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Our Games and Our Elections

It's easy to understand why reporters and commentators cover and discuss elections as if they were sports events. Both have winners and losers. Numbers are involved in each. Wealthy candidates, like wealthy teams, are at a considerable disadvantage when their opponents are even wealthier. (One problem with our elections is that, in sports terms, they're almost all the New York Yankees against the New York Yankees, but that's a topic for another space.)

Beyond that, neither athletes nor candidates expect us to believe them when they say things like "I love this game so much I'd play it for free," or "I'll cut the cost of prescription drugs by standing up to the pharmaceutical companies, then I'll foster a business-friendly climate here to create more jobs."

Further, there's trash talking. "Don't bring that blankety blank in here," says one basketball player in the paint to another. "My opponent's husband runs a company that markets nuclear waste as cat litter," says the candidate, righteous until somebody digs up something on him.

But there are some distinctions between our games and our elections that get lost in our tendency to describe the latter in terms more appropriate to the former.

Most important is that the goal of the professional athlete is to win. As soon as the day's game is over, the goal becomes the winning of the next one. On the other hand, the goal of the governor is to govern. The goal of the legislator is to legislate. Granted, you don't get the opportunity to do those things if you can't win an election against somebody else who wants to do them, but elections are supposed to be means to an end.

The pesky problem is that much of the daily work of the conscientious elected official resists easy characterization as a touchdown or a fumble, a win or a loss. But who among us wants to hear that? Who'd vote for or listen to stories about someone who accurately but quietly characterized him or herself as thoughtful and aware that solving complex problems requires careful study and resists reduction to alliterative slogans, sincere smiles, family photos, and analogies to games?

Nobody, as most of the candidates and those who cover them long ago discovered.

This program aired on November 9, 2002. The audio for this program is not available.

Bill Littlefield Twitter Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.

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