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Money and violence, in football and politics

We’ve now entered the era of “free-agent politicians,” more interested in power and money than in actually governing.

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Photo by Chris Chow / Unsplash

It all appeared in the January 5 opinion section of the New York Times.

Several letter writers lamented the violence of our game of football that had nearly taken the life of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin several days earlier.

In that same section, Richard Pildes, a professor at New York University’s School of Law, described how money and modern social media had led to the unfortunate conflict over the selection of the Speaker of the House by the Republican caucus.

The Letters column had three letters from readers in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. One writer asked “why do we tolerate football?” and compared the violence of this game to the ancient Roman gladiatorial contests which often resulted in death. Another writer conceded that too much money was involved for the sport to ever be banned, but wanted the season to be shortened, Amazon to drop Thursday night football sponsorship, and sports gambling to be made illegal again.

The third letter recalled that the game was halted “without resumption or rescheduling” and praised this “type of truce over the devastating injury to one player” before asking: “Wouldn’t that be remarkably good in another kind of battlefield?”

In his article on “Why the Fringiest Fringe of the GOP Now has so Much Power” Professor Pildes used a sports term to describe the mess in Congress, referring to “free-agent politicians” in the GOP battle for House Speaker.

Pildes’ article was about money. He sees our political system being destroyed by modern social media which allows politicians to raise money on line and thus not have to rely on good committee assignments (selected by the House Speaker or by seniority) to get noticed. He pointed out, for example, that Marjorie Taylor Greene raised $3 million dollars in small donations in 2021 after being stripped of her committee assignments.

He also noted that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes “had nine million followers on social media platforms” when she was elected, four times more than Nancy Pelosi. This gave her power and attention. Pildes also pointed out that people can win office without intending to govern, but simply enter Congress “for the attention and opportunities it provides.” Matt Gaetz, who has said he “wants to be the A.O.C. of the right,” belongs in this category.

The violence on the football field is in the open. Players hit and hurt each other “in front of God and everybody,” a phrase commonly used in my youth.

In our politics, the fight is less physical but no less hurtful, this time not to individuals as much as to the future of democracy. According to Pildes, our “revolutions in communications and technology have ... flattened institutional authority, including ... the political parties and their leaders.” This makes it easier for individuals to “mobilize and sustain opposition to government action and help fuel intense factional conflicts within parties.”

I feel sure that Kevin McCarthy would agree with that statement.

But what about the rest of us? Judging by the widespread displeasure expressed at the recent show of anger and arrogance by a small minority of Republicans in the House chamber, it would appear that many of us deplore what this group, called “narcissists” by one anonymous colleague in a post, was trying to do.

If the House of Representatives cannot select a Speaker, it cannot do anything else. It cannot pass laws; it cannot govern.

Do you suppose this inability to govern might attract the attention of would-be authoritarians who would like to see our county ruled by the Right and the Righteous, those people who don’t need votes or voters to tell the difference between truth and falsehood?

If we continue to send people like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene to Congress, we may soon see the violence we deplore in our “brutal game” of football enter the halls of Congress.

Whatever their party, voters need to elect candidates who support democracy, and oppose authoritarians and persons who practice political (and physical) violence.

Otherwise, instead of being an event in the past, January 6 will turn out to have been a foreshadowing of things to come.

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