Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Harry Targ

Narratives about American politics often use football metaphors. Conflicts over political issues are understood in terms of wins and losses, long passes, brilliant catches, quarterback sacks, and the performance of a handful of superstars. As I write this, I recall how much I hate sports metaphors and more generally the narcotizing effects of sports on American life. But before I close the book on our sports addiction, I think of an aspect of the football metaphor that helps clarify the struggles over issues of war and peace and shutting down government or saving its dwindling public functions.

I watched one-half of two football games last Sunday. Most of the games were tedious with two teams of players slogging back and forth along the 100 yard field. Fans cheered as their team moved the ball forward or stopped the opposing team from advancing the football. They were silenced when the opposing team made gains. On reflection, the flow of a team’s movement  of the ball toward the goal line to score a touchdown or to be forced back and be scored upon by the other team, sounds a lot like politics (To be sure, politics is not a game).

Take the case of United States foreign policy in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. The Bush administration launched two wars in the 21st century with disastrous consequences. The Obama Administration orchestrated a war on Libya and continues “no boots on the ground” drone strikes against targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. Peace forces have been forced back toward their own goal line multiple times since the dawn of the new century. 

But the “home team” has been marshaling its strength. Team America is tired of war. President Obama launched a campaign last summer to get support for air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria. As Sheldon Richman pointed out on September 13, 2013 (, “The people happened. Public-opinion polls showed at once that most of us do not want Obama to commit an act of war against Syria. Furthermore, the people inundated Congress with calls and emails.” 

More importantly, peace activists marched against war in cities and towns around the country. In Lafayette, Indiana, a peace march against air strikes in Syria was even praised by the district’s Tea Party Congressman. Of course, opposition at home was paralleled by emerging global powers, particularly China and Russia. Metaphorically, the Peace Team moved the ball across the field into the War Team’s territory.

Also, domestically, Americans have expressed their outrage at the shutdown of government in October and threats of financial default to follow. After weeks of debate, a Congressional compromise was reached reopening government and preventing a government default. The settlements of October 17, 2013 only moved the crises about government funding to be fought another day. But workers returned to provide vital services to the American people and the danger of the United States government refusing to honor its debts was put on hold.  

Media narratives portrayed the conflicts over the shutdown and potential default as resulting from struggles between President Obama; Harry Reid, Majority Leader in the Senate; John Boehner, Speaker of the House; and renegade politicians such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who with substantial Tea Party support, preferred bringing government to a halt. Referring back to the football narrative, two weeks of media coverage portrayed Obama Team Compromise versus Tea Party Team Government Shutdown as engaged in back and forth movement across the fifty yard line. Ultimately the temporary compromise was reached but the game continues.  

Each day’s coverage of the inside the beltway game included reference to polling data. Particular attention was given to presumptions about rightwing Tea Party supporters in conservative Congressional districts. The Tea Party was framed as the “popular” force--at least in the strongly Republican Congressional Districts-- that would determine the outcome of the current struggle while pointing out that polls reflected overall disapproval of Republican obstructionism in the House of Representatives.

A CNN poll released October 21, gives a more probing assessment of public disapproval of the gridiron conflict in Washington.  Respondents evidenced declining confidence in the President’s ability to “deal with the major issues facing the country today” from a high of 50 percent in December, 2011 to 44 percent in October, 2013. Confidence in Congressional Republicans, while low, was the same at both data points, at 31 percent. Now only 12 percent of those polled approve of the “way Congress is handling its job.” Fifty percent of respondents in January, 2011 thought it was “good for the country” to have Republicans in control of the House, only 38 percent hold that view today.

In addition to polling data that clearly shows growing cynicism about government and particular outrage at Republican obstructionists and the Tea Party faction, protests against the government shutdown and possible default occurred all across the country. Protestors included furloughed federal workers, veterans, federal regulators, and citizens outraged that the normal functions of government were not being performed because of rightwing obstructionism. Referring to the Republican’s effort to use the blockage of the federal budget as a tool to demand the reversal of the new Affordable Care Act, which passed in 2010, Reverend Jesse Jackson called for national protests against the government shutdown:

We march to protest the moral outrage of shutting down the Federal Government because it denies over 800,000 federal workers their jobs and 312 million American citizens needed services. (Rainbow PUSH Coalition, October 7, 2013).

The temporary compromises reached on October 17, 2013 moved the ball across the fifty yard line toward restoring government even though the agreements are temporary.

The football metaphor suggests that the contest entails a lengthy struggle over virtually every issue of war and peace and limited versus positive government. Victories are temporary and the forces for peace and positive government need to keep their offenses mobilized and their defenses strong. But, contrary to the football metaphor, as the Syrian and government debt issues suggest, short-term victories were not achieved by a few “star” players but by the expressions and actions of hundreds of thousands of  supporters of peace and economic justice.