the way in which this biases what I see. Most of the people I connect with on social media are, like me, fairly progressive. So most of what I see on social media, in between the cute cat videos, tends to have a progressive slant.

Lately that slant has manifested itself as a fixation on the asinine things said by Carson, Donald Trump and other GOP candidates. Whenever a Republican candidate says something particularly inane — a frequent occurrence these days — my social media network reacts with glee. It’s a glee that I’ve become uncomfortable with. It’s schadenfreude.

Many progressives watched the Republican debates hoping the candidates would say something stupid, much like one watching a rival sports team hoping to see it self-destruct. This talk of sports is more than just an analogy. Work in political psychology shows that most partisans react to politics the same way they react to sports rivalries. We enjoy it when our team wins, whether it’s on the football field or in the political arena. And we enjoy watching the other team lose. Such schadenfreude may not be a problem in sports, but it is a serious problem in politics.

The politics-as-team-sports mentality is one we should be seeking to break out of. When we take pleasure in fouls committed by the other side, reacting with glee to their inane comments, we reinforce the mindset. It’s a mindset that makes us less likely to see the fouls committed by our own side as fouls. It can even lead us to believe that fouls committed by our own team are okay as long as they help us win the game.

In a recent study, more than a third of partisans, from both parties, said their own party should use “any tactics necessary to win elections and issues debates.” When asked what tactics they had in mind, “the most common ones they offered were voter suppression, stealing or cheating in elections, physical violence and threats against the other party, lying, personal attacks on opponents, not allowing the other party to speak and using the filibuster to gridlock Congress.”

The politics-as-team-sports mentality encourages us to accept that fouls are just part of the game. The result is normalization of serious affronts to democracy.

The politics-as-team-sport mentality also makes bipartisan cooperation more difficult. Viewing the other side as a team to be defeated rather than worked with makes compromise far more difficult to achieve. And democratic politics is largely impossible without compromise. The politics-as-team-sports mentality is an obstacle to maintaining any semblance of a functioning democracy.

From a progressive point of view, the collapse of a party that has systematically sought to block same-sex marriage, limit the reproductive rights of women and disenfranchise black and Hispanic voters is obviously a good thing. The asinine comments of GOP candidates makes this change more difficult to achieve, and without such a change, it’s unlikely the Republicans will take the White House next November.

While this should give progressives reason to celebrate, we need not celebrate the asinine remarks themselves. To do so is to cultivate a kind of schadenfreude that reinforces the destructive politics-as-team-sport mentality. Ben Carson’s theory about the pyramids may be funny, but let’s not get giddy about it.

Aaron Ancell, from Vancouver, Canada, is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Duke.

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