The notion of Instant Replay is somewhat controversial in football. On one hand, you have the importance of accurate calls. If the video cameras catch something the refs missed, then shouldn’t that be corrected? On the other hand, you have pure pragmatism. There are all sorts of things that the refs always miss. There are plays that are simply too close to call. A three-and-a-half hour game could easily be stretched to five or more hours with too liberal an instant replay rule. Coaches could use replay challenges as defacto time-outs, which is precisely what happened when the NFL first tried instant replay (they’ve changed the rules since). So the leagues came up with their rules. Nobody is really satisfied with them because, well, what it would require for them to be satisfied with them changes from week to week and play to play depending on whether the rules favor their favored team or the opposing ones.

Several years ago, there was an NFL playoff game between the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo where what appeared to be a forward lateral was thrown in a play that determined the game in favor of Tennessee. The refs did not call a forward lateral and though it appeared to be one in the replay, it was not deemed conclusive to reverse the call. And so the Tennessee Titans went to the Superbowl. Bills fans remained bitter and many suggested that they should reverse the result or if they win the Superbowl there ought to be an asterisk or somesuch. Titans fans argue that it wasn’t a forward lateral to begin with or, if it was, it doesn’t matter because that’s just how the ball bounces sometimes. Both stances have their merits. Teams should not win because the refs make a mistake. But there is also a point where you have to move on and accept that life is not fair.

However, one would imagine that had the circumstances been reversed, Bills fans would have been talking about moving on and Titans fans about the importance of the rulebook. There’s really no question about this. That doesn’t stop each team’s partisans from getting on their soapbox and saying that it isn’t about this particular game it’s about fairness or being an adult and accepting the unfairness of life.

Of course, sports are a multibillion dollar exercise in frivolity. It doesn’t reach the same importance as, for instance, public policy. Or the makers of public policy.

The Massachusetts State Legislature recently enacted a law allowing the governor to appoint a temporary senator until the next special election. The All Important Factor in this was that Massachusetts should not be denied representation between now and the election simply because a senator died. Several years ago, the same legislature passed a law denying the governor the right to make appointments and creating special elections with the All Important Factor being that appointments are anti-Democratic. Of course, that there was a Republican governor in office the same year that there was a good chance of a vacancy being created back then and that there is a Democratic governor and an important vote coming up in the senate now is hardly a coincidence. But in each case, they dressed it up as a matter of principal. Democracy, on one side, and pragmatism on the other. Both are valid arguments.

Republicans, of course, point out the inconsistency and charge that the change of heart is {gasp} politically motivated, but they themselves have rather suddenly embraced Democracy when it’s prudent. In 2002 in Texas, when they won the state legislature, suddenly it was undemocratic to have a majority-Republican state represented by more Democrats than Republicans. Throwing all of their supposed allegiance to tradition in process out the door, they created new districts that, quite astonishingly, lead to more Republicans in congress. But… they did have a point about a Republican state being represented by Democrats in congress. And the Democrats had a point about the bald partisanship involved as well as the dangers in changing congressional districts at the drop of a hat. But neither position was particularly in-keeping with their philosophy so much as it was politically expedient.

There are times when abstract philosophy and political expediency meet. For instance, even setting aside partisan factors, it is extremely likely that Democrats would support as many recounts as possible to get the “most accurate” result. Likewise, Republicans are, in general, more likely to say that if somebody didn’t fill out their ballot correctly they forfeited their own vote. So when the 2000 election hit, everybody lined up in their “proper” formation. When it was inconvenient, of course, the Democrats had no problems tossing unfavorable ballots and Republicans had no problem accepting a Supreme Court verdict they would have abhorred if it had gone the other way. And these reversals were genuinely considered fair and proper. Sure, in some cases it was cynicism, but there were two valid sides to this argument and each side found it pretty easy to clutch to the side that was most convenient for them and believe it.

The list really goes on and on. Parties out of power suddenly gain all kinds of new respect for the Filibuster while parties in power suddenly feel reverence towards pragmatic democracy. Consensus and democracy are both important concepts. Protests that are scary and immature when your side is in power are suddenly importantly protected free expression when your side is out of power and vice-versa. Protests are both immature and importantly protected free expression. The entire notion of freedom itself is constantly under review. When talking about smoking in bars, some people will wax philosophic about the importance of freedom. Then, in a discussion about insurance companies, the exact same person will demand that the government step in and sort everything out to make things fair for the “little guy”.

It’s a lawyer’s job to defend his client in court. He is expected to do this (within certain parameters) whether he believes in it or not. An uninterested party, the judge or a jury, are supposed to take both sides into consideration and come to a conclusion on whose interpretation of justice, facts, and the law is correct.

I used to be a political blogger and I used to discuss politics quite frequently with anybody that would listen. I still follow politics closely, but rarely discuss it anymore. The main reason for this is that almost everybody that is anxious to talk about politics is a lawyer at heart. They are discussing things with you to Make Their Case and that’s pretty much it. The balancing of valid points of view is rarely given much heft. The notion that there are competing ideals that provide a solid basis even for views that you are ultimately unsold on is extremely hard to establish. Instead, the right and wrong of a situation come down, more than anything, to allegiance to political party and political philosophy.

