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Fanatics turning democracy into spectator sport

In sports and in politics, there is a partisanship that involves rooting for my side, and there is a partisanship that involves insisting that my side can do no wrong, that all the bad guys are on the other side.

In politics nowadays, all across the spectrum, we see fewer and fewer partisans of the first type, more and more of the second. The growing disparity threatens to transform democracy into just another spectator sport. And, as in other sports, potential followers might be driven away by the behavior of boorish fans.

To understand the problem, it is useful to consider two very different meanings of the word "fan." The Webster's Unabridged Dictionary above my writing desk states with quiet confidence that "fan" represents a shortening of "fanatic," and I suspect that most of those who think about the derivation assume the same thing.

But the issue is not quite so clear. The authoritative Dictionary of American Slang classifies the origin of the word as "uncertain," adding that the term might indeed stem from "fanatic" but might also come from "the fancy," meaning "sports followers or fanciers." The Online Etymology Dictionary mentions, but does not provide, a use from 1682. Evidently the term "fancy" for followers of a sport dates at least from 1735 — a contraction, it seems, of "fantasy."

Perhaps both accounts are useful. There is a kind of fan who is indeed a fanatic, for whom every call against his team represents an occasion to doubt the competence or impartiality of the officials. Then there is the kind of fan who is a fancier, who may root for a team but whose real passion is for the sport itself.

The fanatic is the one who screams at the referee that the receiver was pushed out of bounds by the defender, and so the catch should count. The fancier is the one who calmly points out that the rule was changed a few years ago, so if the receiver is forced out, there is no catch.

The continuing political debate between those who demand an evenhanded approach and those who think you should reserve your attacks for your enemies tracks precisely this distinction between fanatics and fanciers. We probably should not be surprised. We are psychologically comfortable, the evolutionary theory runs, only when we know who is on our side and who isn't, and can draw clean dividing lines between the two. So strong is this habit, researchers say, that we tend to discount suffering among members of the "out" group while highlighting it among members of the "in" group.

Instinct, then, makes us fanatics rather than fanciers. Fair enough. But the force of civilization is supposed to be away from instinct in the direction of reason. There was a time in living memory when both parties included respected senior members whose esteem for institutions and processes led them to become voices of moderation.

I remember an occasion during the Reagan administration when a relatively minor breach of Senate tradition (not even a written rule) would have allowed the Democrats to defeat the nomination of Daniel Manion, whom they bitterly opposed, for a federal appellate judgeship. A junior Democratic member tried to go against the tradition but was immediately restrained by his more senior colleagues, for whom the prerogatives of the institution were more important than prevailing in the battle. It is difficult to imagine such a thing happening today.

The philosopher Daniel N. Robinson, in his 2002 book Praise and Blame, points out that praise and blame are "records" but also "instruments" — they both make moral statements and shape the moral world. In sports, we often take partisan sides on an empirical issue: Either the player was out of bounds or he wasn't. When we do so, we are using our words as an instrument, trying to shape the game so that our side is more likely to win.

But let us at least be clear about our motive. We are not interested in the rules. We are not even interested in the game, except as a tool for victory. In democratic politics, we need our share of strong advocates, for whom winning is, in Vince Lombardi's hoary exhortation, the only thing.

But we need our referees even more. We require a critical mass of people — in particular, people of influence — for whom the rules are all but sacrosanct, and the game is more important than the outcome. We need people, in short, whose passion for the process itself is greater than their passion for the outcome. When that group vanishes, real democracy goes with it.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of "The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama," and his next novel, "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln," will be published in July.

© 2012 Bloomberg

Fanatics turning democracy into spectator sport 03/19/12 [Last modified: Monday, March 19, 2012 6:38pm]
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