The Null Device

Politics as a spectator sport

Cracked's David Wong has a list of five telltale indicators of a bullshit political story; in this case, a “bullshit political story” is one which ignores the actual issues and treats politics as a sporting event, appealing to the audience's identification with one team or other:
The answer is that many (if not most) people don't follow politics in order to find out who to vote for as part of their duty as citizens living in a democracy. They follow it purely as a form of entertainment. They're like sports fans, rooting for their "team" to win. And as you're going to find out, virtually all political news coverage is written to appeal to those people. They're the most rabid "consumers" of news, and their traffic is the most reliable, so the news is tailored to appeal to them. In the business, they derisively call it "horse race journalism," where the stories focus purely on the "sport" of politics rather than the consequences.
The telltale signs are stories with the word “gaffe” in the headline (generally some content-free event giving one half of the stadium cause to hoot and jeer at what dumbasses the other side are), anything about a politician “blasting” the other side (which appeals to the audience's inner wrestling fan), weasel-worded headlines asking a question (the answer to which is generally “probably not”), headlines attempting to escalate random low-ranking members of one political side, generally with non-mainstream opinions, to the status of “lawmakers” or “advisors” and demanding that the leadership take responsibility for them, and real-world political issues being framed as a “blow to” one political side or other:
That's where the gaffe stories come in. See, in this game, your "team" scores a point each time the other team says something stupid. It lets all of the supporters of your team mock and humiliate the supporters of the opposing team, on Internet message boards and around water coolers and in coffee shops nationwide. "Haha! The supposed 'genius' Obama thinks there are 57 states in the U.S.!" "Oh, yeah? Well, your last president said he was going to help terrorists plan their next attack!"
Hey, did you know that Barack Obama is an out-of-touch elitist because he puts fancy Dijon mustard on his hamburgers? Did you know that Mitt Romney is an insane sociopath because he once made his pet dog ride on top of his car 26 years ago? Did you know John Kerry can't relate to the average person because he puts Swiss cheese on his Philly cheese steaks? Did you know that George W. Bush hates foreigners so much that he wiped his hand after shaking hands with a Haitian? Did you know that all of this is petty schoolyard bullshit that wastes valuable time and energy that you'll never get back?
And, as smarter commentators have pointed out, there's an even bigger problem with this: It actually implies that the issue itself is completely unimportant. For instance, if the courts overturn some regulation about mercury in the water or Congress blocks car mileage standards, it always gets reported as "A Blow to Environmentalists." Oh, no, it's not a blow to the people who have to drink the water or breathe the air, or the taxpayers who have to fund the regulations, or the businesses that lose jobs over it. It's either a "blow to environmentalists" or it's not. They specifically make it sound like the effects extend purely to some fringe special interest group and absolutely no one else.
I'm telling you from experience, watching political races this way is addictive as shit. You have thousands of years of violent tribal instincts pumping through your veins, itching for a fight. That makes you an easy tool for manipulation, and every good politician and pundit knows how to push those buttons to make people march neatly in formation. Don't succumb. Or else you'll start supporting the most bullshit legislation just because your guy is for it. Or you'll start knee-jerk rejecting anything the other "team" proposes. Not because it's bad for the country, but because you want to deny them a "win."

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