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Parties and Competition

Bipartisanship is at odds with the nature of politics, but that doesn't mean we have to fight.

by James Leroy Wilson
December 20, 2000

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Parties and Competition_James Leroy Wilson-Bipartisanship is at odds with the nature of politics., but that doesn't mean we have to fight. I don't understand church sports leagues. I don't see why one church would want to play another church in basketball, hockey, or sofball. It would make more sense if two churches decided to get together and mix up the teams, emphasizing fellowship over competition, with no referees and no championship. Just a friendly game. Newcomers would see that Christians are friends, not rivals.

A game has two objects. One is to play, and the other is to win. Playing has a joy all of its own, separate from the final score. To actually dribble down the court with people in your face, to shoot the puck, to tackle somebody - this is all fun for the participants. The object of winning, however, formalizes the play into competition. Not only will you and your team play, but it must play better than the other team. Rules are strictly enforced. There might even be coaches, and lesser players feel the pressure of trying to not let their teammates down.

And where there is competition, passions are enflamed. Instead of fun, frustration fills the air. Frustration with referees, rough and rude opponents, heckling fans, teammates, and personal performance. (The question is no longer how much fun is to be had but how well one performs.) And the spectators become fans, getting involved in the competitive heat as well by criticizing the officials and mocking the opposing team and their fans.

Competition isn't always a bad thing, but working earnestly to defeat somebody else isn't exactly the Christian model of humility and meekness. At its best, formal competition makes playing the game all the more exhilerating, and at high levels the demonstrations of courage, skill, and athleticism are models of human excellence. But pursuit of victory is hollow if sportsmanship - maintaining the standard of civility expected everywhere else - is not practiced. That's why I object to church sports leagues. Christian faith does not extinguish the competitive nature, which can be strong, particularly within men. Providing them an arena in which inappropriate behavior is at least a constant temptation, and maybe even tolerated or encouraged, does not strike me as a good idea.

Politics is like sports in that competition is the standard feature. Its zero-sum, win or lose, kill or be killed nature is not predominant in other social institutions like families, schools, or even businesses. But in politics, elections are won or lost. Bills are passed or defeated. Wars are won or lost. The politician might want in his heart to inspire the nation and elevate civil discourse, but when his opponents are out to destroy him, fighting back is often the only reasonable option.

After the bitter, just-concluded Presidential election, we hear many calls for healing, bipartisanship, and compromise. On non-essentials, this might be possible. But on those high-prioirty items that reflect fundmantal beliefs, the Republicans will have to try to implement its agenda and the Democrats will have to try to stop them. Were it to be any different, then at least one of those parties has no reason to exist. If we are to have parties, we are to have partisanship. Even if we don't like it how its practiced.

But just because politicians and party activists are partisan, that doesn't mean the rest of us have to be. Parties are not like sports teams, and they shouldn't count on the same loyalty that any competently-run local pro or college team naturally generates. Parties and their candidates should have to earn support by promoting the right causes and opposing the wrong ones.

If the people choose to renounce party loyalty altogether, then the parties will have to do less attacking and more persuasion. Those who had voted for the party their parents had, or that their union leaders or ministers told them to, would now have to think for themselves. And those of us who do know what we believe about politics would have a fair shot at converting others to our position.

But the key is to discuss, even to argue, in the effort to change minds. It is not to debate or "win." It is not to shout down those who disagree. It is not to question the intelligence or character of those who disagree. It is not to forward e-mails about an alleged blunder by a candidate that isn't even true. It isn't to attack the alleged hypocrisy of a certain position. I can write here that liberals are first-class hypocrites for defending flag-burning and pornography while trying to designate speech promoting gun rights or lower taxes as illegal "soft-money" advertising. I might even be accurate, in a general sense. The problem is that I don't know any particular liberal who actually feels that way. So what gives me the moral right to make the statement?

It is sickening when two amateur basketball players get into shouting matches on a church court. What's worse in politics is that the pursuit of victory is backed by moral conviction, and the stakes are higher. That creates an ends-justifies-the-means mentality. Last spring, when John McCain was making some noise in the Republican primaries, I found his campaign finance reform ideas so repugnant to any sane conception of liberty that I thought perhaps any legal, nonviolent method to destroy him would be permissible. But I wouldn't have wanted to participate in that kind of campaign myself. The dilemma of politics is the same as the dilemma of war. Your willingness to die is courageous, but your willingness to kill is dehumanizing.

Politics is dirty work. Somebody has to do it, and we all have to participate to some degree. But our role, the media's and the people's, should be to discuss issues and principles, not fight. Otherwise good and humble people sound self-righteous and intolerant when they talk about politics. We can't ask the professional politicians to change their ways if we don't change ours.

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