A recent quote from Erie state Senator Dan Laughlin reveals more about the troubles in state politics than he perhaps intended. His statement is a refreshingly candid assertion: “One of the things that disappoints me the most about politics is that it’s a little bit too much of a team sport. Trying to work across the aisle, like our constituents actually would like us to, is difficult at times.” To those not enamored of present-day state politics, the last sentence likely qualifies as a monumental understatement.
Pennsylvania is increasingly diverse in about every way imaginable. When folks without a philosophical agenda drill down into solid statistical analysis, they regularly find this diversity helps fuel economic growth and cultural enhancement and an improved quality of life. The contemporary drawback to diversity is it triggers strong biases in too many folks, feeding into the deepening political divide that is a serious obstacle to the political collaboration Senator Laughlin yearns for.
Sports terminology has long been common coin in political discourse. That does not guarantee the analogies are valid or hold up well.
The concept of team play in contemporary politics is about as far from what the term means in the world of sports as possible. For the most part, successful sports teams merge different skills and approaches into a team chemistry intended to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Performance outruns expectations. See the Atlanta Braves.
Despite the criticisms and failings found in modern sports, there remains much that is refreshing and inspiring. It is easy to find instances where opponents acknowledge superior effort from the other side – a great individual play, a remarkable second effort, an emergency fill-in jelling, an incredible comeback effort, a dominating performance by a lesser team, or a completely unforeseen upset victory. While losers are known to grouse about what might have been, the game result stands. There is not a concerted effort to have the results thrown out or to recognize a bogus winner. No one is wearing t-shirts and ballcaps with the slogan Make The Astros Champions Again.
Try to recall similar behavior in contemporary politics. Across the aisle acknowledgment is disparaged in the present and perhaps punished in the next primary. Every idea from the other team is denounced as dangerous, corrupt, budget-busting, and economy ruining. Truth telling is equated with treason. See Liz Cheney, et al.
Great athletes have more than a set of stellar skills. They can improvise plays that journeyman players cannot even imagine. They rise to the occasion when the pressure and stakes are highest. When they take over a game, the purpose is to succeed, rather than to obstruct. Wise coaches do not punish players for applying their skills beyond a dictated game plan, the improvisational game-breaker. This contrasts sharply with governance. With political orthodoxy and litmus tests reigning on each side, independent thinking and action is verboten.
A lauded action in sports is taking one for the team. Players voluntarily give up their bodies or personal stats to help the team achieve victory. Politics turns this concept on its head. Taking one for the team becomes surrendering your principles or setting aside district and constituent interests for purely partisan ends or the express demands of party leaders. The elected official who gives in to this pressure effectively forsakes his true first team, the conscience and constituency squad.
The lack of any equivalent to sportsmanship in politics is a considerable missing element. For the athlete, lack of a sense of sportsmanship is said to disrespect the game and the fans. For the politician, the lack of ability to concede anything to the opposition shows disrespect to the larger public interest. History is filled with examples of where a president and a legislative leader of the opposite party negotiated landmark legislation. The same is true for congressmen of different parties and different chambers. Even the fabled Broad Street Bullies did not seek to cripple every opponent. Winning still required exceptional hockey, which showed in goals and assists and victories.
Try to think of examples over the past decade. How did those Cory Booker and Tim Scott sessions on forging balanced police reform work out? When compromise and mutual concession are regarded as high heresy, common interest is not surprisingly difficult to attain. It is simply mind-boggling to the public a deal cannot be cut on something as critical to the future as infrastructure. Or to see the public purpose behind gutting the nation’s diplomatic corps, and then blocking replenishing it.
In yesteryear, when legislating worked in generally constructive fashion, leaders tended to guide the troops toward the middle, on the theory that the fringes would either follow or be relegated to irrelevancy. Now both sides are prone to driving toward the fringes, and those who insist on remaining centrist become the targets of vitriol and a primary purge.
The popular strategy of obstructing up and down the agenda, gambling the next election changes the political lineup, does have a sports equivalent – tanking. When a franchise goes in on tanking, it gambles that the loss of fan base and revenue is recoverable. When political parties are all in on serial obstructing, the losers are the communities and taxpayers who are looking for problems to be solved and opportunities created. What is lost is not as easily recoverable as a fan base in sports.
This sad state of affairs will only change when the many people who register their dissatisfaction with legislative bodies and other arms of government take action at the polls. If voters treat primaries as an audition for who can be the most extremist, it is hard to see how leaders are going to feel compelled to pull the troops toward the middle. Those who try will have a new title – ex-leader.
Until the day when voters decide to back candidates who have an agenda beyond trashing the other team and thwarting their every initiative, we are stuck in the hard-to-stomach mess dominating every news cycle. Who can and will lead the return to the days of political production envisioned by Senator Laughlin? When will the courts be seen as arbiters rather than rubber stamps? Those questions will not be directly on the ballot in 2022 or 2024. But they will be core considerations in the choices voters will make during what shape up as extraordinarily pivotal and defining election cycles.
David A. Atkinson, Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy