How Politics Is Like Rooting for Our Favorite Sports Team

Our political allegiances are much like rooting for our favorite team.

Posted Sep 24, 2020

Note: This is the seventh blog in a series about how our views of truth and reality contribute to some of the problems we experience as individuals and as a society. I don't claim that what I say is totally "true," because the truth is elusive in this complicated world! Rather, I'm offering some ideas to help perceive these problems in a more flexible manner that opens pathways for change and growth.

The State of our States

"United States" feels like something of a misnomer these days, as the U.S. seems to be more divided than it has been since, well, who can say when? Political polarization has increased as each side views the other side with growing levels of disdain. The recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has intensified the heat in an already contentious political climate.

For many of us, on both the Left and the Right, making America great again would mean bringing more "United" back to our United States... more "Us" back into our "U.S." Importantly, we cannot just blame the Right or the Left. The root of the problem may be that there is a Right and a Left.

Differences in Values

Most of the topics that divide the Right and Left differ are value-laden and wickedly complicated (e.g., gun rights, climate change, abortion, health care, immigration). In general, the Right and Left would each like to see America reflect their own value-based images. The ideal America for the Right may seem like a nightmare for the Left, and vice versa.

While most people share the same core values to some extent, according to Moral Foundations Theory, liberals and conservatives differ in how they weigh these different values. Some of these values include care, fairness, and liberty. Importantly, our values and moral beliefs are often based more on sentiment than reason. We tend to use reason, logic, and data post-hoc (or after the fact) to support our sentiments. Once we divide into our value-based tribes, each side clings to their respective "truths" as if they were the gospel. 

From an evolutionary standpoint, loyalty to our group, our tribe, was fundamental to our survival. Changing political views, in effect, means changing tribes. It is very difficult to convince people to leave their tribe because, historically, that often meant death. Rather than seeing "truth," we distort reality in a way that allows us to maintain tribal loyalty. 

Eugene_Onischenko/iStock
Source: Eugene_Onischenko/iStock

What Would It Take for YOU to Switch Your Team Loyalty?

As a way of understanding how political loyalties often do not change based on facts or data, it might be helpful to use the analogy of sports team loyalties. This isn't a perfect analogy, of course. It is meant to shift your thinking a bit—to soften your position and allow room for growth.

Imagine that you went to Ohio State University and are a die-hard Buckeyes football fan. Let's pretend that your star quarterback, Joe Football, has had allegations of sexual assault, arrests for disorderly conduct, he's a braggart, doesn't do college coursework but "earns" high grades anyway, etc. However, this guy is winning games and has led your team to victory over your arch-rival, The University of Michigan Wolverines. Your team might go on to win the National Championship with Joe Football at the helm.

Here's the question: How bad would Joe Football's behavior have to be for you to want him kicked off the team? Might you find some ways to look past or rationalize some of his bad behavior? "Look, he's just a young kid with all of this success! It's totally understandable that he's gotten himself into a little trouble at some bars. Who can blame him? And those are just allegations of sexual assault! That woman is probably just trying to get attention or money." 

Here's the tougher question: How bad would Joe Football's behavior have to be for you to start rooting for the Ohio State Buckeyes' nemesis, The University of Michigan Wolverines, in place of your Buckeyes? 

When we view our loyalty to our candidates as being like a loyalty to our beloved team, we can see how switching team allegiance is not easy to do. (Almost) no matter what a "player" does, he is our player. Part of being a team is sticking with your team and getting behind your team leaders no matter what. Both Republican and Democratic "teams" do this.

All Is Fair in Love and War... and Politics

"When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." Cersei Lannister to Ned Stark on Game of Thrones

Hopefully, our politics don't get as bad as Game of Thrones, but it feels like we are heading in that direction. President Trump will nominate a conservative judge to fill the seat left behind by the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Republican-held Senate will likely confirm her. Democrats are crying "foul."

If the roles were reversed, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Fox News, and many (most?) Republicans would likely be enraged. Yet it's possible that Democrats would be doing the same thing as Republicans are doing right now if they were in the power position—and feared losing it. Democrats would like to claim they would never do such a horrible thing, but that may be ingroup bias kicking in. We always like to look at our group as superior to the other group. We must remember that our biases are not a Right/Left problem—they are a human problem. 

By replacing three Supreme Court Justices with conservative ones, Trump is doing the equivalent of winning the National Championship for his football team. So, of course most Republicans are behind him. Often in politics, in our game of thrones, the end justifies the means. 

The Takeaway?

Our tribal loyalties may be more important to us than reality because tribal loyalty is how we survived in the first place. We can think of our loyalty to our political party as much like a loyalty to our favorite sports team. In general, facts don't affect our political allegiances any more than they affect our sports team allegiances. Once we are behind our favorite team, we stick with them through thick and thin. Perhaps if we look at members of the other political parties as sports fans, we will be a tad more understanding of why they won't switch loyalties, despite any "evidence" we throw at them. Rest assured, the other side is just as dumbfounded and frustrated with us as we are of them. 

Is there hope of getting out of this cycle of hate and vitriol that we are seeing in our politics? Yes, there is always hope. Many, perhaps even most Americans want to get out this cycle—to quit playing this game of thrones. Most people would at least agree that the level of division in America is unhealthy, and we can do better. 

Agreeing that we are sick of it is a start. Next, we must, in the words attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, "Be the change we wish to see in the world." Yes, it's cliché, but that doesn't make it untrue. Then, we need to create more flexibility in the way we think and act for change.

In my next blog post, I'll offer a different analogy for our two-party system that is more conducive to the greater flexibility that is so sorely needed. Please join me on this journey!