Not that there’s anything wrong with partisanship. It’s a rather necessary function of democracy. Just as lawyers are a necessary function of our court system. What exasperates me, though, is that the legal maneuvering seems almost never to end. And the uninterested observers are actually apolitical “moderates” and “independents” who are among the least educated and least thoughtful voters out there. And even in cases where they are neither of these things, they typically “hate politics” and are always in search for some “middle ground” that doesn’t even exist were it not for two sides pulling the rope feverishly. So you’re left to talk politics with the lawyers, and that’s as much a cross-examination as it is any sort of actual discussion. Where the stakes are more important than a Titans-Bills football game, but the discussion ultimately isn’t.

-{If your response to this is to say “It’s really the people that disagree with me that do this. The people on my side rarely do.” or a quest to prove that even though both sides do it the other side is much worse, please don’t bother.}-

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6 Responses to Picking Sides

  1. Barry says:

    Not that there’s anything wrong with partisanship. It’s a rather necessary function of democracy.

    I just don’t think it is, and have yet to be convinced that it’s the best way.

    Partisanship implies conflict, and conflict is not what creates progress – cooperation, communication and compromise does (wow, that was a lot of “c’s”…)

    What we have, year in and year out, over and over, are basically the Boston Red Sox and the NY Yankees. Or the Cowboys and the Redskins. Or Alabama and Auburn. It’s come down to a sports rivalry, where one team (the good guys) can do no wrong and the other (the bad guys) can do nothing right.

    At some point in life, most Americans either consciously or subconsciously choose a side. Either they’re a liberal, or a conservative. A Democrat or a Republican. And from that moment on, the guys on their team are right and the guys on the other team are a bunch of lowdown dirtbag losers.

    Yes, on occasion philosophy and ethics comes into play but most politicians I’ve seen don’t look at an issue that comes down the pike and weighs it against their own sense of morality, ethics and justice – they look to see where their “team” stands. If their “team” supports it, then they’re for it. If their “team” is against it, then anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot and, by extension, possesses a degree of immorality.

    On the rare moments when members cross aisles or step back from the game (i.e. Joe Liebermann) they are ostracized for daring to leave the team.

    This is what partisanship brings us – unending years of argument, scandal, blame, impeachments, ridicule, unbalanced spending, etc. When, in a non-partisan system each candidate stands up for his or herself on his or her own beliefs and experience you can actually expect people to get things done and work together without them looking over their shoulders for the “party line”.

    It’s the worst thing about American politics, hands down. And it should be abolished.

  2. web says:

    You have basically echoed the warning of George Washington against forming political parties, Barry.

  3. Barry says:

    Well, they should have listened to him 🙂

  4. web says:

    Odd how the words of someone who lived over 200 years ago are intensely relevant to modern issues…

  5. trumwill says:


    It’s a necessary function insofar as it is pretty universal. No democracy exists without factions. Whether it would be advantageous to have more than two political parties is debatable, but that people will bind together to form coalitions of government is unavoidable.

    The City of Colosse doesn’t have partisan elections. At least not officially. But even there Colosse had the “conservative block” for a while that consisted of Republicans and a few less liberal Democrats and a “liberal block” of mostly liberal Democrats. The main advantage was that it was slighly easier for a candidate to shift from one block to the other, but it also had the drawback of their being less reliable representatives. You think that you’re voting for someone in the conservative block that is going to oppose the mayor’s policies but instead he finds his political fortunes improved by standing with the mayor. It would be nice to say that when people shifted it was based on principal, but these are politicians that we are talking about.

    None of this is to say that I don’t think that there can be such thing as excessive partisanship. A lot of this post is actually dedicated to lamenting excessive partisanship.

    But political parties themselves are a rather essential part of democracy. From a purely pragmatic standpint, legislation needs a majority in which to pass legislation through. These majorities can be informal or they can be formal. You can have a two-party system where one party typically garners a majority or you can have a poly-party system where they have to form coalitions. But no large-scale system exists that I am aware of without factions and parties.

    In fact, I would go as far as to say that (from what I know) legislators in the US are more free to vote their minds than they are in most parliamentary democracies.

  6. Barry says:

    I still think it could be done, an “every man for himself” kind of free-for-all where coalitions are formed and re-formed at will, depending on the issue of the day.

    If 35 Senators think busses should stop at a railroad crossing, they will band together to write a bill saying so, then try to convince the other 65 to support it. After that bill passes or fails, the informal coalition is dissolved and a new coalition of 10 guys from the previous one at 17 new ones form a coalition to push a bill to outlaw abortion. Those who truly believe in the right to abortion can band together to oppose the bill and from that point healthy debate can ensue.

    I don’t think you need an (R) or a (D) after every other Senator’s name (or an (I) for that matter) to make democracy work. When they run for office here in Tennessee, I vote for the two guys I think are the smartest, wisest, fairest ones for the job (“guys” meaning male or female, of course). If I know one guy happens to support several issues I feel strongly about needing to be addressed in Congress I might be more likely to vote for them over a more qualified candidate but there’s nothing wrong with that. Every citizen of the state votes and the top two vote-getters go to Congress.

    Think of any local non-governmental oversight body. A homeowners association, a board of directors, a pastor-parish committee at church, etc. Sometimes these bodies contain a half-dozen people, sometimes they can contain dozens. All can have issues put before the body, and all can vote singly on the issues. There’s no need to form a mini-party to be selected or to participate. Coalitions again can form and re-form depending on the issue and personalities of the individuals involved.

    And what’s done in micro can surely be done in macro.

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