Fans need to show up for democracy
Americans have always drawn lessons from baseball, but now we need to pay attention to how the political game is being played
If fans don’t show up for democracy, the American team is in peril. (Photo by Rick Rodriguez on Unsplash)
If you are a fan of the Oakland A’s, we’re all sorry. It’s not just that the Athletics are on pace for one of the worst seasons in baseball history, but the fans are also feeling a sense of betrayal just now: The team is getting ready to pack up and move away after next season — apparently to a new $1.5 billion stadium in Las Vegas, with a retractable roof. At a lot of home games in Oakland this season, fewer than 10,000 fans are showing up.1 The few balls that A’s batters loft into the stands tend to bounce off empty seats.
But anybody who has ever thrilled to the crack of a bat in a ballpark knows that sports fans can be tenacious. My big brother, for example, has for more than seven decades been a fan of the Chicago Cubs, a team that went 108 years between its last two World Series championships, yet never lost his loyalty. He is to the Cubs what so-called “yellow dog Democrats” long were to that party – the term from the late 19th century referring to southerners who, it was said, would vote for a yellow dog on the Democratic ticket before they would cast a ballot for any Republican.2
Nowadays we see that kind of partisan devotion in the MAGA-heads: people who can’t be shaken from their adoration of Donald Trump, no matter what new evidence he heaves up of his immorality and mental instability. It makes you pine for the days when political allegiances were sort of like the conflict between Red Sox and Yankees fans: You’d never cheer for the other side, but if the other team gets more runs across the plate, you wouldn’t blow up the ballpark.
Not so in politics for a lot of people now. Sports and politics have grown more similar, some people say, which wouldn’t worry us so much if it only meant that many Americans root for their side no matter what. No, political fealty isn’t a problem until it turns toxic: until government can’t work because one side or the other won’t play the game. That’s where we are today.
So we have Tommy Tuberville, the Auburn football coach turned U.S. senator from Alabama, singlehandedly blocking 275 senior military promotions because he disagrees with Pentagon policy on abortion and transgender rights. We have the right-wing caucus that dominates House Republican leadership vowing to shut down the government if the Senate and White House don’t agree to deep — and deeply unpopular — federal spending cuts beyond those just agreed upon in June.
Most notably, we have a majority of Republican federal officials – and six in 10 Republican voters nationally, polls say — buying Donald Trump’s outrageous lie that he was cheated out of re-election in 2020, which he will surely claim again if he loses any election.3 Likewise, you know, any criminal charges he faces must be unfair, and any prosecutor who charges him, or any judge who hears those charges, must be out to get him and all his supporters. Trump’s whiny victimhood now fuels the Republican party’s anger at so many American institutions, from the FBI to the federal courts to election officials in the states, and it threatens to tear down confidence in government generally and our support for American democracy broadly.
This isn’t just the political equivalent of rooting for the home team or razzing the opposing pitcher. If most members of one of our two major parties believe our electoral system is corrupt, it undermines our democracy. Would fans show up for the Oakland A’s if they believed the team’s miserable record was because all the other American League teams are cheaters, or because all the major league umpires are biased against them?
There’s nothing wrong with loyalty to a tribe. Evolutionary biologists say it’s one of the attributes of humans that offered protection over hundreds of thousands of years. Tribalism yielded a sort of in-group bias, because that membership in the tribe was necessary for survival.4 Nowadays, though, we don’t have to band together to combat wild beasts to survive; we need to collaborate across diverse backgrounds to thrive. You might think that our political system had evolved to embrace that view, but we’re being dragged back by reactionary forces into the confines of our ancestors’ tribalism, and it’s putting our democracy at risk.
When a team is failing, you can blame players, coaches and owners. And if our democracy is failing? There’s fault to go around. Craven careerists like Tuberville or would-be autocrats like Trump deserve plenty of blame, but they aren’t the only villains.
As a journalist, I’d attribute some of the decline in democratic values to the way politics is covered on commercial television. Network executives have clearly become convinced that keeping viewers interested — in order to build a profitable marketplace for advertisers, of course — requires stressing conflict, and couching even complex stories in terms of clear winners and losers. It’s hard for the camera to resist flamboyant performers, because that’s what draws our attention. That dynamic presents difficult enough decisions for even the most ethical journalists, but it leaves us nearly defenseless against such bad players as Fox News. There are volumes to be written by future social historians about the role of Fox News in the deterioration of our political ecosystem, with plenty of examples — day after day and year after year — of truthful coverage being sacrificed for distortion aimed at pleasing and thus retaining a tribal audience.
But it’s also true that we all share the blame for the peril now facing democracy, as well as the opportunity to fix the problem. As we’ve settled into the comfort of our tribal alliances, we’ve lost some of the initiative and independence that is essential for democracy. At an appearance in the Adirondacks last week, David Blight, the Yale historian who won a 2019 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Frederick Douglass, linked our pattern of news consumption to sports fandom, and pointed to an alternative.
“We consume national news like we do pro sports – like we can’t do anything about it but watch,” Blight said. “But on the local level, it’s the opposite: You can perform in communities to make democracy work. The kind of gathering and organizing to accomplish goals is the practice you need to do anything.”5
It’s an interesting notion: Practicing democracy locally, where allegiance to our own team might be less relevant, could expand our capacity to engage in it nationally.
