116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
How did things ever get so far? I don’t know. It was so unfortunate; so unnecessary.
— Don Corleone, The Godfather
Bear down, Chicago Bears, and let them know why you're wearing the crown.
You're the pride and joy of Illinois, Chicago Bears, bear down!
— Chicago Bears Fight Song
I was working in the garden on a sunny Sunday morning wearing my new long-sleeved T-shirt from the Toppling Goliath brewery in Decorah, Iowa. It was dark green and decorated with a green and gold “summer camp” theme with the phrase “Hoppy Camper” on the back. I enjoy TG beer and I loved camp as a kid, so this garment seemed perfect for me. As I yanked weeds and dodged cranky late-season wasps I savored the simple pleasure of wearing something new that I perceived to be cool.
Our friends Billy and Sue pulled up with their ancient English Springer Spaniel Walter Payton, dapper in his blue-and-orange Chicago Bears collar and smiling out the back window. I went over to greet and pet when Billy’s eyes goggled and he bellowed, “Whoa! Is that a Packers shirt?” The TG shirt has occupied a place of shame at the bottom of my stack ever since.
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and one of my enduring memories is the exact way my dad’s clean white T-shirt smelled — a beguiling blend of Tide detergent, clean sawdust, and a trace of salty sweat — when we sat on the couch on Sunday afternoons watching the Chicago Bears lose. When I was young, they weren’t a winning team; the crazy alchemy of the 1985-86 Bears and the “Shufflin’ Crew” came later. The Bears were our North Star of athletic disappointment, moving predictably through the firmament of the season and providing a surefire conversational opener and safe topic about which to commiserate with other unhappy fans.
And despite all this I am certain I speak for my entire clan when I say that we would not have donned a Packers jacket or a Vikings jersey to cover our nakedness before the entire neighborhood in the wake of a late-night house fire. Even in the years when the Bears outright stank, the idea that we could have been persuaded to support a different team — and by “different” I mean “winning” — is beyond bizarre. Bears fandom is a family trait as personal and immutable as our long bones and narrow dark eyes. It is a tie that binds us not just to each other but to every other soul sporting the snarling ursine insignia of the Bears Nation.
“My team, win or lose” is a rallying cry for me and for many. It fuels excitement on game days, gives pride to hometowns, confers instant membership in a passionate club of like-minded enthusiasts, and allows us to experience a hard-fought contest from the comfort of our couch or stadium seat, refreshments in hand. Fanatical support of a sports team gives pleasure to millions and harms no one.
“My political party, right or wrong” is a different story altogether. Wait — don’t go. I promise this isn’t a partisan harangue of any variety, though I have a preferred party and I would guess that you do, too. But it seems that more and more of us are treating our politics and politicians like sports teams: emblematic of personal identity, requiring unquestioning allegiance, and normalizing antagonism (and sometimes outright hatred) of the other “team” and its supporters. I don’t think it’s complete hyperbole to say that this school of thought is a threat to the country we love and the Constitution we vowed as newly minted attorneys to support and defend.
Here’s what I think I see, and why I think it matters.
The flags were the first clue
Wave that flag, wave it wide and high. — Robert Hunter, “U.S. Blues”
I started seeing the flags a few years ago, flying from farmhouse porches and front yard flagpoles, and they weren’t U.S. or Iowa flags. They weren’t for any of the sports teams that inspire rivalry, passion, and flag-waving in my part of the world: Iowa Hawkeyes and Iowa State, Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. These banners expressed support for — and sometimes profane antagonism to — individual presidential candidates.
Weird, I thought. When did we start pledging allegiance to politicians?
We don’t talk anymore
It’s so funny how we don’t talk anymore — Alan Tarney, “We Don’t Talk Anymore”
Much has changed since I first saw those banners fluttering in the Iowa breeze. Political dialogue, in the sense of a two-way give-and-take of ideas, has been largely supplanted by political diatribe — a one-way, browbeating rant. The idea that a supporter of Party A might admit any of its faults or weaknesses, or even listen to a follower of Party B make that suggestion, is as weird and unthinkable as the image of a Bears fan conceding to a Packer Backer that Chicago’s offensive line is weak this year. The Balkanization of viewpoints is furthered by cable news channels serving up a steady diet of news palatable to followers of one party or the other, ensuring that no one’s tummy is ever upset by a dissenting viewpoint or incongruent fact.
One of the founding principles of this country is that its people should (with limited exceptions) be free to speak their minds, so that the truth and courses of action that best serve the common good will be revealed in the “marketplace of ideas.” In the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:
“But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.”
But what good is freedom of speech when no one will listen? It’s as if the marketplace of ideas has shut down, driven out of business by our own rigid and unshakable viewpoints.
Politics is not a zero sum game
Down here it's just winners and losers and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line — Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City”
Football is a zero-sum game; a win for one team means a loss for its opponent. Fans of the winning team celebrate and recount glorious moments, supporters of the losing side grouse about bad calls and wallow in grumpiness. The W/L records are adjusted and everyone looks ahead to next week’s game.
Although elections are zero-sum games, politics is not — or is not supposed to be, anyway. The candidate who prevails is bound to serve all their constituents, not just the ones who cheered them to victory and sported their colors on game day. A win for my party should not result in ruin for yours. This is and must be the rule, if we are to remain “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Our form of government only works if we hold our political representatives accountable, regardless of party affiliation. We cannot offer them the unquestioning fealty that we accord our favorite teams. Their actions and choices have real and far-reaching consequences not just for every American now living, but for generations to come.
If we insist on regarding politics as a game, we need to remember that it is one that everyone can lose if we give our politicians a partisan pass and fail to blow the whistle when they step out of line. In the words of FDR: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely.” We owe it to our country and to each other to exercise informed and sensible judgment whether a candidate wears the red jersey with the elephant or a blue one with a donkey.
In a democracy, every day is “game day” and we are much more than spectators in the stands.
Karen Erger is vice president and director of practice risk management at lockton companies. Her column is reprinted with permission of the Illinois Bar Journal, Vol. 110 #10, Oct. 2022. Copyright by the Illinois State Bar Association. isba.org