“This game is not a game for sooks and panty waists. It involved hard and fast rucking, a few nut sack grabs, hard tackles and more than a bit of eye gouging. To pretend otherwise is just plain dishonest… Fijians play like they are enjoying, with smiles from ear to ear as they run and grind your face into the ground. So, yes I play politics hard, I play politics like Fiji plays rugby.”
After an election campaign lacking in policy substance, I looked forward to the Key vs Cunliffe leaders debates. During last night’s 3 News debate though, I was reminded of my thoughts of a few weeks ago of a political class “engaged in the theatre of politics as sport.” Paul Henry’s post-debate analysis consisted entirely of play by play and performance highlights. I’ve spent three debates not learning anything new and simply analysing performance, nor am I alone. I observed on social media many politically-engaged people live Tweeting the debates in the form of dispensing commentary, similarly enthralled with the gimmickry of modern politics rather than public discourse.
The mainstream media approach of politics as sport to reporting is central to modern political discourse. Reporting of politics is defined not by competing philosophies but performance: game strategy, delivery, and style, hence debate analysis with titles like ‘Probably a Points Victory to Cunliffe’ or ‘John ‘Bantam’ Key Takes Debate’. Political correspondents define policies, debates, and events by ‘winners and losers’. Rotating post-debate panels of pundits on the Nation and Q&A offer theatre: political scientists offering play by play analysis of facial expressions and how ‘Middle New Zealand’ might respond to a red scarf, and journalists, pundits, and lobbyists with obvious political biases shout talking points at each other. A telling moment during last night’s debate was when Paul Henry panel reduced Cunliffe’s passionate appeal on poverty from the importance of poverty to a cynical game tactic. This format isn’t politics but an ESPN Sport Centre-style show featuring aspects of politics.
Politics as a sport serves the enthusiasm of the fans of politics. Fans are often those highly engaged in policy debates and have thoughtful ideological and philosophical thoughts, though often are simply tribal supporters of parties. Social media has seen the rise of many exceptionally thoughtful fans of politics as bloggers, Twitter users, writers, and journalists. Many of us love the game and that’s the problem. Those of us formerly opposed to mainstream media reporting of politics have surrendered to it, perhaps accepting the idea that this is the future. We who live tweet the Nation and Q&A comment on the performance of politicians now find solace both in channeling ideology and policy into ‘rooting for our team’ and becoming the pundits of our social media sphere.
Politics as sport has enabled the broader political establishment and political culture to justify unethical behaviour as “part of the game.” Politicians, staffers, and politically affiliated bloggers, journalists, and lobbyists might view themselves as heroes fighting to win the game. Politics being judged by battling current affairs pundit panels and scripted televised debates camouflages for the politically involved how politics works, most obvious in Cameron Slater’s quote likening himself to Fijian rugby. Dirty Politics revealed the collaboration between party advisors, and sympathetic journalists, bloggers, and economic interests and lobbyists to drive a stealth narrative under veneer of independence – a truer reflection of politics. If modern politics is indeed a sport, surely Dirty Politics is akin to a Lance Armstrong doping operation: a conspiracy of silence based on unethical actions and dirty plays. The public generally opposes dirty behaviour in sport, but opinion polling after Dirty Politics reveals the public is more likely to judge Hager and Key based on their political leanings. In other words, the public knows the difference between sport and politics, with the latter seen as unethical and damaged.
The ruthlessness and triviality of politics as sport from media, politics fans, and politically involved disengages the public from politics – surely a collective failure. This may be a significant factor for gradually declining voter turnout since the 1980s. While efforts like the Rock Enroll certainly help, they fall short of the full solution. Certainly, better political engagement and voter turnout help, but it must be equally balanced through addressing the root causes in media and political establishment for an often unpalatable discourse.
Some in the media would defend politics as sports as a perfect appeal to the masses through an analogy they understand. In that case, there are numerous television dramas which address politics in an appealing and understandable way. HBO’s The Wire is a perfect example of the infiniteness of what politics is: something on all levels. The cycle of poverty and crime, the plight of industrial workers, and teachers in underachieving schools teaching to the test and watching poor children repeat the cycle. Above them are the under-resourced, overworked police with often questionable practices made worse by politicised targets for crime reduction – eerily similar to falsification of Counties Manukau crime stats. At the top are slick politicians winning office through often contradictory alliances and false promises; Cunliffe and Key are likely little different. If we can understand the Wire, we can understand real politics.
To see politics as a whole, one must see the limits of what analysis, spin, and performance by political correspondents, politicians, pundits, bloggers, and politics fans provides. Public discourse on the issues that matter must extend to the wider public, and this demands politicians, the public, and economic and social interests engage on competing solutions based on coherent philosophies.