Friday, April 23, 2010

Building Toward Understanding, Part Two: Stop Keeping Score

The mindset currently gripping America's political psyche can be explained by sports metaphors. This notion provides a really good way to understand why our public debate has become so bitter and impoverished.

First, we want to score points. I've long wanted to score points, and it took a long time for me to mentally and emotionally detach from the need to score points. We, as human beings, possess egos which crave competition and, perhaps even more powerfully, validation within the framework of said competition. We want to win the battle and see our beliefs prevail in the public square. Yes, we want to make the world a better place, but since our experiences shape us and give rise to a strong emotional center deep within our being, a healthy and proper sense of ambition leads us to connect desirable outcomes with the policy positions we've come to see as being superior to others.

This is not wrong or disordered, one hastens to add.

Ambition is not a value-negative word, but a value-neutral word. Human persons are supposed to be ambitious; it's a way of referring to the life force we carry as biological creatures. The key element of ambition is that, like so many other qualities we possess, it must be channeled in the right direction and used with great care. We should fight for our ideals and beliefs as we seek to improve our country and its constituent communities. Otherwise, we wouldn't have any intellectual or personal integrity. No great struggles are won without vigorous effort and considerable struggle. We should be passionate about winning fights that we sincerely believe will benefit our neighbors.

The key emphasis, though, is that last part: What we do needs to benefit the common good, our neighbors in the sense that Jesus used the word "neighbors": as the rest of the world, not just like-minded people we're naturally drawn to and congregate with. The Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel according to Luke makes that point clear.

The president of Gonzaga University gave a talk in 2001 at the Western Region meeting of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (referred to in an earlier blog post about my personal journey) in which he stressed the need to discern between competition and contribution, between a mindset which values climbing up a ladder over other people and - on the other hand - giving to others in a spirit which seeks mutual benefit and edification.

Don't get me wrong: Competition - similar to ambition - is not value-negative. However, whereas ambition is a little bit more general in scope and application, competition is more connected to the notion of outdoing someone else. Competition is not inherently geared toward the diminishment of others (again, it's not value-negative; it's value neutral, just like ambition), but it risks doing so and must therefore be carefully calibrated by each and every person.

Safe to say, Americans have a hard time learning when to shut off their competitive instincts in favor of a solely contributive mindset and model.

This is where sports metaphors re-enter our discussion.

Election Night in America (I can't speak for international readers here) is so much like a sporting event: The multiple panelists, the avalanche of graphics, the parade of stats, the special sets built just for the occasion. Our press - as both the Left and Right know quite well - is obsessed with what is called "the horse race" (sports metaphor) and likes to talk of an electoral sweep (sports metaphor) as the fruition of a game plan or strategy (sports metaphor).

[I'll spare you the other sports metaphors used amidst election talk in this country. Point proven, I trust.]

So much of American political culture - and this country's mainstream media programs perpetuate this - is dominated by a competitive mindset which, like America's legal system, owns an entirely adversarial flavor.

The McLaughlin Group started this trend in the late 1980s. Crossfire continued it on CNN in the 1990s. Hardball has perpetuated it in this decade on MSNBC, as has Fox News' collection of programs. Talk radio - Left and Right - has increased the reach of combat politics, as have the not-so-civil sections of a very diverse blogosphere (and now Twitterverse as well).

The basic formula for a political TV show these days is simple: either have an adversarial host with an opposite-minded guest, or a host with two guests who are adversarial toward each other and appear on a split screen. Instead of performing real journalism (which costs, but also enriches the public), cable news directors are instead running programs on the cheap by filling vast stretches of air time with yakkers.

Yak, yak, yak, 24-7-365.

No wonder our so-called "debates" in America generate far more heat than light.

No wonder our public discourse is so tired and worn.

No wonder each cable network (and talk radio station) only furthers a mindset of mortal combat in our political culture.

No wonder the same debates - with all their familiar attendant talking points - get embedded deeper and deeper into the minds of the general populace, thereby entrenching viewpoints and creating a bunker mentality on all sides.

No wonder people on the Left and the Right feel so beaten-down, misrepresented and generally unheard in our public commons. No wonder this deep-set sense of fatigue prevents each of us (progressives and conservatives, Green Party members and Tea Party members) from being able to hear the wisdom in a divergent or opposing viewpoint.

Combat politics - what I like to call the "food fight" model - has been hammered so deeply into the American psyche that we can't imagine what a different model would look like. (Bill Moyers, who is retiring from broadcast journalism on April 30, owns views that my friends on the Right might virulently disagree with, but one thing that has to be said is that Moyers has always created an environment conducive to extended adult conversation with people from all corners of the political arena.) I would venture to say that we, as Americans, have a yearning for a better way of communicating, but the commercial landscape of broadcast media makes it all too apparent that Americans aren't about to be better served by the generators of mainstream broadcast content.

In many ways, the purpose of this blog is to call all of us - Left and Right and all places in between (or even beyond!) - to the idea that not only CAN this happen; it MUST happen.

Will it be easy? Of course not. One by one, though, we need to spread the idea that we can produce dialogue which both respects our positions yet creates possibilities of reform in mainstream media, journalistic research, academic integrity, governmental competence, and corporate accountability (among other important realms).

One by one, we need to create the idea that our two-party system - which can't possibly contain the full spectrum of viewpoints on both the Left and the Right and is therefore corroding American politics to a degree which can't be overstated - must give way to a four-party model. That's a long-term project, though, so for the time being, we need to find a way to debate within the (impoverished, ineffective, combat-conducive, systemically adversarial) Democrat-Republican model we have.

