For those of you who aren’t college football fans, hang in there, this gets to politics soon enough.
My daughter goes to the University of Michigan. My father-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law and her sister, my wife and at least two of her cousins all went to the University of Michigan. I have a shirt in Michigan colors that says, “I Married into This.” The family jokes that the only reason they let me in is that my last name is Hale, as in “Hail to the Victors” the Michigan fight song.
My mother worked at University of Southern California and growing up, I spent a lot of time at USC. Granted mostly playing pool, ping pong and video games with undergrads. But eventually I went to USC and got two degrees from them. I also worked at USC and my office was right outside the practice field for the band and across the street where all the USC Heisman trophies are kept. A new one for 2022 quarterback Caleb Williams will be arriving soon.
When I got married, we joked that we had to add a line in our Ketubah, (a Jewish wedding contract) that I was required to root for Michigan, except when they played USC. For many years, that was not actually a real possibility. Long ago the only place they could meet was the Rose Bowl and with both teams facing hard times and hard years that never worked. Then the playoff system made the chances even more remote.
But this year, it was a real possibility. Had USC beaten Utah, the #2 ranked Wolverines could have faced the #4 ranked Trojan in the finals of the college football play-off. But in 2024 or shortly thereafter, my nightmare is going to happen. That year USC joins the Big 10 and that means two things. I will have to make a choice and Rutgers will have another team they can’t beat (sorry had to throw that in).
But back to me. Do I root for a team I grew up with, a team that has always meant a lot to me, one that I trusted to always have my best interests at heart? Or do I officially switch to a new team that seems to fit in better with my family and friends, one that seems to be closer to my values and one that might actually be where I want to hang my hat moving forward?
Since politics is a sport, my personal dilemma about college football teams feels similar to Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s decision to defect from the Democratic party. But with an important difference.
Sinema’s defection from Democrat to Independent may ultimately have more to do with life in purple Arizona and her own desire to be more than Joe Manchin light. In an interview Sinema said that, “Nothing will change about my values or my behavior.” That, of course, begs the question then why change teams? It turns out Sinema decided to change teams because she “never fit perfectly“ and because of “the national parties rigid partisanship.” So, it turns out her defection is more about finding her perfect comfort level and hyper-partisanship and not about policy, ideals and beliefs.
Sinema’s switch to independent and the rational for it follows a trend in American politics. According to Gallup polling we have seen a steady rise of people calling themselves “independents” over the last few decades. According to Gallup, people calling themselves independents have become the largest voting bloc in American. The primary reason people cite for switching from one party to independent is they don’t like the partisanship in Washington or Trenton or in any government. More often than not, their beliefs don’t change. People still lean one way or another but by calling themselves independents they get to feel above the messy fray that is partisan politics. In other words, independents are more likely to be independents because they find partisan divisions ugly and distasteful while still holding the same ugly and distasteful beliefs of partisans on either side.
As 538 writer Geoffrey Skelley points out this is actually a pretty bad thing for democracy. Citing work by University of Arizona political scientist Samara Klar, he argues that independents are less likely to get involved in politics than people who identify as partisans. Again, they may hold the exact same beliefs as a strong Democrat or Republican, but they are not going to put up a lawn sign or knock on doors or phone bank for either party. They are also less likely to talk about politics with friends and associates. They are more likely to tout being an independent as if it is some kind of badge of reasonableness, rationality and regularness. Saying “I am an independent” has become a way of saying, “I am way too cool to talk about politics.”
Every time someone does that, whether they are a senator or your neighbor Fred, it is one more person who walks away from the game. Which mean the people left playing are, in fact, the hyper-partisans on either side and the cycle becomes even more vicious. For many of my students and other young people this ship has already sailed and the idea of being involved in either party seems ridiculous to them. Both Young Democrats and Young Republicans are struggling to find members.
Maybe someday we will have a political system where there is a party that “perfectly represents me” as Senator Sinema suggests. We certainly could use more than two. But until then declaring yourself an independent is a cowardly cop-out designed to make you seem above the fray. Being an independent really means is you don’t have the guts to stay in one party and fight like hell to make it more to your liking or the guts to jump ship to the other side. Being independent is an excuse to leave the game and that is exactly what is happening as more and more people turn away from politics.
That is the difference between switching teams in college football and politics. In football, you have to make a choice, you can change but at the end of the day you have to pick a side. In politics, being an independent is an option to opt out and to disengage and when that happens the game itself gets weaker.
Switch if you want but pick a side and fight for it. Go Blue.
Seton Hall University
Department of Political Science and Public Affairs
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In my opinion, political success, defined as winning elections, is often based on pragmatic rather than ideological strategies. .Kyrsten Sinema won her Senate Seat in 2018( after Republican Jeff Flake, pilloried by the MAGA faction of the Arizona Republican Party, declined to run for re-election) , by appealing to the third of the Arizona electorate who are registered as independents and the third who are registered Democrats.
Mark Kelley used the same strategy to secure a full six-year term this past November. Republican politicians like Flake, Rusty Bower and John McCain, are becoming increasingly scarce in Arizona. So building a coalition of independents and democrats seems like a good way to become an Arizona senator. Sinema’s leverage as a maverick Democrat /independent in Congress got Arizona substantial funding for drought relief in Arizona. .
That said, her re-election campaign in 2024, should she choose to run, could split the moderate coalition which elected her and open up opportunities for a Republican. Sinema’s move, rather than a flight from ideology may be viewed as an attempt to create a new political path forward given the extreme factions in Arizona’s Republican and Democratic parties and her general unpopularity in the State.
Sound bi-partisan policies to improve people’s lives must be the end game of all politics in a democracy, and are a scarse commodity in Washington at this time, Sinema’s efforts to reach across the aisle and be a John McCain are laudable; however, given the divisiveness of today’s politics, if your team mates don’t view you as a team player, you won’t get to play much. And that is sad.
Thought provoking and excellent article. It got me to check out quotes on “Choosing Sides” and thinking about the psychological, as well as the political and sports angles.
Sometimes being true to oneself means hanging in and fighting on, and for, your team. Sometimes one has to let go and leave with pain. And, then live with criticism, and the losses, for one’s choice which may be self serving or not.
I like Jesse Jackson’s quote, “Leadership has a harder job to do than just choose sides. It must bring sides together.” Great when we can do it. I agree with you, Professor Hale: Choose your team and fight with integrity and devotion! Thanks for a great piece.