The Populist Sport
A Republican Rant
The former prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden stepped down from her post saying she “no longer had enough in the tank” for the job. She meant the gas tank, the one that helps you finish a marathon, or go the distance in the ring. An automobile metaphor sure, but also one used widely in sports.
Now here is another thing to consider – the way politics is (sometimes) covered in the media. The way Shekhar Gupta wrote his op-ed. on Modi versus Kejriwal in Bihar borrowing boxing metaphors. Or how much fun he has writing about Imran Khan vs the Pakistani military using cricketing analogies. The phenomenon is widespread; former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi was observed to employ football metaphors for his campaigns; it’s not just the use of American “football” and baseball terms in describing American politics, politicians themselves use sports terms in breaking down complex politico-economic concepts to the lay citizen.
Is the relationship between sports and politics just superficial? Are there deeper comparisons, and maybe ontological resonance between the two? I think there may run a deeper relationship.
Politics, specifically Democratic Politics, is the Populist Sport.
Happy Republic Day to India that is Bharat AKA Hindustan.
a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch.
(Just Google it)
About a year ago my friends and I crashed an afterparty, post a Drum ‘n Bass gig. The crowd was full of musicians and connoisseurs from all kinds of fields. The night’s chatter meandered from topic to topic, but at least twice or thrice it devolved into some serious discussion about politics and governance. Things like “the state of tolerance” in this country, “the state of development”, or “acceptance of diversity”, blasé blasé.
The discussions had a tired, defeated tone; reeking of political disillusionment. Even the ones with a more positive disposition to politics spoke with cautious optimism. Everyone, including me, fatigued trying to grasp the magnitude of socio-political problems in the country. OFC, the crowd wasn’t exactly what you’d call a prized vote bank for any politician. Thus, an added layer of separation and exasperation.
Now this sport has different players and roles. There is the supply side, with all the politicians, fixers, party workers, and arguably the media; there is the demand side, with all the voting public. The supply side is very comfortable describing (and possibly even treating) politics as a sport. The voting public, on the other hand, takes politics very seriously. Seriously enough, to get disenchanted, disillusioned and maybe even radicalized.
Comparing politics to sports is disingenuous because the stakes are much higher in the former. It’s to do with people’s lives. And yet, the virtues from sports, from sportsmanship - they are straightup Facts when applied to politics.
Chief in them is the virtue of endurance and tenacity, in being engaged with political affairs. For the individual, the odds always seemed stacked against them; the rival group appear more tenacious, while the bureaucracy and the political class appear lethargic at best, apathetic at average, and at worst malicious. So, if their economics allow, they’d check-out, and not play the games at all. A position with both merits and criticism, but that’s not the point.
You may not find any worthy candidate; you may learn that the rival political party is booth capturing; that the underdog party whose vision you fancy gets trounced in the polls; or perhaps, the new party in power continues business as usual, no change. For the Republic, you must carry on. Carry on being engaged.
Every once in a while, a team (or a player) written off as having no chance to win goes on to win the game. The underdog actually triumphs – Cinderella stories. That Russell Crowe movie, Cinderella Man, is a biopic on James J. Braddock; someone who wasn’t meant to be the boxing world heavyweight champion.
Sporting upsets. Be it The Miracle on Ice (USA beating the Soviet Union for Ice Hockey Olympic gold), or when India won their first Cricket World Cup; Nate Diaz not being “surprised” after tapping Conor McGregor out, or Thug Rose showing Joanna Jedrzejczyk the power of the “Lord’s Prayer”; the display of ironclad sporting hearts have mythologized such stories in public consciousness.
But that’s all ex post facto. Because in the thick of it – the athletes did not fret about in agnst or frustration about the stakes, the mistakes, or how good or bad the game was going. Instead, they tunnel visioned on each moment of the game, enduring and persevering to win each play, but also drawing all the resolve and strength to keep their cool for each play lost.
For the lay citizen of a republic, the plays are many, and losses sometimes stack like pringles. In many instances, we don’t even know what the rules of the games are. Case in point, while almost all governments adhere to a capitalistic economy, none of them mandate education in personal finance/financial literacy as they do trigonometry or the fact that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. The same goes for education on constitutional laws and rights, radio silence.
The Republic, ideally, is the space where everybody has an equal role and equal voice, especially if it parrots itself as being ‘democratic’. Tentatively, you could say that the larger game of the Republic is to safeguard justice and equity and ensure its stability. The game is played across generations. In its ideal form, the game of electoral politics entails people rallying together with policies, politicians, and political parties they best think will serve the interests of the Republic. Reality is far messier.
It feels like a dirty game where your opponents have paid off the referee, the judges, the officials and the commentators. But as the “athlete”, it demands you persevere. The sport of the republic demands you to be informed, engaged and empathetic. It’s difficult.
Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason (2005) made the bold proclamation that populism is the logic of (democratic) politics. While academia continues to debate whether “populism” is indeed a logic, a style, a strategy, and so on, one can see where Laclau was coming from. There is an “us versus them” element during elections that just happens. There is a sense that self-righteous vitriol will spill out from those politically on the other side. If not explicit, then there is an undercurrent of tension – at least in popular discourse, in traditional and social media.
There are moments where the partisanship dissolves away; where people in politics display sportsmanship. For instance, the barbs and jibes ceased to give way for an outpour from all sides of the political spectrum when Atal Behari Vajpayee passed away. Another instance - the 2008 US presidential race; when John McCain correcting an old lady that Barack Obama was indeed an American citizen and also a “decent family man…”, a stark contrast to the slander Obama would face from the Tea Party GOP susequently.
There are such moments, and then there are moments of booth capturing, voter intimidation, political slander and so on. Fortunately, as the mass surveys of voters done by Lokniti CSDS consistently shows, partisan identity politics while ever-present in political discourse, is not the consideration for the overwhelming majority of people when casting votes – instead, “It’s the economy, stupid!”; and administration, law and order, and all those boring governance issues.
The sport may feel dirty, but the sportspeople of the Republic still got to play. Pathological disillusionment means it’ll be a winner take all for the other side. But a Republic must be multi-dimensional. It may feel like the opposition is playing dirty, cheating, and wants to go above and beyond to harm you (sometimes they do, because politics is also a matter of life and death), but for that ideal Republic to be somebody’s got to be sporting, transcend the pettiness, the acidic emotions, the fatigue, the disillusionment and the radicalization – to keep at it, like a football team trailing 3-0 at the 80th minute, but still playing to win against Sisyphian odds. The team that does not lose faith in the ideal of the sport just because of the corruption rotting the offical organizations. *Cough FIFA *Cough whatever-is-going-on-with UFC-judges-scoring-fights-these-days *Cough and more *Cough
The aim of the Republican game (?); I daresay, to be informed, engaged and most of all empathetic. The game demands you have heart.
Or as the Secret Base documentary on the rise of the UFC, Fighting in the Age of Loneliness, concludes by telling viewers:
“For the rest of your life, go out. touch gloves, and fight.”