To focus this essay a little more precisely on the nature of the problem in front of us, I'll emphasize one particular point about the nature of debate between the Left and the Right in America.

Naturally, it goes back to keeping score.

So much of commentary - on TV, radio, blogs, Twitter, and other formats - is geared toward saying how X politician or party is worse than Y.

Obama got more corporate cash than Bush. Bush did worse on foreign policy.

Bush couldn't use proper syntax, says the Left. Obama bows to other leaders, says the Right.

Bush got us into this economic mess, says the Left. (Not without reason or cause.) Obama's making things worse, says the Right. (Not without reason or cause.)

We're so conditioned to defend our turf and our positions to the extent that we (and I've been part of this dynamic for many years) try to say that if we're bad, well, the other side is worse. If "we" have been ineffective, "they" have been disastrous. If "we" have been inconsistent, "they" have been hypocritical.

In many ways, our political climate - and its hostility to edifying, respectful (but still vigorous and rigorous) public debate - can be characterized by a saying which captures the Republican-Democrat model:

"When you do something, it's an abuse of power. When I do that same thing, it's inspired leadership."

Indeed: the Bush and Obama administrations are guilty of many of the same sins and the same abuses of power, but our media climate leads us to compete with each other and emphasize how one camp is worse than the other.

Let me level with all of you, but especially my friends on the Right (since I lean Left): I'm sure there are aspects in which Obama has been definitively worse than Bush. All I'm saying is that it does little good to get into a pissing contest where we spend our time on image-based minutiae and competitive measures of who did more to ruin our country.

Did Party A or Politician B unleash more unhealthy effects than a counterpart? Perhaps... but not enough that the well-being of our Republic depends on the answer.

Both parties - and presidential administrations representing them - have presided over a political culture that has steadily eroded American power, influence and economic health.

Yes, one Texan president (Bush) got us into an ill-conceived war against a savvy and elusive insurgent opposition, but Lyndon Johnson wrote that same narrative some 40 years earlier. Yes, Richard Nixon is a magnet for hate among liberals of my mother's age, but it's important to note that LBJ - with the Gulf of Tonkin debacle - truly began the decade (1964-1974) during which Americans' trust in government rightfully and appropriately plummeted.

Income inequality increased under Bush (43), but it was Bill Clinton who - while enjoying the fruits of a situationally convenient but short-lived and speculation-based tech boom in the late 1990s - made many decisions (in cahoots with vultures like Bob Rubin and Larry Summers) that perpetuated income inequality and also undercut our nation's economic footing.

Both parties - Republican and Democrat - are and have been in thrall to the military-industrial complex and so many other odious extensions of what friend and regular commenter John Cary rightly terms "the federal leviathan." It does us precious little good to waste our time figuring out who's worse. What we should be doing is figuring out how we get better as a nation, as a people, and as a morally-oriented and socially just collection of subcultures in the different corners of these (not-so-United) States.

Simply stated, we need all voices and political perspectives to show us a way out of this mess. The culture of cutthroat political competition must give way to a culture of contribution which seeks mutual benefit, growth and improvement.

The era of political scorekeeping must end... even if it means that I (and you) can't score any more cheap points in this contact sport called politics. Sports metaphors and the hunger for electoral victory need to take a backseat toward the service of the common good.

After all, it's easy to criticize the opposition or proclaim what won't work. It's much harder - but infinitely more rewarding and beneficial - to work with the opposition and craft something that will succeed.

Part Three of this "Building Understanding" series will come out early next week, after the weekend is over.


  1. This brings to mind a question for you, Matt: Is political rhetoric tearing apart this nation, or are misguided policies (unnecessary war, health insurance mandates, bad anti-Wall Street bills, etc.)? I would say the latter, but you imply the former, so I'm curious.

  2. Both, John.

    The rhetoric prevents us - as a country - from having rational discussion and exploring relevant solutions to problems.

    Bad policies are allowed to dominate and unelected elites are able to continue to manipulate the levers of power out of public view when culture-war polarization fills the airwaves.

    I don't think any sensible person would say that we have sane policies or responsible governance. That's a given. It's the assumed starting point for this discussion (namely, something's very rotten, and how do we fix it?).

    What I'm getting at, then, is that the food fight political culture prevents Left and Right from discussing nuanced policy corrections in a spirit of serving the country (as opposed to a party, an ideology, or special interests attached to them). We can't correct our problems or adjust our fundamental trajectory in America without carving out the safe space in which meaningful conversations can take place.

  3. I agreed with a lot of this. And it sort of goes hand in hand with how I felt about the firing of the GEICO voice talent last week. I blogged about that, myself.

    We ARE feeling so beaten down that common sense and what is right gets lost in the appetite for scoring points and "winning" something.

  4. Darcy / John / Nikki / Jazz / Budour / Others:

    I would be happy to allow each of you to write guest posts here on your own stories of personal evolution and growth, sharing what you've learned and explaining how certain experiences formed your political views. You could also share the ways in which people or groups with dramatically different views have either hurt you and/or refused to truly listen to your story and your concerns.

    I can give you access to this publishing console via DM on Twitter.

  5. Sweet!

    I have my own blog at, which I have neglected, and also a group blog effort at But...I'd be very happy to cross-post the political posts here! The GEICO thing was my first foray into blogging about politics, believe it or not! ;-)