Politics Isn’t a Game
So there’s a bit of a sickness in American politics, but possibly politics in general and that’s the tendency to view politics as a sort of game.
By that, I mean, to treat the political process of elections, of drafting and passing legislation, and so on entirely as a sport, where it all becomes about whose team scored what goal, outmaneuvered the other, won the day’s news cycle, or whose tribe came out on top.
And this pattern is becoming harder and harder for me to take.
By far, the worst offender of this way of viewing our political system is of course the current news media system, endlessly obsessed with the ratings-generating horse race of elections (what sounds best to the low-information voter, what’s the optics, how will that play with this demographic). Our media apparatus has over the years fallen deeply in love with the idea of politics as a game charting the rise and fall of rhetoric and trying to spin everything like a dramatic basketball game of rebounds and come-from behind runs.
And we have seen it in the way that the substantial meat of bills and their effects on the actual people they are affecting has always been second to “what the man on the street thinks”. And said individual, because of this abrogation of responsibility, often has to make an uninformed entirely gut-based response as there is little information presented or disseminated in any large fashion.
And this focus on the horse-race of politics has also lead to the idea that both sides are equal and must be treated as equal in all things in order to keep the drama high, thus allowing the Overton window to shift drastically simply by one side getting crazier and one side to completely abandon reality entirely because substance of political view has become secondary to the rhetorical war.
And that’s precisely what we’ve seen.
Not just with getting more and more insane and disconnected from reality as we can see by simply tuning in to Fox News or listening to any given conservative these days. And not just with the media giving them a free pass (simply look at the power the merest accusation of “media bias” has to inflict “both sides do it” hand-wringing even on issues where there isn’t even remote equivalence).
But also in the way that the idea of politics as sporting event has thoroughly been sold throughout the entire political landscape.
It is a common joke throughout the left blogosphere that “it pisses the left off” is a prime motivator for right-wing political endorsement. And it’s not just a joke. A number of actual policies have been passed simply to “aggravate” assumed ideological enemies or to punish those perceived as lesser for “working against” them.
And more generally, a large number of rhetorical flourishes and argument positions have been widely adopted as ways to shut up liberals or otherwise piss them off. From the “anti-PC” bigotry to the circus around Palin’s “blood-libel” idiocy. And a number have been adopting whole purchasing and personal action decisions on trying to make hippies cry from countering Earth Day by deliberately wasting electricity and polluting to those who have decided to eat unhealthily and risk their own health just to show those hippie overlords.
But those are mere manifestations of the phenomenon compared to the big stuff.
Slacktivist had a fantastic post on anti-choice activists and the way they have to skew how the world works simply to create a moral fight they can feel on the right side of while doing nothing really and indulging in all of their tribal hatreds of anyone in a societally disadvantaged position.
I’d recommend reading the whole thing, but it goes into how this world of “pro-life” activism provides an easy fiction where one can role-play like a hero as if life was a sort of D&D campaign.
But lost in this psycho-drama, is the fact that this activism has a social cost. There are real women who are denied a sometimes critical medical surgery because of this psychodrama. Real women who die when access becomes more and more constrained.
Not to mention that this need to be a hero and be on the right side of an issue where you fight for an oppressed group is something that’s easy to find. There’s no shortage of minority groups seeking basic human rights in this country. Not to mention the number of outright atrocities and war-crimes committed overseas that it would be easy to invest oneself in without much effort to determine the “bad guys” and the “good guys”. And of course the general relief organizations who always need help getting famine aid and medical attention to disaster-stricken areas.
But these issues are off the map. Because it’s about the psychodrama, the ease of a fictional fight, and the relief one feels from being part of a group “fighting a good fight” without having to risk the disadvantages of having yourself and allies be members of non-advantaged members of society.
A sad way of living one’s life, to be sure. But it’s a natural extension of a trained system the Right has been engaged in for awhile to vote entirely on tribal resentments and imagined enemies, for one’s team of White Straight Evangelical Christian Males against the horde of Others.
It’s a function of treating politics as a game, a place for a majority voting population to vote for their particular group identification and against perceived enemies rather than for any particular policy goal.
A function that the Republicans and conservatives in general have only been happy to feed, because it works towards their political advantage. It’s extremely easy to “run” the “horse race” if one doesn’t have any consistent position and where victory over enemies is the only consistent goal. It doesn’t matter what you pass or even if the country’s functional if what is desired of you is merely a continuance of the psychodrama and a feeling that “people like you are winning”.
As such, terrifyingly, we’ve run into situations lately where dire problems that affect everyone (such as global warming, the massive gulf between rich and poor, our broken health care system, our broken regulatory system, not to mention the various discriminations against minority groups) have been hard to address because one side of the debate is no longer interested in whether or not anything passed aids anyone.
It means real people suffer because we’re treated as the football in a game of who’s winning. The DC Deomcrats or the DC Republicans. Tune in to see this local rival and then we’ll all have a beer to discuss the highlights.
And on the Left
And while it is becoming terrifying that one side of the political debate has abandoned reality and care about whether real people are affected by psychodrama and political gamesmanship, I’ve run into an attitude that is even more worrisome.
