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The Cult of Political Belonging Comes to Washington (Sports)

Last week’s fresh outrage – at least the Monday segment – swirled around a ceremony honoring the World Series-winning Washington Nationals at the White House. Despite widespread calls for a boycott, nearly the entire team arrived for the ceremony. Two players in particular – Kurt Suzuki, World Series darling, and Ryan Zimmerman, the National’s first-ever draft pick – stood out for publicly supporting the president. 

The blowback was swift and entirely predictable. Wailing and gnashing of teeth commenced, the players were criticized for supporting a President even after the blue checkmark brigade was entirely clear that they shouldn’t, and hometown heroes become personas non grata in the blink of an eye. 

In saner times, an athlete’s politics wouldn’t detract from the first national championship in DC baseball in nearly 100 years. But we don’t live in saner times, and few places today rival our nation’s capital in terms of sanity deprivation. 

It makes you wonder why this keeps happening. Surely no one’s mind is changed; neither Suzuki nor Zimmerman are likely to revisit their support for a president who is already widely decried day in and day out (and certainly not in the afterglow of a World Series victory). Surely, too, no one is made happier for the experience. 

My hunch is that the problem comes back to the role of politics in personal identity. While the frequency with which people identify first and foremost as a particular political affiliation hasn’t markedly increased in recent years, what has, according to a Morning Consult/The New York Times survey, is how many people’s individual identities are wrapped up with their politics.

When politics becomes bound up with identity, what were once mere disagreements take on heightened significance. Worse yet, this reality is more atomizing than anything. We talk often of “tribalism” in our present politics. While, surely, in-group cohesion and out-group shaming are on the rise, calling these groups “tribes” hides the reality that a twitter outrage mob or MAGA rally is a fleeting moment of connection, not a real affinity between people. And, unfortunately, cancel culture gives this problem even more oxygen to burn. As I’ve written about here before, cancel culture provides a secular rite of excommunication among its adherents, providing a new avenue to deny someone belonging. 

Political identity is far from fixed – just look at the changing positions of both parties in the last decade or two. Nor is it as meaningful as many more traditional ordering structures. I won’t pretend to draw causality here, but anecdotally, this pseudo-religious reliance on political identity comes at a time when traditional structures that have provided belonging in American life – community, religion, family – are in free fall.

But politics will not – and can not – provide the kind of belonging that many demand of it.. Ever-shifting political bonds fail to provide the assurance of family ties, or the commonality of community bonds. And while politics may bring together people of like minds, it fosters deeper and deeper resentment for those on the other side,

How we strive to build more meaningful and lasting bonds – particularly in a secularizing country, shaped too often by the forces of social media – will likely be the most pressing challenge of our time. Regardless of how society wrestles with this crisis, relying on politics to serve as a communal stand-in is unlikely to provide the relief needed.

Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C. and a former Republican congressional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives 

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