The Super Bowl election
I usually love the annual spectacle of the Super Bowl. The two-week buildup, the potential for legendary performances, the uber-capitalist energy of the commercials and half-time performance – it always promises to be a great show.
But with the exception of a phenomenal 5-minute Bruno Mars/Beyonce duet at halftime, this year’s big game was remarkably boring. With a lack of much good football to talk about, the post-game media narrative focused more on the larger-than-life personalities of the two quarterbacks than anything they did on the field. The Panthers’ Cam Newton suffered an on-field meltdown worthy of a petulant toddler, then gave a famously terse post-game press conference. The Broncos’ Peyton Manning, whose willingness to sign endorsement deals was impossible to miss during commercial breaks all season, celebrated his win by kissing “Papa John” Schnatter and shilling for Budweiser. Heroic role models these quarterbacks were not.
More than any other position in any other sport, the quarterback is the face of a football team. Much of this attention is deserved – the quarterback has a tremendous combination of freedom and responsibility to shape the outcome of each game – but a team is much more than its star player. As fellow Packer’s fans will appreciate all too well, a great quarterback often can’t make up for serious deficiencies elsewhere on the team. And despite how demoralizing losing a star quarterback can be, statistical evidence suggests that a team’s playoff chances do not rest entirely on his shoulders.
A similar mystique shrouds the Oval Office. The president has control over the world’s strongest military and considerable power to shape economic and foreign policy. But events in recent years should remind us that the power of the White House is often no match for the vagaries of a complex world. As we’ve witnessed in Libya and Syria, even the judicious use of American power can cause unintended consequences that quickly spiral out of control. And as world markets continue to slump due in part to low oil prices and lackluster growth in emerging markets, we should remember that the interdependent forces that combine to shape the global economy are much too complicated for a single person to take credit (or blame).
That nuance is nowhere to be found this year. Much like how Cam and Peyton’s huge, controversial personalities overshadowed their respective failures on the field in Super Bowl 50, the run-up to the election of our 45th president is being dominated by the cults of Trump, Cruz and Sanders. On the right, there have been plenty of calls for wall-building, carpet bombing and repealing Obamacare, with disturbingly little consideration of consequences. On the left, there is even less discussion of how plans for free college and universal health care would be paid for and why they would be accepted by a deeply hostile opposition.
And just like the desperate fans of a losing team who pin their hopes for next season on a transformative first-round draft pick, the narrative of the primaries is that the next president will single-handedly remake the country and the world in their image. The complexity of the challenges we face, and how much the president can realistically do to address them, is lost in the cacophony of demands for idealogical heroism. Zealous supporters reject the value of cooperation and consensus, and demagogues thrive by making promises they have no ability to keep.
There may be no I in team, but there is one in election.
Nicholas Haynes, from Milwaukee, is a third-year Ph.D. student in physics at Duke.
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