America – a sports metaphor on Super Sunday

Many commentators and journalists have been reading and responding to James Fallows’ piece in The Atlantic posted online in January.  “How America Can Rise Again” is certainly worth a read and Fallows (having recently lived in China) traces backward and projects forward America’s opponents, challenges and political culture.  In reading the article I immediately thought how much he makes America sound like this high school basketball team I’ve been watching. Surprise, it’s not metaphor to football!  But it is basketball season and as such, I think basketball fits better.

My wife teaches high school English and I’ve become friends with many of her fellow teachers including the coaches of the varsity girls basketball team.  Last year, on the shoulders of a star player, the team won 22 straight games on the way to winning the New England championship for schools this size.  Anyway, last year’s team and this year’s squad have distinctly different personalities as many teams do year-to-year.  But one quality they share, and arguably their best quality, is the relentless pursuit of points.  Whether the game is tied or they are winning by 28 points, this team plays with the same intensity from start to finish.  Surely this is one of the reasons they’ve been so successful.

I was a few paragraphs into Fallows’ article when I realized that he was preparing to describe America in a similar way.  American is always playing like we’re losing the game, as Fallows says, as if we believe we’re on the “brink of ruination.”  Each generation of Americans had considered their moment the worst time in American history.  However, when most coaches say “play like the game is tied,” they mean play as if every shot matters.  According to Fallows, we take it even further, playing as if we’re losing and always need to pressing and/or playing catch-up.

At the risk of losing my argument in the midst of an elaborate metaphor, I won’t take the basketball thing much further.  But as I read the article, I started to see how America’s starting 5 – the economy, technology, critical infrastructure, education and national defense – all play important roles on the team.

In playing with this metaphor yesterday, I decided that education was the point guard.  The point guard facilitates the team’s success, supports the scorers and protects the ball without which no one else on the team can be successful.  Likewise, I thought that national defense/foreign policy was the team’s center.  Big, imposing and usually defined by force.  Sure the center often has limitations – speed and agility, but it remains visually and physically one of the most dominate players in the game.  That being said, critical infrastructure (especially as Fallows compares it to China) would be our power forward.  We need new, strong and reliable infrastructure.  Much of what our slashing scorer (the economy) does is built on the power forward and off-guard (technology).  Our scorer (think LeBron, Kobe) is the economy.  Without a superior economy which both scores and finds the open player, America cannot succeed in the future.  However, when the game is on the line, it’s the economy we need and rely on.  Lastly, the key role player who can help bring the ball up the floor, make in-bounds passes, hit a clutch three occasionally (think the tech boom in the late 90s) and make everyone else on the floor better.

For true basketball fans out there, climate change is my 6th man coming off the bench.  America’s Horace Grant, if you will.  Anyway, I do think it’s apt to think about the issues facing America as different players.  Firstly, they cannot all be treated similarly.  Second, our political issues have different “fans” and varying levels of popularity. Third, we need them all.  Granted, Addressing each issue in its own way, we still need them all to survive.

And just like sports fans, we have our rivals, concerns over next season and passion about winning. For example, China might be bigger, might have better financing and might be buying up all the “free agents” (loans to America), but we’ve got the intangibles like “heart”, human rights and innovation.  We’re resilient and determined to change if needed.  We’ve never waited around for new trends or asked anyone for permission.  As Fallows implies, we’re a country of doers and no worse than we’ve been for the last 200 years.

Unfortunately, sometimes when I see voting turnout numbers or watch the news, it seems like we care more about our sports teams than our country.  If anything we might be similar to an undefeated team or sports dynasty whose success has dulled our senses and drive slightly.  I’m not sure.  I think Fallows seems to say that our slow-moving governing system is becoming more of an obstacle than stimulator to our success.  If that’s the case, we’ve got some over-coaching or fans (us) who just don’t believe in the team anymore.  I don’t like the implications of either scenario.  What I think is really going on (keeping the sports metaphor alive) is that we’ve merged our sports and political expectations – we want to win a championship every year, with players we love, close/exciting games, and tickets that are affordable.  Truth is, we can’t have it all.  Every now and then a team gets a MJ or Kobe/Shaq and spends big money to win several championships in a few short years.  But nothing lasts forever.

Similarly, I think Americans need to start re-thinking the way we approach our government.  We can’t expect politicians to deliver it all – low taxes, robust government programs, 2 wars, expanding businesses and limiting climate change.  We need to prepare for a reality that balances our spending, quality of life, interests and growth. I think Obama realizes this, but is hesitant to take the “sacrifice is necessary” message too far.  We’ve certainly heard these themes from him over the past 2 years but no specific details yet. On the other hand, I think free marketers understand this fact all too well. Pure free market Republicans are willing to take the sacrifice too far in the other direction and allow the market to correct at the risk of our most vulnerable.  In the middle are moderate Republicans, blue dog Democrats and Independents who are not organized or prepared to address both short term and long term plans to bring both ideologies together.  The goal must be to address as many issues as we can while making sure we prepare the American people for a shift to responsible, fiscal policy.  We can wait hoping for a “coach” to come along and explain the game plan to us or we can begin to speak out, vote for responsible politicians and support leaders willing to make serious choices.

It may already be starting, that’s me at the end of the bench and I’m looking to get in the game.

Editor’s Note (I’ve always wanted to do this):

  • This is my equivalent to the footnote (for fans of Chuck Klosterman and Bill Simmons, you know how two masters use the footnote)
  • There is a final section to Fallows’ article that I did not address.  It is titled “What Is To Be Done?” and includes a variety of fantastic suggestions regarding our political philosophy, our conception of the market, and even implies that our government is old and broken.  Please check that out.
  • If anyone took Professor Tracy for American Studies at University of Mary Washington it’s likely they read Sacvan Burkovitch’s The American Jeremiad.  I did and I thoroughly enjoyed both the class and book.  I was thrilled to see the book mentioned in this article and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of American exceptionalism.  It has come up many times since I took the class and I expect it to continue to be relevant well into the future.  Highly recommended.
  • Lastly, I have not had a chance to re-read this posting, it’s Super Bowl Sunday and I had lots of law school reading all day.  Please forgive any typos, I’ll re-read and correct it later this week.
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