Perpetual madness

Watching the office succumb to March Madness, it’s easy to see what’s happened to politics

Who got game?

Who got game?

SN&R Illustration By Chad Crowe

It’s that time of year again: rumors flying, pots of money at stake, streaming video and analysis on Web sites, decisions getting made (usually surreptitiously at work) about our picks for the “big dance.”

I’m not talking about the NCAA tournament.

This is about politics.

It’s easy to mistake coverage of the basketball tournament for political coverage. Both are all about competition and, all too frequently, all about money. Those colleagues with fistfuls of cash headed for the office pool’s keeper and the donors lining up to contribute “early money” to the candidates are engaged in a very similar ritual: money will buy something, whether it’s access or a championship T-shirt.

Politics and sports have converged in a weird way. The excitement, the “inside looks” at candidates and campaigns, the soft-lens profiles and the hushed, disappointed exposés—even the “psych” games competitors play with each other—are not just reminiscent of the all-sports channels.

The news channels are reporting political news in exactly the same way that the sports channels report athletics.

There’s breathless excitement for the story of the day, the tally of what makes a champion, and the same frenzied, carnival atmosphere at political conventions and rallies that permeates the playoffs and tournaments, right down to painted faces and funny hats. There’s even the same language: Dark horse, underdog, come-from-behind, upset, Cinderella, contender, favorite. Winners and losers.

And where politics are concerned, there’s no off-season. Two years out from the next general election—in fact, before the last general election—presidential candidates started popping up like dirty dishes after a Super Bowl party. We’re slightly less than a year away from the California primary—thanks to the decision to move it to February 5, 2008—and the jockeying for position (note the sports metaphor), if not with the voters then at least with the donors, looks like a pile-up under the basket. And yes, elbows are already being thrown.

The problem is that politics isn’t a game.

When we get distracted by the hype surrounding a candidate, it’s not a title or even a season that will go down the tubes if he (or she) doesn’t live up to expectations. When an elected official lets us down, we can’t just clamor for a trade or bench ’em—we’re stuck.

Quagmire, anyone?

And when an athlete is caught in some “pay for play” scandal, even as big a deal as the 1919 Chicago “Black” Sox throwing games, it doesn’t have the same consequences as, say, trading lobbyists’ money for government contracts. No young men and women in U.S. uniforms will lose their lives over it.

There are obvious differences between sports and politics.

In his book, Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News, David T.Z. Mindich points to research showing that young people only pay attention to sports and entertainment news. The ESPN sports channels are the most watched on cable. Is it any wonder that, in their search for ratings and circulation, both broadcast and print media have resorted to covering political and government news as if these subjects were the playoffs or the Oscars?

But the consequences of covering political issues as if they were sporting events are steep. This relentless, perpetual competition for money and votes ensures that we elect campaigners instead of governors and legislators. The ones who can raise money and keep us entertained—or at least interested—get rewarded with an office. But in order to keep it, they have to keep on campaigning. The first thing a newly elected official does is set up a re-election campaign and start raising money for the next go-round.

What we have—especially in California, land of the ballot initiative, referendum, recall and now the ultra-early primary—is a perpetual campaign.

It’s as if the NCAA always was hosting a basketball tournament, or the NFL was constantly in playoffs, with the accompanying continual excitement. How quickly would we develop “sports fatigue” and tire of paying attention?

Perhaps that’s what has happened to politics, both in California and also in the rest of the country. Who has time to keep up with all the ballot initiatives and to become adequately informed about all the issues? And when politicians are engaged in this perpetual madness of a perpetual campaign, who is doing the work of governing on a day-to-day basis? From the looks of things, no one.

Those of us covering politics have all too often succumbed to the temptation to think in terms of the race rather than the results. As soon as one election is over, the winner is enshrined on the platform with his or her trophy and new T-shirt—oops, I meant inaugurated, with new appointeesand journalists move right on to the next race. How quickly do we begin to write about the re-election challenges faced by the incumbent? It’s often before their term of office has properly begun.

We know campaigns cost a lot of money. Perpetual campaigns cost perpetual money. Rather than hit the ground running in terms of legislation and public policy, officials hit the ground running to build up their “war chests.” Who is surprised that the first elbow Hillary Clinton’s campaign threw had to do with Barack Obama’s fund raising in Hollywood?

This perpetual fund raising creates perpetual opportunities for corruption, a prime cause of civic disaffection with politics. The PACs, the campaign committees, the so-called “citizen’s groups” raising money for one initiative or another are all potential sources of graft.

There may not be a solution, but we can start by demanding that the press spend as much time covering government as we do covering campaigns. The realities of politics don’t begin and end with an election, and it’s time to pay attention to the day-to-day workings of government rather than only looking up for the exciting part. We’ve got to stop the madness.

At least until debates are replaced by dunking contests.