The playoffs are almost over, the road to the finals was long, there were upsets and defining moments, but in the end the two favorites came through. They just had the most resources and the best game-plans. The two finalists will now battle it out. Many experts expect a tight series, which will probably go down to the wire. There will be a winner and a loser, there will be euphoria and disappointment. In the end the winner will take home the trophy, the loser will regroup, switch players, adjust tactics and get ready for the next season – there is always another season.
Unfortunately, I am here neither talking about the NBA nor the NFL, neither basketball glory nor football fortunes – I am describing the US-Presidential elections that will be decided in November between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, between the Democrats and Republicans, the Red and Blue teams. Whatever form of media we choose today, the inflationary use of sport rhetoric in the coverage of politics has become hard to ignore. It is quite fascinating how similar politics and sports have become in the 24-hour news-cycle: Analysts speak of the “endgame” or “gameplan,” compare debate schedules to seasons or playoff-series, or they announce “win-or-go-home” states in Republican primaries. Exemplifying this overlap: In Martin Bashir’s show on MSNBC, analysts were discussing the ‘bracketology’ of March Madness in the Republican Primary.
One might argue that this stylistic closeness in coverage is only logical, since both, sports and electoral politics, are competitions. So what is the problem in mixing rhetoric? The problem is that we might lose the essential function of politics if we talk about it like sports, because sports are a specific form of competitive activity. In sports the competition is the end in itself, while in politics it should just be the means. The cultural critiques of the early Frankfurt School, especially Theodor Adorno in his analysis of the “Culture Industry,” already singled out sports as stylized forms of competition, without ‘real’ consequences, a passionate pastime, the ultimate perpetuum mobile, leading nowhere in particular, except back to the start.
I admittedly am not as dismissive of sports as Adorno, neither am I immune to its temptations. But I do see the point: While sports are highly emotionally involving for both, the spectator and participator, the outcome of the game does not matter beyond the moment of success or failure. There is always another chance, a new season. Now, what is the problem with politics becoming sports? The problem is exactly that the winner of a Presidential election does not get a trophy, shower in glory and move on to the next season. A President (or senator, congressman if you want) is elected to do something in the name of the people. They have mandates, they represent. The election is not the end, but the beginning of politics.
It is one problem if the people feel that their representatives only care about the next election, it is another if the media uses language that makes an election an end in itself. If we speak of voting as nothing else than supporting a team to win and take home the trophy, that this is the end of the game, than where do accountability, meaning and representation in the political process remain? The media in this equation should be more than an announcer of spectacle, the voter more than an audience. But unfortunately this is exactly, what the sport rhetoric transforms politics into. Language, images, discourse and rhetoric matter. It is the way we speak about politics that defines our experience of the process and finally also its functions and ends. I feel extremely uncomfortable with the end of politics being just another election-season.