We can talk about football - how about politics?
A few days after the 2016 presidential election, I was sitting at a sidewalk café in Austin, Texas, trying to make sense of the election results and the unusually bitter tone that prevailed throughout the campaign. Austin was a good place to be. It’s a bastion of blue in a sea of red, but it’s also proudly a part of Texas, which makes it a bit purple.
As I was enjoying a cocktail (well, perhaps more than one) and talking with my wife about this acrimonious election and its aftermath, a conversation started up at the table next to us. It was impossible to ignore this spirited exchange between people on opposite sides of the fence, people who had a very strong interest in defeating each other. They were passionate advocates for their respective sides and surprisingly well-informed about their opponents. It went on for well over a half hour, and probably longer than that. And when it was over they parted amicably and wished each other well, even though they were obviously invested in each other’s failure.
This was not a political discussion. Rather, it was an exchange between a University of Texas football fan and three supporters of West Virginia University who were in town for a big game the next day. The Texan had on his orange Longhorns shirt, the Mountaineers were in their blue and old gold.
I was struck by this because we had just been worrying over the lack of civil discourse, the demonizing of political opponents, the refusal to acknowledge shared values. And then the football fans next to us modeled the very opposite. They were strangers who recognized that they shared a common passion, even though they favored different teams. They were not ignorant of their opponents’ strengths and they were not afraid to acknowledge their own team’s weaknesses. They complimented each other’s teams, talked about the talents of the various players, and revealed a mind-boggling level of detailed knowledge that validated everything they were saying. They accepted each other’s facts and wished each other well the next day, knowing that one side would be elated, the other dejected.
I don’t want to suggest that politics is merely a game or that we should consider football to be as important as politics (although I’m sometimes guilty of that when it comes to the Green Bay Packers). But in some ways, the comparison is highly appropriate. Football fans love their sport, and as Americans we all should love our representative democracy. Football fans understand that the consolation for a tough loss is the knowledge that there will be more games, more seasons ahead. They trust that their team will watch the film, practice, and be better prepared for the next contest. Perhaps there’s a reason we call a football season a campaign.
As the weeks have gone by and I’ve seen so many people struggle with the election results and witnessed the lamentable continuation of incivility, I keep returning to the model those football fans offered. If we could transfer even a bit of that good-natured rivalry to our political interactions, we’d all be better off. Now more than ever, we must resist the idea that opponents have to be enemies. That’s what we’re being told by the media and by political machines, but those are the very groups that profit—quite literally—from exaggerating our divisions.
Recognizing the common humanity in our political opponents is especially difficult right now, and that’s what makes it especially imperative. But it’s hard to reach across these divisions, and taking the first step means taking a risk. That’s why we’ve developed My Purple USA. Among other things, it offers citizens a template for reaching out to someone they know, but who votes differently from them. Our list of abstract political values shared by those on the left and the right is something you can use to tell someone in your life how they embody that value and how that unites the two of you, despite your different political persuasions. In the simplest terms, you’re merely sending a compliment to someone you know. But it’s a compliment that bears with it a message of unity that our country desperately needs right now.
The idea behind My Purple USA is not to start an argument or change someone’s vote. It’s more modest than that. The goal is to lower the temperature, recognize the values that unite us, and by doing so, make it easier to live together after the next election is over. Because there will always be another election, and another, and another.
- Matt Kinservik