Getting past the “Yankees suck” school of political discourse

Photo: Mal3k via Flickr

Red Sox fans are wicked biased — anything their team does is right, anything the other team does (especially the Yankees) is terrible. This is barely acceptable for sports. It’s a terrible model for politics. But it’s the model millions of voters appear to be stuck in.

I call this the “Yankees suck” school of political discourse.

“Yankees suck” is a popular chant at Red Sox games versus the pinstriped team that Larry Lucchino, former Red Sox President, called “The Evil Empire.” The thing is, they don’t suck. They’re a great team. That’s why it’s worth beating them.

Not only that, sometimes the Red Sox suck. Sometimes they swing at bad pitches. Sometimes the manager puts a good pitcher in to run the bases, and he hurts his shoulder. The local sportswriters and talk radio babblers ask about those decisions, and they should. If you care about the team, you need to examine what it’s doing wrong.

This level of thinking seems to have escaped many writers (and many of my Facebook friends) in this presidential election.

Their reasoning is simple.

  • Donald Trump is an evil person whose election would destroy the US.
  • For that reason, we must do anything we can to stop him from being elected.
  • So we must criticize anything Donald Trump does, or did, or says, or tweets.
  • So we must support or excuse anything Hillary Clinton does, or did.
  • So we must stand against third-party voting, because it might help elect Trump.

The reasoning on the other side is identical (and you can read it in the Wall Street Journal comment section, for example).

  • Hillary Clinton is an untrustworthy person whose election would destroy the US.
  • For that reason, we must do anything we can to stop her from being elected.
  • So we must criticize anything Hillary Clinton does, or did, or says, or wears.
  • So we must support or excuse anything Donald Trump does, or did.
  • So we must stand against third-party voting, because it might help elect Clinton.

I call this the “Yankees suck” school of discourse because it is content-free. It examines each decision, not on its own merits, but on the single lens of which candidate it helps. And I’m not willing to put my decision-making in a blind trust.

Principles of democracy

How much would you be willing to lose to get your candidate elected?

Would you be willing to further erode and destroy the role of a free press in American society?

Would you be willing to strengthen the polarization, lack of discourse, and gridlock between the parties in America?

Would you be willing to support a candidate whose behavior appalls you, because the other candidate is worse? If if you do support such a candidate, do you think any criticism of your candidate is heresy?

Here are some principles that I believe in.

  • The state of American democracy is more important than any candidate or election, including this one.
  • The critical role of the press is more important than any candidate or election, including this one.
  • Two healthy parties make democracy better.
  • We should listen to everyone, especially people we disagree with, to find out what motivates them.
  • It’s not fair to criticize a candidate based on who supports them. Criticize instead based on what they say that attracts people with deplorable points of view.
  • Both parties have flaws.
  • All candidates have flaws.
  • Investigative journalists should reveal those flaws. Investigating both candidates is not “false equivalency.” (Declaring their flaws to be equal is false equivalency.)
  • What candidates’ spouses do or did is not relevant or important in this election.
  • How candidates look or dress is not relevant or important in this election.
  • Third parties have a right to be heard, and dialogue with them helps keep the two major-party candidates honest.

What this means in practice

I vote more for Democrats than Republicans, but I have voted for plenty of Republicans who I thought were better than the Democrats in a given race. And I have voted for a third-party candidate in a presidential election (and no, it wasn’t Ralph Nader). I will be voting for Hillary Clinton in this election. But that does not mean that everything that Hillary Clinton does is right, nor that everything that Donald Trump does is wrong.

And it’s why I part company with so many of my friends and the way they talk about this election. For example.

  • I don’t criticize Trump based on whether idiots and racists vote for him. Why? Because if idiots or terrorists backed Clinton, I wouldn’t hold that against her.
  • Melania Trump’s past is irrelevant. So are Bill Clinton’s affairs. We’re not electing either of them. And I’ve got very little interest in Chelsea Clinton or Trump’s kids. When we’re deciding how to fix Social Security or whether and how to intervene in Syria, they won’t matter.
  • Trump’s weight, makeup, and hair weave are silly topics. Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits are a silly topic, too.
  • Go ahead and investigate the Clinton Foundation and what she did on that email server. And investigate Trump’s foundation and which campaigns he contributed to. Get it all out there.
  • Trump’s bankruptcies and tax strategies are fair game. So are Clinton’s decisions as Senator and Secretary of State.
  • People who interrupt in debates are rude. Trump is rude. So is Kaine. Either way, that’s no basis for deciding on a president.

Here’s the thing. If you post only stuff from one side on your Facebook, who do you think you’re persuading? The people who agree with you will just say “Tsk, tsk, see, I thought so.” And the people who disagree will never see it. So why even bother?

Is there anything the Democrat would do that would cause you to vote against her? Is there anything the Republican can do that would cause you to vote against him? If not, you are a fan, not a citizen.

I miss the days when we were arguing about the budget, foreign policy positions, race and police, and what to do about them. I’m nostalgic for an argument between solutions and visions, not a food fight.

I’m going to continue to criticize the candidates I’m for, and seek positives in the candidates I oppose. And I’m going to keep seeking opinions from third parties and primary candidates who might raise issues the mainstream parties won’t. This election is not the exception. This election is the one where those principles will be tested most.

I’ll be a Red Sox fan until the day I die. But no candidate gets my eternal loyalty, because I’m a critical thinker. They’re all on probation, permanently.

No matter who is elected this November, I’ll be all over them if they embrace hypocrisy, demonize the other side, or make generalizations about large groups of people. That’s not what I’m looking for in a president, whether I voted for them or not.

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  1. Nicely articulated Josh. Here’s the real litmus test for an informed electorate. What would polls indicate if the public didn’t know with which party each candidate was associated?

  2. Nice! Reminds me of George Lakoff’s thoughts on “framing.” E.g., if you argue about whether the government is strong enough, it evokes the “stern father” frame for government, long favored by many conservatives. To say the negative still invokes the frame. So giving insults – by either side – reinforces the idea that the election is about character, not policy. And so does complaining about someone else’s insults (although not in your “meta” context!)