How The Media Fuels Hyper-Partisanship By Treating Politics Like A Sport
A quiet cheer rang out in the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles as a pair of red lights lit up behind the LA Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick, who was sprawled out on the ice. Cam Atkinson of the Columbus Blue Jackets managed to swing in the puck behind him, sending the relatively few Columbus fans, including the author, in attendance to their feet. Another fan behind me tapped me on the shoulder and put his hand up for a high five, which I of course completed.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I like the Kings, who have a very special relationship with the Blue Jackets, but Columbus is my American home team, and even a 2,000-mile move wasn’t going to change that. And as in all sports, wearing a certain team’s jersey immediately gives you a vague sense of comradery with other fans, which is why I was approached by high fives the two times the Jackets scored. Sadly, they lost 5-2 that night sending fans like me home a bit disappointed, although very much entertained. After all, it was just a game.
But imagine for a second if it wasn’t, and if the Blue Jackets won, half the people in the audience lost their healthcare, or the team’s coaches got a chance to pass a policy raising taxes primarily on Kings fans. Sounds insane, doesn’t it? What kind of game has such absurdly high stakes that affect everyone watching? Wouldn’t people step in and say that maybe life-changing decisions shouldn’t be made by a contest in which whoever gets the most points can do as he pleases? And yet, this is exactly how media outlets whose business plan calls for covering politics the same way one covers sports treat the future of our country.
During the painful saga of the GOP’s repeated attempts to repeal or gut the Affordable Care Act, publications like Politico, Axios, WaPo, and CNN talked about Republicans “looking for a win” or “delivering a win for Trump” the same way sports announcers talk about a team in the race for a playoff spot needing to win the next game to have a chance by the end of the season. The tens of millions of very real Americans who’d lose their health insurance or access to life-saving drugs and treatments were treated the same way a goalie’s bad save percentage would come up as a potential hiccup in the quest for a much needed two points.
Even worse is that what the outlets choose to cover and how they choose to cover it easily skews important data. Let’s return to the Blue Jackets again for a moment. The season before last, they went on a 15 game winning streak, the second-longest in NHL history. But what did the sports press want to talk about? Their favorite and most popular teams, the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, or as they’re known to sportscasters, Sidney Crosby. This is not too dissimilar from how the media glosses over studies about global warming and climate change, and their impact on economic stability, migration, and food safety, inviting denialists and cranks who’ll generate ratings by telling the outraged audience that industrial pollution isn’t actually all that dangerous.
Just like with sports, what’s popular and controversial, not what’s important, often wins in terms of coverage minutes devoted to it. This is why we’re treated to talk shows where analysts chat about which party won which race and why in catchy sound bites, or look at a party’s loss in a critical election as if they’re discussing a team that can just reset and try again next time while the reality is that lawmakers and presidents do no start from scratch when they get into office. They have platforms and agendas that often have life and death consequences for millions of people in very boring, technical ways, ways that aren’t fun or exciting to talk about but which affect the daily existence of our nation and its citizens.
Instead of talking about politicians as public servants whose job it is to address the concerns of their constituents, the media at large has broken them down into two teams, the Republicans and the Democrats, and every election cycle is a season at the end of which they tally up the races to see who won America because it’s easy and it sells. But it’s also dangerous because it’s exacerbating the hyper-partisanship so many of the same pundits who unwittingly fan it spend so much time decrying nowadays. How?
Well, the best and worst thing about sports are the fans and the mentality of cheering for your team no matter what. Humans evolved to be social, and group identities can be just as important to us as our own definition of ourselves. Consider that we have counter-culture groups with their own rules that enforce a certain degree of conformity in their loud and proud non-conformism. It seems oxymoronic, but it’s exactly how the overwhelming majority of humans work. This is why a random Blue Jackets fan in the Staples Center, almost a continent’s width away from their home arena felt confident in offering me a high five. We were in the same group.
And again, that’s perfectly fine when dealing with a simple game meant as escapist live-action entertainment, but group identity based around competitive teams comes with its dark sides. In every sport, certain fans are known for being belligerent and nasty towards those cheering for other teams, and when the same approach rears its ugly head in politics, the consequences are dire. Fellow citizens become members of a rival team, not friends, neighbors, and co-workers, and this attitude spreads to the media’s coverage of public debates with potentially life-altering consequences.
Here, outlets like Fox News, Breitbart, The Federalist, and The Daily Caller are in a league of their own, turning “the other team” into existential enemies, promoting what is basically the political version of toxic fandom as patriotism. You may notice that some of these analogies are getting strained and missing a lot of fairly basic aspects of how elections and politics work, and you’re noticing correctly. If anything, that should be a red flag that when the media is trying to cover the daily business of running our country like they do hockey or basketball, they’re going to throw a lot of nuances overboard and fail in their mission of keeping you truly informed.
This is doubly important when you consider that according to a recent study, once we get past the Democrat/Republican team identity banter, we’ll actually find that a majority of Americans find more things to agree on than not. Drop the party labels and talk issues, and you’ll find the country at large willing to compromise and listen to new and different ideas. We could see that quite well in just how unpopular many GOP actions have been across party lines and in the swelling ranks of voters saying they prefer to think of themselves as independent because neither party accurately represents their views.
None of this complexity was reflected in the election coverage of 2016 because the media, not wanting to be accused of being arbiters of who was the better candidate, chose to focus not on the merit of the candidates’ policies, but on sound-byte summaries of where they stood on stock issues. As a result, they missed numerous chances to fact check Trump on a litany of false claims about an imaginary immigration crisis, and inflated the coverage of Clinton’s private email usage completely out of proportion in service of both-sideism. (The latter is especially maddening when we consider that the investigators themselves were using personal emails for work and much of the current White House is guilty of the same misdeed.)
A similar folly came when Trump administration officials were refused service or heckled out of restaurants to the fury of the MAGA faithful. According to the media, this was an issue of “both sides trading barbs while civility in America erodes” as they seemingly forgot that the GOP prided itself as the politically incorrect “Fuck Your Feelings Snowflake” Party. The followers of which like to threaten civil war and violence for insufficient servility to their whims, while the activists and owners in question were protesting what amounted to kidnapping children to use as political pawns and building internment camps for asylum seekers.
Rather than highlight these cases as individuals’ attempts to do something, anything, to protest obvious state-sanctioned cruelty, they framed it as nothing more than a political tit-for-tat by the rival team. And for all their subsequent calls for civility, President Trump accused the restaurant that refused service to Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders of being dirty — which is ironic considering his establishments’ frequent health code violations — and sicced his angry hordes on Congresswoman Maxine Walters who called on more restaurants to do the same with a less than veiled threat of physical harm. If the media is indeed interested in both teams playing by the rules, one of those teams rejected the message more than a decade ago.
For a variety of reasons, the media has decided that instead of being advocates for truth, they’d much rather be referees of a game, calling technical fouls and encouraging sportsmanlike conduct. Even with ample proof that the quarter of Americans they disproportionately choose to highlight loathe their fellow citizens and ascribe to histrionic conspiracy theories to make themselves feel better about the toxic effects of the self-destructive policies they still wholeheartedly support, they seem incapable of snapping themselves out of their self-imposed sandbox and act as a check on the wealthy and powerful.
And so, while three-quarters of Americans are willing to talk and compromise, the media keeps taking the easy way out and focusing on horse racing and play-by-play analysis for the quarter who couldn’t care less about either discussion or compromise, but only about how their side will win over their evil enemies. Meanwhile, the nation collectively loses as its most unreasonable citizens drive the national discourse and politics.