Political Literacy: Sifting Thru The Spin
O Say Can You See...what's true and what isn't?
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The Sport of Politics

by Christopher Malone
Department of Political Sceince
Hunter College, City University of New York

Turn on any news program these days, or pick up any newspaper, and you will notice a theme running conspicuously through all major media coverage of political campaigns. Over the airwaves, you might hear pundits explain how one candidate has "taken the gloves off" in a campaign, or how the other has landed "a knockout punch" in a debate. In the newspapers, you might read that a campaign has reached the "two minute warning," and one candidate is merely "sitting on a lead" trying to "run the clock out." Her opponent, on the other hand, is attempting "a Hail Mary pass" in order to pull out a last minute victory. These metaphors and others are, of course, taken from sports. Commentators use them to describe the strategies and tactics players employ in order to win the game. In the contemporary world of political electioneering, the media have adopted sports metaphors as a kind of short cut to understanding that world. In fact, the sports metaphor is so pervasive in the discourse surrounding political campaigns that the media, the candidates, and voters alike have increasingly begun to use it to describe and explain any run for political office. Politics in the United States, in other words, has become a spectator sport, a game much like any other game, where the politicians assume the role of the players, the media the commentators, and the voters the "fans."

But if politics in the United States suffers from spectator sport syndrome, the spectators in this sport are increasingly tuning out. If current trends hold true, voter turnout in this year's presidential election will be the lowest in 70 years. More than half of all eligible voters will not even bother to cast a vote for president, a frightening reality if you believe that the health of any majoritarian democracy depends upon robust civic participation. The statistics are even more startling when we consider America's "newest" voters, those between the ages of 18-25: come this November, no more than a third of the eligible voters in this demographic group will go to the polls. Such trends lead us to the conclusion that our American democracy is on the gurney, in dire need of resuscitation.

The essence of the sports metaphor in politics lies in its emphasis on strategy and tactics rather than on substance. In my view, approaching the world of politics in this fashion does irreversible damage to our democracy in two fundamental ways. First, it creates what I would call a "couch-potato electorate" - a passive group of voters whose role in politics is relegated to that of the observer or fan. The fan may become involved in the game, but involvement occurs only through the political equivalent of cheering - i.e., through responding to polls (and only a very small percentage of the electorate responds to polls, since a sample size of just over one thousand respondents can give us an accurate reading of public opinion within three percentage points either way). To be sure, many citizens do become deeply involved in politics through many different means. But they are indeed a small minority. Most of the American electorate watches the game of politics from the living room as candidates jockey for position while pundits describe the campaign as if it was a horse race. Or worse, they do not watch at all.

Second, the sport metaphor tends to starve the American electorate for vital information on issues precisely because it focuses the public's attention more on strategy and tactics than on the substance of the issues - the real stuff that politics is made of. The press tells us, for example, that Al Gore is moving his campaign headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Tennessee to reinvigorate a faltering campaign; but this tells us nothing about where Gore stands on the issues that are important to the country's future. Consequently, voters are only able to understand and talk about campaigns in the language of strategy and tactics. In the voter's mind, Gore's actions are those of a player in a game of political chess, intended only to position himself for victory. Such talk, if important from a strategic sense, is pabulum pure and simple - a fake diet that does nothing to nourish our body politic. Over time, however, the electorate becomes acclimated to this new diet. And when something of substance does creep into the political discourse, it usually takes the shape of a sound bite. Sound bites thus become both the logical conclusion to, and the modus operandi of, modern political campaigns simply because, in the game of politics, they pass for substance to all of its participants. At the campaign's end, politicians claim they have addressed the issues, the media claim they have reported on the issues, and the voting public claims it has listened and has voted on the issues. But the vicious cycle of sound bite politics resumes with the very next election cycle.

It is not important to assign blame for the predicament we find ourselves in, because the fact of the matter is that there is enough blame to go around for all of us. Politicians, the media, and the voting public should all take responsibility for the way the modern political campaign is conducted. The more important question is what are we going to do to make political campaigns about debates and discussions on issues that affect the everyday lives of citizens rather than about strategies, tactics, and sound bites.

It is self-evident to me that engaging in what we call "political literacy" is a good first step toward this end. It begins with the understanding that there is a direct correlation in everything we do between knowledge and interests. The more knowledgeable we become about a subject, the more interested we are in that subject. Conversely, the more interested we are in a subject, the more knowledge we seek on it. I think the same can be said about politics. Giving citizens the tools to understand politics will lead to a more knowledgeable electorate and a heightened interest in the political process. The potential benefits of such a transformation are tremendous: a more politically literate electorate will force candidates to focus more on substance than on sound bites, at the same time forcing the media to focus more on the issues than on the strategies and tactics that the candidates employ. Ultimately, a politically literate electorate will lead to higher civic participation, and the worrisome trends we have witnessed over the last several decades will be reversed.

It is also self-evident to me that, by embarking on major political literacy initiatives, we will fundamentally transform the way we understand politics in the United States by ceasing to view it as just another spectator sport. Politics is not something we watch on television that comes to an end in a campaign the way a game comes to an end when the clock runs out or when the last out is made. Voters are not fans that watch passively from the couch with the channel changer, tuning in and out between commercial breaks and turning the set off when the game is over. I would like to suggest a vision of politics that encompasses something much greater than these narrow-minded perceptions, a vision which holds true to the notion that politics circumscribes our everyday collective life. Politics defines what we are as human beings because it governs those institutions we create in our communities - the family, the church, schools, businesses, and so on - which endeavor to fulfil our human needs. And if politics is ultimately about fulfilling human needs through the institutions we create, then there can be no place for winning and losing, as is the case in any sport.

A politics that places emphasis on winners and losers is the end-result of the spectator sport syndrome run amuck. On the other hand, a politics that emphasizes the importance of a politically literate electorate will eradicate the false distinctions between players, commentators, and fans. And we will come to the realization that we are all not only caught up in the political mix - we are actually all doing the mixing.

Watch Chris Malone's "crash course" on deciphering political TV ads.