Everyone with siblings is probably familiar with the phrase, “It’s not a competition.” I have two brothers. We thought everything was a competition. My parents often had to remind us that dishes is not a competition. For years I’ve been saying that politics is not a competition. Politics lacks two necessary components of competitions. First, a competition needs competitors, two or more opposing sides trying to win. Second, a competition needs to end. I know a lot of people are thinking to themselves, “Yeah, politics has both those things.” But those people are wrong.
There are tons of reasons why so many people think that politics is a competition. They would fill a long, but interesting, book. I’m not prepared to write that book right now (maybe someday), but a good chunk of it comes down to language. We use words like win, lose, race, against, versus, victory, and defeat when talking about politics. There are two problems with these words. One is that they are metaphorical even though people take them literally. The other is that they disguise the actual time frames needed for historical/political judgement.
For the people who think politics is a competition, who are the opposing sides? Is it Republicans and Democrats? Rich and Poor? Capitalists and Socialists? Any of those may seem plausible on the surface, but how does it work? What would it look like if Republicans beat the Democrats or the rich beat the poor or capitalists beat the socialists? Would the winner remain while the loser disappears? Republicans win when there are no more Democrats? That doesn’t seem likely (or possible). Would the winner get some kind of prize or reward that the loser doesn’t? That’s clearly not how things work. A social safety net doesn’t just protect the socialists and leave the capitalists out in the cold. It works (or doesn’t work as the case may be) for everyone. I know that there are inequalities, but luck is the biggest determining factor in how they land. It’s much closer to a lottery than a competition.
Some people may look at it as a giant free-for-all rather than teams competing. We’re all competing against each other. I think that’s even more problematic. What are the rules? How do you even judge who’s winning? I mean, clearly, I’m beating all of y’all. I’m the only person that gets to be the father to my daughter. Game over. But there are probably lots and lots of other people who think they’re winning because of their own children/spouses/parents/friends/possessions/jobs or whatever else. We all have different goals and objectives. It would be like if the Red Sox and Dodgers were playing each other, only the Red Sox really wanted to get more stolen bases while the Dodgers really wanted to get more hit-by-pitches. It wouldn’t make any sense as a competition.
Along these same lines, as long as we all live in the same society, we all move up or down together. If something is good, it is to the benefit everyone in the society. If something is bad, it is to the detriment of everyone in the society. Sexism hurts everyone, not just women. Racism doesn’t help anyone, not even Klan members. I’ve never been beaten by a cop, but police brutality has made my life worse. We are all interconnected. The metrics are complicated and I’m not going to get into them here, but the oft quoted statistic that billionaires have added $3.9 trillion to their collective wealth during the pandemic is hugely misleading. None of those billionaires are better off because of the pandemic. To simplify it a bit, the difference between $1 billion and $100 billion in terms of quality of life is negligible. At the same time, the difference between living in a safe, open society or not in terms of quality of life is huge. The rich getting richer doesn’t mean they are winning. At best, it means that they don’t understand what’s in their own best interest.
Even if everything I’ve said up to now is wrong (It’s not. I’m right about all this if you’ll just take the time to think about it for a bit. But, I’m willing to concede it for the sake of argument.), politics would still not be a competition because it never ends. The clock never hits 0:00. There’s never a 27th out or a final set. Elections are where most of the competitive language is used, but no one “wins” an election. An election isn’t an end. It’s more like the draft than the championship. The same is true for passing or stopping a piece of legislation or having the courts agree with you. Those aren’t end points. They’re just filling out the lineup card. There are no end points. Politics will continue for as long as there is a society.
But. But. But. But. But. But. But, but, but, but, but, but, but, but, but, but, but, but, however, yet, but.
What if people don’t believe what I’m saying? What if they don’t listen to me? What if they behave as if it is a competition? That’s where I get stuck. Frankly, that’s the position we’re in now. The political parties, the press, the rich and powerful, and even a good chunk of the rest of us all behave as if we’re competing with each other. I don’t know what to do about it. Engaging with other members of our society on that level is counterproductive, at best. It would reinforce the mistaken idea that we are competing, and it creates acrimony. We have to convince everyone that we only succeed or fail together. I’m open to suggestions if anyone knows how to get everyone on board.