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Why We Don’t Want American Politics To Look Anything Like The NBA Finals


While watching Game One of the NBA Finals Thursday night, it struck me that American politics have become a professional sports league. And that’s a bad thing.

The parallels are reflected in the post-game headlines. For example, “Kevin Durant Dominates Game 1 of NBA Finals For Warriors” sounds a lot like “President Trump Dominated Media Coverage In First 100 Days.” And “LeBron James’ Legacy On The Line Against Warriors” mirrors “Obama’s Legacy Is On The Line With Trump’s Win.”

The similarities go beyond our choice of words. At the time of writing, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website prominently features two graphics. The first displays the Warriors’ and Cavaliers’ relative chances of winning the NBA Finals and the second charts Donald Trump’s approval rating. We analyze sports and politics in increasingly similar ways.

Both Politics And Sports Feature Competition And Passion

America’s professional sports leagues and political system have inherent similarities. Both feature competition, draw spectators and evoke passion. But the unhealthy parallels between America’s political system and its professional sports leagues seem to grow stronger by the day. Both draw massive spending from billionaires who make outsized investments in stars, which even with a win, may never be recouped. And political stars and parties, like NFL stars and teams, have fanatics who are willing to put winning ahead of their own value systems.

These parallels are not coincidental and are driven by one key commonality. Our major professional sports leagues and the American political system have both evolved into winner-take-all enterprises.

In the 2015- 2016 NBA regular season, the Golden State Warriors won a record 73 games, but were defeated in the playoff finals by the Cleveland Cavaliers. As a result, the Cavs are the defending champions and “the regular season means nothing.” Sorry Warriors, but no one really cares about your historic feat.

Increasingly across pro sports, only national championships matter, both for teams and individual athletes. That’s why Kevin Durant left an apparently good situation in Oklahoma City to pursue a championship ring with the Warriors. In the modern sports era, greatness is measured solely by championship rings.

Professional sport leagues are fundamentally entertainment businesses. The championships, dynasties, superstars and occasional off-the-court drama all contribute to entertaining us. The winner-take-all mentality is generally fun, because even the most passionate fan has little on the line but team pride and maybe a small bet.

This May Be Entertaining, But It’s Bad For Us

However, what’s good in sports isn’t good in American government, where the consequences of our policy choices are very real and sometimes existential. Sure, we’ve had political teams from the beginning and we’ve always kept score. But our founders didn’t design a winner-take-all system. States were the administrators of most governance, the Presidency was weak, our bicameral Congress was designed to be inefficient and the Supreme Court was established to referee the game.

In our modern system, politicians may be ideologically left or right, but most seek blanket national policy solutions for one of the largest, most complex countries on earth. In practice, this philosophy has shifted increasing decision-making power to Washington. As more policy decisions are made at a national level by fewer people, the stakes for winning those seats have increased.

In a zero-sum game, reasonable people can’t be gracious, accommodating, or creative. They’re forced by fear of the consequences to pick an ideological team and desperately stick with it, never daring express moderation. This replaces political humility and constructive debate with absolutism and screaming matches. It encourages ideological extremism, because no sane person compromises in a winner-take-all game.

This championship thinking also disadvantages those who are most affected by the policies set in Washington. Concentrated power allows wealthy individuals and corporations to efficiently sponsor politicians and shape policies. It’s cheaper to wine-and-dine 100 key politicians in one city than to influence tens of thousands across 50 states.

America Needs More Community And Fewer Championships

America’s ideological divisions aren’t the result of changes to culture or human nature; they’re the result of changes to the rules of the game. Until power is devolved back to lower levels of government, where compromise and experimentation can flourish, the stakes will continue to rise. Those rising stakes will increase the divisions that undermine our government today.

It’s preferable for the American political system to look less like the NBA and more like our city recreational leagues. In a rec league, you try new plays, trash talk your neighbors, and then all meet up for a cold beverage afterwards. You win some games, and you lose others, but ultimately, you build community through friendly competition. America needs more community and fewer championships in our politics, and it all starts with lowering the stakes of the game.

In the meantime, go Warriors!