There has been some encouraging news about that sort of a commitment to action at the local level in recent voting results. The huge turnout in Ohio this week, as voters rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have made it harder to enshrine abortion rights in the state, suggests that voter engagement remains high, as it was in both the 2020 presidential race and the 2022 midterms. Whether it will carry forward into a 2024 campaign that looks to be a rematch of two unpopular presidential candidates remains to be seen.
Yet there’s another matter that’s essential to consider: whether our tribalism has spoiled the seeds that need to be planted for democracy’s flourishing in years to come. Engagement isn’t something that we can expect a new generation to embrace without our encouragement. And in recent years, educators have noticed a disturbing trend among school-aged children: They’re growing more passive.
Even before the Covid shutdowns, schools had reported a sharp drop in youth participation in sports. Research connected to Rutgers University found in 2018 that 38 percent of children participated in a team sport, which was down from 45 percent in 2008.6 Music educators tell a similar story: the introduction to music in public schools has been on a steady decline since 1997.7 Piano lessons are down by one-third from 2020, and sales of acoustic pianos dropped 60 percent between 2004 and 2022, according to the National Association of Music Merchants.8
It's not that youngsters and others aren’t still fans of sports or music, but the growing tendency of Americans is to be spectators, not participants. Consider, then, the risk if our approach to public life follows — if rather than activists and participants, or even voters, more Americans stay on the sidelines, sticking to the allegiance they hold to their own teams and the growing hatred they’re encouraged to feel for their opponents.
In sports, not everybody can get on the playing field, of course. I’ve grown to accept the fact that I’m never going to make it to Wimbledon. And it’s great to be an avid fan, and to feel a thrill when your team wins and the relatively harmless disappointment in its losses. But in a democracy, a place in the stands only goes so far. If we want our team to win — and if we consider ourselves to be a fan of Team Democracy — we need to show up for it, and do whatever we can to help the team succeed.
Remarks at The Long Table Dinner at John Brown Farm State Historic Site, Lake Placid, N.Y., on Aug. 5, 2023, appearing with Jamelle Bouie and Nell Painter.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Lansing, Mich. (Lansing State Journal, lansingstatejournal.com)
West Brookfield, Mass. (Worcester Telegram & Gazette, telegram.com)
Aberdeen, S.D. (South Dakota Searchlight, aberdeennews.com)
Desert Hot Springs, Cal. (Palm Springs Desert Sun, desertsun.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes most Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Police nab a 12-year-old for auto theft — but it’s the wrong person
A 12-year-old boy who was taking out the trash for his family was grabbed by a police officer, handcuffed and placed in a squad car as a suspect in auto thefts — but he wasn’t the suspect police were looking for. Now the boy’s family is angry, and both the mayor and police chief are offering apologies. Krystal Nurse reports in the Lansing State Journal that officials explained that the youth, who is Black, was dressed exactly as the suspect had been described. But the boy’s father related his experience of looking outside and seeing his son in handcuffs. He said the boy “should not have been subjected to this treatment,” and said the family was considering a lawsuit. Lansing’s mayor issued a statement that said, in part, “Our officers do their absolute best to protect Lansing, but in this case a mistake was made and we own it and apologize to those affected.”
Antisemitic material distributed in small community
Some two dozen small plastic bags filled with white rice and antisemitic flyers were left on driveways in a section of West Brookfield, according to reporting by Craig S. Semon in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. The flyers listed nationally-known Jewish people, and alleged that every aspect of the “COVID agenda” is Jewish. Police Chief Nathan Hagglund noted that the village population is only about 3,800, and he grappled with whether he would be giving the writer more attention than deserved by releasing the information. “I think, if you stay silent that you’re almost accepting of their articles,” Hagglund said. “So I thought it was far more important to get the information out.” Officials of the Anti-Defamation League said they suspected an antisemitic hate group, the Goyim Defense League, was responsible.
Wheat and oat harvest down due to drought, switch to other crops
South Dakota farmers this year will produce 17% less winter wheat, 29% less spring wheat and 23% less oats compared to last year, according to reporting by Joshua Haiar of South Dakota Searchlight (a not-for-profit newsroom providing coverage free to newspapers decimated by chain ownership). Drought conditions east of the Missouri River are partly to blame, but there’s more cash these days in planting corn and soybeans, a soil scientist noted. Wheat production had been growing until a decline in the early 2000s, “partly because corn and soybean subsidy programs are so robust,” the scientist said. Nationally, corn acres planted increased from 60 million in 1983 to 89 million last year, which the USDA attributes mostly to expanding ethanol production, which now accounts for nearly 45% of total corn use. Additionally, corn now accounts for more than 95% of feed grain — which has grown in demand as confined animal feeding operations have proliferated.
Fast-growing Coachella Valley city will grow a lot more
In the 1970s, only about 2,700 people lived in Desert Hot Springs. Now there are ten times that many, and Ani Gasparyan reports in the Palm Springs Desert Sun that the city will get a lot more soon: The city council has approved plans for a developer to move forward with construction of 2,140 homes in 10 “villages.” The project was envisioned in the early years of this century, but was delayed by the Great Recession.
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