And that is, I have seen the growth of a viewpoint in Democratic-leaning blogs that since the Right has had such success in the “horse race” by adopting these tactics of treating everything like a game, that the best counter is to follow suit.
How nice it would be to treat everything like a game and try and outmaneuver them to political victories, whatever they may be using whatever compromises are necessary and so on.
And to find the satisfaction so hard to gain by the slow march of history in response to long-winded activist motion in the horse race of my team beat your team instead.
I can understand the desire, but it’s misplaced. The Right can “get away with it”, in treating politics like a game, because conservatism has always been based in resisting any and all forward political momentum in society. It is easy to treat politics as a game if “stop the other side from making a play” is a legitimate point of victory.
Additionally, the Right at the moment has been dominated by an overt sociopathy and nihilism that has ceased to appreciate how even the status quo relies on strict maintenance of social safety nets and some manner of collective work in reality. And which, more critically, has ceased to care if anyone gets hurt by their ideology owing to a strong Calvinist streak that makes victim-blaming second-nature (only those who deserve it run into problems, just be one of the Elect and everything will be fine).
The Left, especially these days, has been more defined by trying to change laws to help people. People who have fallen in the cracks, people being fucked over by the system, people for which this stuff is life and death.
As long as we care about people, we will lose the “game of politics” and if we no longer care about the people then what the hell is the point of being on the Left or supporting the Democrats?
And the Point, After all that Blather
And so I dawn very lately to my point.
Which is that there is a shit-ton of media and cultural momentum towards treating politics like a game, like a horse-race between two equal sides and who’s currently in the lead.
And it really isn’t. This shit matters.
A debate about health care isn’t a fight between two sides and a means to see who will win this week’s news cycle with the best talking points or who will have a coup that will win them new voting blocs for the next election.
It’s about who will live and die.
And I don’t say that hyperbolically. It’s literally a debate about who will live and die in this country. Whether someone will be able to access health care when they need it and whether or not they will be bankrupted by the mere attempt.
Same thing with “social issues”. Issues like abortion access, gay civil rights, trans rights issues, immigration rights may be easy to view as “distractions” given the intense game-playing of the sociopathic right, but each one of these issues affects real people.
Lack of abortion access makes being a woman a deadly proposition, one missed period or rape away from a matter of life and death. LGBT rights affect whether individuals, because of who they are partnered with or their gender identity, can manage to find employment, have their partnerships protected, have freedom from harassment and murder, and whether they can live their lives freely. Immigration rights also affecting issues of life and death, how one can settle, what one has to put up with and so on.
There are people who are committing suicide, being killed by bigots, losing their lives to preventable diseases or conditions, who are literally dying. Needlessly because to many the political system is just a game and issues that affect real people’s lives are a good thing to grandstand on for a few extra votes for the bigot candidate.
And some on the left tempted to say, yeah, that’s why we need to treat this like a game if we want to win this, I say it will not work.
The Right, the media, get away with this, because it is now part of our cultural narrative.
Everyone “knows” that we have no ability to affect the political system, that “everyone” is bought and sold, that politicians are all crooked, and that no one cares about the little guy.
It’s all a game, so who cares how we vote or why we vote or anything else than whether we’re backing the winners and losers.
And you know who are the only people benefitting from this?
It’s great for those who want to vote tribal resentment and for “Christian moral values” and feel like their team is winning. As long as it’s a game, none of this is real and it’s worth it to feed the psychodrama and get something out of the whole process.
But the only way we’re going to get out of this diseased system is by reminding everyone it’s not a game. It’s only by rubbing each one of these sociopaths in the dead and bloated bodies and having to face up to their arguments. It’s only by resisting the cultural narrative and reminding everyone that each one of these issues has real lives being affected and maybe the side dicking around like it’s all in jest needs to start getting fucking serious.
It’s certainly what history has shown. Great crimes like slavery, the treatment of women as property, the response to the AIDS tragedy were not addressed by simply playing games, throwing people under the bus if they were not the majority or wondering how these issues would affect the midterm.
They were addressed when those who suffered spoke their experiences, when the activists so shifted the cultural and so kept the spotlight on the injustices that those who resisted looked ever more the monsters that they were.
We see this today in the Sociopathic Right yelling about the 60s and becoming more and more monstrous to those of us who are young who see it as common sense that segregation was wrong, that women should be treated more or less as human beings, and that gays aren’t evil demons trying to kill Christianity.
But more importantly than that, it’s important to remember that politics isn’t a game not for tactics, not because that’s what an activist does, or anything else.
But because each and every one of these debates affects real live people. Every bill, every debate, every law affects real life people. Is the difference between life and death for them. Not just in the passage, but in the quality of what is passed.
Our media and the Right want us to forget this.
But we can never do so. Some of us, literally so (it’s hard to do, when you or your friends are the ones being targeted in each bill that comes up).
Lest we lose all humanity.
Oh, P.S. This means that if you’re one of those who are fans of saying you are “above politics”, that you are in fact a complete and total idiot. No one is “above politics” unless they a) Are so privileged to be untouched by almost any policy which is pretty much impossible and b) so devoid of empathy to be unable to care about the life and death of anyone other than oneself. Just wanted to FYI that into this overlong post.