I don’t much like pro football — you know, the brain injuries, the taxpayer-funded megastadiums, the monopoly ownership structure.
Still, as I watch all the purple-clad folks arriving in my neighborhood around U.S. Bank Stadium on Vikings game days, and mixing with a different tribe — say, green-clad Packers fans — I can’t help but think that pro football may have lessons for a nation struggling with political division.
I’ve long argued that the major merit in pro football is that it’s better than war between the city-states. The citizens of Minneapolis and Green Bay don’t send armies to lay siege upon the other. Instead, one of the cities hosts a spectacle that pits two smallish groups of hefty, highly paid athletes against each other within rule-based combat.
Members of each tribe who don’t take the field get to participate by sporting tribal insignia (horns and braids vs. cheese wedges) and chanting in support of their representative warriors. At the end of the competition, they cheer if their side won and moan if they didn’t.
Regardless, they head for home (or the nearest bar) and prepare to repeat the ritual against another city-state’s tribe the following week. They don’t spend much time, even in defeat, trumpeting the bad motives and stupid ideas of the other tribe.
Another good thing about these tribes: They are themselves highly diverse, crossing religious, ethnic, gender and even (partially) class lines. Indeed, it may well be, as some commentators have noted, that football is the country’s true unifying religion!
Maybe the analogy isn’t perfect. After all, the winners of a Vikings-vs.-Packers game don’t get to set policies and new rules for the losing tribe.
Still, it’s the Game of Football that counts, including acceptance of a set of rules (that can be updated by the overseers of the Game).
So as citizens cheer for their tribes (Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, independents), maybe instead of denouncing members of the other tribes for their stupidity, bad motives, etc., we might remember that the real game is … U.S. democracy.
We citizens can and should advocate for our tribe’s policy agenda, but we also should be willing to buy into good ideas from our opponents, to compromise, to try for win-wins. Of course, we should call out malfeasance, rule-breaking and unsportswomanlike conduct. We should get involved in assuring that the rules of the democracy game are fair and up-to-date.
Just as we might look across the field at opposing fans and realize that we have more in common with some of them than with the purple-clad loudmouth spouting profanities in the next row, we might acknowledge commonalities that cross political party lines. And we should remember that we have more than two political tribes in the U.S.
The good news is that a number of national and local groups have already been deploying tools that bridge partisan divides. My University of Minnesota colleague Prof. William (Bill) Doherty is one of the founders of the national organization Better Angels (better-angels.org), which has convened trainings, debates and workshops around the country. These events have allowed Republicans and Democrats to find common ground and reveal policy agreements — for example, on reducing the role of money in elections or ending gerrymandering.
Mark Gerzon’s recent book “The Reunited States of America” describes a host of organizations engaged in what he calls “transpartisan politics” at local to national levels.
I hope initiatives like these can help the country move away from toxic partisan divides in the run-up to the 2020 elections. My political tribe may or may not always prevail. It’s U.S. democracy that I’m really cheering for.
Barbara Crosby is an emerita associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.