Is Democracy a Sport?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

In a democracy, political decisions are typically made by way of elections. In winner-take-all systems, elections produce winners and losers. It seems natural, then, that in the United States our talk about democracy tends to focus on the competitive aspects of politics. For example, processes for filling political offices are called “contests” and “races”; candidates for such offices are called “contenders” and “hopefuls”; and electoral wins are called “victories,” while losses are called “defeats.” When a candidate loses especially decisively, we reach for stronger language; we sometimes say the candidate was “trounced” or side was “clobbered.” Our popular political vocabulary closely resembles the way we talk about sports. So, in addition to wins, losses, and races, there are cases of running up the score, playing out of bounds, and even spiking the political football.

Seizing on this, candidates and commentators tend to proceed as if political wins are deeply like sports victories. Winners present themselves not only as having prevailed against the other candidates, but also as having defeated everything the opposing side stands for. The team that wins the World Series is thereby the champion, and there’s nothing for the other teams to do other than begin training for next season; similarly, winning candidates tend to proceed as if those they prevailed against are relegated to a similar status: they must reconcile themselves to their losses, step aside, and look towards the next election.

Of course, part of the reason why the sporting vernacular is so prominent in our politics is that it indeed captures fundamental features of how democracy in the United States works. As we noted at the beginning, our winner-take-all elections really do produce winners and losers. So, that similarity is not an illusion. However, the similarity with sports goes only so far, and it is shallower along other lines than its prominence may suggest.

Consider that electoral outcomes are rarely evidence of the voters’ wholesale endorsement of the winner’s platform and the total rejection of the opponents’ positions. This is because votes between two or more options is a comparative, instead of an absolute, decision. For one thing, a vote for Candidate A is consistent with the judgment that Candidate B is perfectly acceptable. A vote that policy A is preferable to policy B is consistent with the idea that B is an effective policy, too. Consequently, even a landslide victory for Candidate A is consistent with voters judging that Candidate B was only marginally less preferable. Note also that citizens base their voting on a range of variables, many of which have little to do with candidates’ professed platforms. Thus, a candidate’s failure at the polls doesn’t amount to a repudiation of the policies the candidate endorsed. In sports, it’s clear that winning is a matter of scoring more runs than the other team (for example); but in democracy, the meaning of electoral victory is ambiguous. The political winner gets more votes, but democratic citizens vote on the basis of a wide range of considerations, so it’s not clear what the votes – individually or in the aggregate – mean.

A further disanalogy is that in a democracy, electoral losers are not thereby relegated to the political sidelines. Consider the alienation reported by Republicans in 2013 (and in 2009) at the regular message from the Obama White House that since he’d won the election, Republicans should just deal with it and turn their attention to the next election. The reality was that the Republican party, too, was still a partner in governance, and many who had participated in those losing election bids still occupied public office afterwards. Telling your political opponents that they should just hope for better luck next time after an election is not a way to govern with equals. In fact, one consistent lesson of the Obama White House was that even if there were moments where the activity of jointly governing was attempted, the sting of those all-or-nothing election communications did not go away with his potential partners.

In losing an election, one need not abandon one’s political commitments. Nor does electoral victory entitle the winners to disregard the other side’s perspectives. Again, election results don’t necessarily amount to the repudiation of the loser, but only the comparative and ambiguous endorsement of the winner. A more important reason why we must remember that those who lose are not dismissed from public life is that those who lose the election remain equal citizens. Elections thus are not relegation battles or elimination tournaments. They do not establish champions and hierarchies. Election to public office is not like winning a medal. Democratic winners assume the task of public service; their job is not simply to serve the interests of those who supported them in the election. Once in office, they serve all of the citizens. This means that those who voted against the winning candidate must retain their political voice after the election.

The sports metaphors for electoral politics have an additional problem: they focus our attention on the candidates’ chances of winning, leaving aside judgments about who ought to win. So, when politics is reported from the perspective of ‘horse race’ predictions, we do not talk about whether candidate A has a good policy or whether A will be effective at governance, but whether people will vote for A. In other words, the sports metaphors lead us to view the run up to a democratic election as if we were bookmakers handicapping a match. This diverts attention away from thinking about the issue that prompts the election in the first place. The sporting questions turn electoral politics into something considerably less like deliberation and more like prognosticating about results.

Democracy is many things. To be sure, large-scale elections are contests among candidates for the citizens’ vote. But it’s difficult to make sense of why competitive elections loom so large in our thinking about democracy unless we recognize that democracy is also the aspiration for a certain kind of society. Namely, democracy is the aspiration for a self-governing society of political equals. Elections are a central mechanism for working towards a society of that kind. As it turns out, the sports metaphors that are commonly deployed in thinking about democracy obscure the whole point of the enterprise.