Michael Gerson: The danger of viewing politics as a team sport


There not being nearly enough discussion of chariot racing in American politics, it is worth recalling the story of the Greens and the Blues. These were the two main racing teams of the Byzantine Empire, and they generated considerable sporting enthusiasm. A clash of their fans in the riots of the year 501 took perhaps 3,000 lives. According to the judgment of many historians, these teams did not originally have political definitions. Blues, it seems, hated Greens mainly because they persisted in being Greens, and vice versa. But over time, the teams became identified with politicians and religious movements.

When it appeared that both powerful teams were uniting to overthrow Emperor Justinian, he blocked the exits at the Hippodrome and had his troops slaughter perhaps 30,000 fans. “Within a few minutes,” writes historian John Julius Norwich, “the angry shouts of the great amphitheater had given place to the cries and groans of wounded and dying men; soon these too grew quiet, until silence spread over the entire arena, its sand now sodden with the blood of the victims.”

This is hardly a constructive model for dealing with excessive factionalism. But the example points to the danger of viewing politics as a team sport. Citizens can engage in civil discourse and productive compromise. Rabid fans can only be appeased by victory.

The most common form of criticism I receive from conservatives when I point out the tension between Trumpism and actual conservatism is that I am helping the other side in a win-or-lose contest. This approach to politics is cultivated by President Trump, who emphasizes solidarity with his political and cultural team to draw attention away from his own incompetence, ignorance and ideological heterodoxy. Much of his public rhetoric is in the form of trash talk, which many Americans seem to prefer to the…

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