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Democracy is Not a Team Sport

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Photo by Graeme Maclean | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Graeme Maclean | CC BY 2.0

 

Once, at a check-up in Wisconsin, a nice young dental hygienist asked me if I followed the Green Bay Packers. She happened to be a huge fan, bristling with excitement about the upcoming game. I hail from a different state, have lived in a number of cities, and never cared much for football. No, I was not a fan. In fact, I always enjoyed playing sports more than watching them. Nevertheless, the woman went on to talk about her team for the entire time she cleaned my teeth.

Americans, by and large, are infatuated with their teams. Look at the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry or the jubilation over the Cubs winning the world series this past year. When I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, a sea of red-clothed enthusiasts washed over the streets on Badger game days.

But we choose teams in more than just sports. The recent Gilmore Girls revival on Netflix had viewers arguing over whether they were “Team Jess” or “Team Logan.” Movie fanatics ally with Team Star Wars or Team Star Trek. Consumers join Team Coke or Team Pepsi. And the majority of the American population forge an allegiance to Team Democrat or Team Republican.

In our increasingly fragmented, screen-obsessed society, we all long to be a part of a community. Teams make us feel like we belong, like we matter. But team loyalty is often as insipid as the endless entertainment we devour as a country. It is based on personality, proximity, and style rather than substance – very apropos in our hyper-consumerist culture. It is an identity that seemingly enriches the egos of the disciples, but in reality, it only serves to enrich those at the top.

Team alliances in such trivial matters as sports and pop culture may be of little significance, save for the time, effort, and money spent on these trivialities which could be better spent on matters of consequence. However, strict team alliances in politics serve to manipulate the masses and obfuscate the issues. What results is a highly polarized, divisive society in which the suffering of the people and the crumbling of our ecological life support system go on almost unabated. Those at the top of Team D and Team R forge forward, reaping the rewards of our toils on the bottom.

Dichotomous political teams exist to provide an illusion of choice. Real life, real issues are messy and multifaceted. Tackling climate change, for example, is much more than merely a matter of choosing between Team Prius versus Team Hummer. But teams provide a simple heuristic so that people can avoid the difficulty of analyzing and considering complex matters. We choose teams so that we can spend our time chasing careers, wealth, and a host of other shallow pursuits rather than participating in building a better world every day. Finally, teams allow those in power to go about their self-serving, often destructive, business while the powerless squabble with each other over which side they are on.

When we are aligned with a particular team, we tend to excuse and rationalize that team’s bad behavior, because that team becomes attached to our own ego. We project our beliefs and feelings onto that team and its representative leader. Thus, any attack on the team becomes a personal affront, regardless of the fact that the team seldom cares about us.

Consequently, Democrats rarely balked at Bill Clinton’s roll-back of welfare, repeal of Glass-Steagall, enactment of an excessively harsh crime bill, passing of NAFTA, and deregulation of the Telecommunications industry. In addition, many Democrats justified or ignored Obama’s increase in foreign wars, bail out of Wall Street, expansion of offshore oil drilling, extension of Bush’s tax cuts to the wealthy, and promotion of free trade agreements that empower and enrich corporations. There is no direct Republican corollary to the actions of the Democrats because Republicans do not implement policies that would be otherwise considered Democratic. However, what occurs with Republicans is that when confronted with such policies from Clinton and Obama – policies that are inherently Republican in nature – the Republicans reject rather than support them because they originate from the wrong team. All of this refusal to address the actual political issues stems from blind adherence to teams (and in the case of Republican repudiation of Obama, sometimes blatant racism).

The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., the ACA or Obamacare) serves as an apt illustration of the nonsensical political team activity. This sometimes helpful but deeply flawed health care initiative – in that it protects and expands the coffers of the unnecessary health insurance industry – bears far too many striking similarities to the plan conceived at the conservative Heritage Foundation and the plan enacted in Massachusetts by Republican Governor Mitt Romney. Any wonder why the Republicans have no other ideas now that they are poised to repeal the ACA? Because the Democrats stole their idea. But both teams deny this fact. Moreover, Democrats will argue the spurious claim that Obamacare is the best we can do, that we could never enact universal single-payer health coverage (which would save the country billions).

In order to fight the fascist and regressive Trump regime, we would do well to learn from past mistakes. We cannot battle Trump with the goal of simply switching the team in power. In 2011, the co-option of a populist rebellion in Wisconsin by the Democratic party signaled doom for the movement. Likewise for Occupy. In the aftermath, several Democrats won while the rest of us continued to lose.

Some attending the historic Women’s March expressed the opinion that those who voted for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson – i.e., not Team Hillary – were not welcome. This team sentiment is highly destructive. In a similar vein, it does women no good to decry Trump’s misogyny and history of sexual assault without at least acknowledging that a number of President Clinton’s numerous past indiscretions amount to sexual harassment as well. While these behaviors may not necessarily be equivalent, neither behavior should be condoned based upon team loyalty.

Democrats and Republicans and their anointed leaders such as Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump are brands and personalities. There is a reason that the Obama campaign won  Advertising Age’s award for marketer of the year in 2008. Part of belonging to a particular team involves the cult of celebrity. Charming, good-looking, dignified, witty team leaders cultivate that sense of belonging even more so. But even the most distinguished leaders come replete with empty rhetoric and broken promises. It is important that we see through the charismatic character, that we analyze the practices rather than embrace the platitudes.

The political dichotomies are a means to divide those who should be united, and so they have. I received numerous notes from people and heard tales from friends who recounted fractured relationships – some permanently – arising from the divisiveness between teams in this past 2016 election. By choosing teams, we were forced to defend the indefensible, whether it be Hillary’s war mongering and pro-corporate agenda on one side, or Trump’s immaturity, racism, and probable psychopathy on the other (again, not that they are necessarily equivalent). People are tired of hypocrisy and lies, but these emanate from both teams. To circumvent this foible, we could acknowledge the positive (in those rare instances) and speak out vehemently against the negative of all parties and all politicians – in short, speak the truth. Defending your team despite its flagrant deficiencies is a vacuous, disingenuous endeavor that we should all find intolerable.

Furthermore, when it comes to teams in presidential elections, we forget that we’ve been manipulated into choosing a president from what are often limited and very poor choices provided by the rich and powerful. These choices (in this case, both Hillary and the Donald) may not reflect the citizenry of the country at all. Even so, we fall in line, bickering over the unfavorable choices thrust upon us, rather than come together against them both and defend our democracy and the policies that would be best for us all.

It’s amazing how nonplussed people become when you raise issues without the context of the major political parties – when you do not affiliate with a team. Sometimes they deflect the subject or try to pinpoint your nonexistent team. Then, they are loath to agree with you if they conclude they are on a different team, even though you assure them that you do not belong to one. This default team position needs to end if we want any chance of combating the most pressing concerns facing all of our citizens including poverty, income inequality, and wholesale environmental degradation.

For any real democracy, our alliances need to shift from superficial teams to substantive ideas. We want to be a part of a group, yet we fail to recognize our more salient connections to the majority of humanity. Our delusions about the Team D and Team R blind us to the largest struggle of all: the oppressed versus the oppressors. And currently, in that war, you know what team both the Democrats and the Republicans represent.

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Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the Mad Dog General.  Email: k_mattis@outlook.com Twitter: @kristinemattis

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