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Arena Politics: The Ultimate Spectator Sport

Politics has been reduced to a spectator sport, where people turn off their brains and just root blindly for their teams.  With respect to sports fans, Jerry Seinfeld observed so brilliantly: “You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt, they hate him now.”

The same is true in politics. Some people root for the blue uniforms with the “D” hats and others root for the red uniforms with the “R” hats. The players may say some dumb things, but their fans still love them, unless they change uniforms like the late Arlen Specter or Artur Davis. Sometimes, the fans would love to trade one of their players to the other team, but all of the players have no-trade clauses. When a big vote is coming up, the players and fans love to discuss and debate the pre-game strategy. And when the big vote is over, everyone loves to play Monday-morning-quarterback, debating the outcome and what their team might have done better. The fans cling to the television to watch the post-game interviews, as the celebrity politicians walk up to a tree of microphones to give speeches littered with sports analogies. The sport is actually pretty boring. The teams show up for warm-ups and trash-talk each other, but they usually end up delaying the game for a few months, even though the fans have already paid for their tickets. NO REFUNDS!

I call it Arena Politics. The Blue Team has really mastered the new Arena, much to the chagrin of the Red Team. They trot out larger-than-life celebrity heroes with whom fans would like to share a beer or watch a ball game. Their leaders can play the sax while wearing sunglasses (even in a dark room) or drain a three-pointer. Their biggest cheerleaders are also celebrities. But their strongest weapon is consistently pointing out, in really cool terms, many times using social media, that the Red Team is mean, not cool, and out of style. That talent alone gives the Blue Team a decisive edge in the Arena.

The Red Team is primarily made up of grumpy older men, who were probably not considered cool even before their hair turned gray. Their idea of a good time is making sure that nobody else is having a good time – or at least that is what I heard from the Blue Team, so it must be true. In the latest game, some of the rare, younger, second-string members of the Red Team actually grabbed the game ball in pre-game warm-ups and started running, only to be tackled from behind by their own teammates. The starters then threw the younger lads under the Red Team bus, locking them in the luggage compartment and complaining that the Team bus may have been dented and scratched in the process. Predictably, both teams then promptly agreed to postpone the game again for a few months – NO REFUNDS!

It all reminds me of high school. Can you guess which team has the jocks and cheerleaders and which one has the members of the National Honor Society and the chess club? Meanwhile, there is a silent majority of wonderful kids flying under the radar, who simply show up for class, do their homework, and respect their teachers, even though they are not invited to play for either team.

When did this phenomenon begin? Perhaps it was with the very first televised presidential debate, featuring John F. Kennedy with his great hair and movie-star looks against a visibly-sweating Richard Nixon. However, only three television channels existed during Camelot. It really went to the next level with the advent of 24/7 cable news coverage in 1980, which is the year CNN emerged and we elected our first actor-turned-President. Surprisingly, that actor played for the Red Team (although before he had turned pro, he had been on a Blue farm team). And like the Blue Team now, he was the master of communication, getting his message across like few before him. And he was cool in his own way, at least as viewed using a lens from 1980, as he sat tall aboard a horse in full Cowboy gear or welcomed Sugar Ray Leonard to the White House.

My point is that Arena Politics leads to very strange situations, where you actually see fans bragging online about how their Team won the latest game, posting laughably stupid comments like: “That’s right, Red Team losers, we get to raise the $17 trillion debt as high as we want!” or “Ha Ha, you Blue Team socialists, we get to bail out Wall Street!” You also end up with “booster clubs” like Occupy Wall Street, whose primary mission seems to be protesting against success – and personal hygiene. In this era of “Image is Everything” politics, so-called “civil” servants call their opponents ridiculously harsh, sound-bite-image names like extremists, Marxists, anarchists, socialists, arsonists, dictators, hostage-takers, baby-killers, bomb-strapping terrorists, race-baiters, spouse-abusers, extortionists and creatures from another planet, while simultaneously claiming self-righteously that they are the side reaching out for bipartisan compromise. That hardly seems “civil” to me.

And when the style of the message becomes more important than the actual content of the message, the real losers are the American people, left holding the bag for running the Arena – a national debt of over $17 trillion and unfunded federal liabilities topping $90 trillion (and adding $7 trillion every year) – while the rock-star politicians hop into their limousines and head for yet another taxpayer-paid vacation.

Dave Beltrami is a lawyer and political analyst who resides in Atlanta, Georgia. He received his Juris Doctor and Master of Laws (Taxation) degrees from the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.

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