Lewis: A Team of Rivals

I’m a Colorado Avalanche fan. I especially enjoy going to live games as, to me, hockey is a great sport to watch live.

For those of you who are also Avs fans you will understand one thing — we hate the Detroit Red Wings. Rivalries exist across most sports between particular sets of teams. Why? I don’t really know — that’s just the way it is. While these games don’t matter more in terms of a win/loss record, they do matter more to the fans.

What I just described, the degree of animosity or hatred for a rival team is called affective polarization. Simply put, affective polarization is a measure of the “gap” between how much you like your team and how much you dislike the opposing team.

Rivalries are generally considered a good thing. Teams and their fans are more engaged, and the players are likely to put in more effort to defeat their rivals. Rivalries, however, can go too far when fans become verbally abusive or even physically violent toward their opposition.

Affective polarization is a part of politics just as much as sports and, for most of our country’s existence, has been regarded as a good healthy thing.

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Starting in the early 2000s, the affective polarization between Republicans and Democrats began to increase rapidly.  Simply put, we began to dislike the “opposing team” more. Our degree of polarization has also increased with liberals getting more liberal and conservatives becoming much more conservative.

Even if we are more polarized, is the rivalry still healthy? I would have to say no. If I went to an Avs game, they lost, and the crowd built a gallows and began hunting for the referees to hang them — that would be too far. Sadly though, that appears to be the state of our political rivalry.

Interestingly, this increase in political polarization has happened relatively recently. Is there a root cause? The first thing of note is that this increased divide occurred coincidentally with the rise of social media and cable news. Many believe that social media is at least responsible for “fanning the flames.

No matter the exact cause, the more important question is, how do we return to a state of “healthy rivalry” when it comes to politics? Unfortunately, I don’t think we can expect much help from the news networks or social media companies. This division fuels the news ratings and causes us to spend more time on social media so these companies are unlikely to want to make major changes. Therefore, it is up to us.

We can do a few things to help improve the situation. First, take the time to learn about both sides of an issue. Don’t just seek out sources that align with your position. It may not change your opinion, but it might serve to moderate your stance. Good coaches spend hours studying opposing teams’ play and will always respect what other teams do well.

Second, engage in healthy debate. Debate is a great thing until it becomes personal. It saddens me that 90% of our discourse seems to have devolved into personal attacks and derogatory one-line tweets which are of zero value.

Third, respect the facts and the experts. It is impossible to have any productive debate if we are arguing fact versus fiction. Some “experts” will disagree on almost every topic but if 99% of experts have a particular belief then that should carry weight in forming your opinion.

Finally, and most importantly, recognize that reasonable compromise in politics is usually the best “win.” Unlike in sports where the primary objective is simply winning, for our nation, the best possible “win” does not usually come from win/lose situations. In the end, we all must recognize that the most important team is Team USA.

Another time that America was highly polarized was just after the Civil War. President Lincoln had the unenviable job to reunite the country and he accomplished it, as biographer Doris Kerns Goodwin put it, by building a “Team of Rivals” by staffing his cabinet with a diverse set of individuals from both parties. In essence, this is what our Republic is meant to be. The words “Team of Rivals” can feel like a bit of a contradiction in terms, but it is also key to our continued success. 

Mark Lewis, a Colorado native, had a long career in technology, including serving as the CEO of several tech companies. He retired from technology last year and is now writing thriller novels. Mark and his wife, Lisa, and their two Australian Shepherds — Kismet and Cowboy, reside in Edwards.

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