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. Read more »

A Cynic’s take on the games

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse


Diogenes met Kikermos, the Olympic pankration champion, on the road. Kikermos was followed by a cheering crowd.  Diogenes asked Kikermos why these people were so enamored with him.

“I beat everyone at the pankration,” Kikermos replied.

“Oh! So you beat everyone at the pankration, even Zeus?” Diogenes asked.

“No! I beat all those who entered the pankration”

“Hm.  So you beat the little boys who entered the junior division?”

“No!  I bet all the men who entered the pankration, in the men’s division.”

“Oh, so you beat them all in one giant brawl?

“No! I beat all the men in one-on-one contests.”

“Oh, so since you beat all the men, that’s how you beat yourself?”

“No! I only beat all the others.”

“Oh, so were they stronger than you?”

“No! I was stronger than them!”

“Hm. So why is it such a great feat for you to defeat all these others that are weaker than you?”


Diogenes watched the Olympic races, hoping to see examples of excellence.  Upon seeing a heat of runners finish, he crept up to the winner’s stand and stole all the prizes for first place. He hustled to the woods nearby and deposited them there.

He returned and announced what he had done, because he had determined that though there are runners at the games that are faster than others, none are faster than the deer that live in the wilds.  So none here should be allowed to claim the prize for ‘the fastest.’ Read more »