The stadium is packed amid the early November chill for the Super Bowl of the New National Football League. Despite initial criticism, the new format seems to have revitalized the game and brought a new generation of fans clamoring for one of the precious seats.
The players in their throwback uniforms, recalling the starred reds and blues of old pro-bowls, are welcomed by rapturous cheers from supporters of their respective Democratic and Republican National Conferences, whether life-long fans of the game or simply people who know what’s at stake.
The national anthem begins. On one side of the field, the Play Makers can be seen standing with solemn pride in American greatness and gratitude for all it has given them, while across from them the Equals kneel to protest those things not being given to everyone. This simple gesture was once controversial, but by the time the wearing of political identifiers, polemical Twitter accounts, and partisan branding gave way to the politicization of interpretative dance in end-zone celebrations, the need for a major change of attitude was widely accepted. Today, kneeling is as accepted as uniforms, just another means by which one side may recognize the other and get into the spirit of things.
In the Blue section of the stands, not a soul is on their feet. But in the Red section, almost everyone stands, apart from a few bearing the official badge indicating an inability to do so for reasons of age or infirmity. Few linger on the words of the once unifying song; attention is drawn instead to the jumbotrons facing each section as they display a succession of images from the crowd below, highlighting those individuals whose appearance best exemplifies the face of their enemy. One can see the fans in the neighboring seats drawing their attention to the split screens visible to both sides. The joy of togetherness vanishes into sharp gestures and silent shouts as each side acknowledges the gaze of those unlike themselves, who lack what makes them American.
At the conclusion, a member of each team steps forth to address the crowd on the issue in whose honor their team has played that season. The Orator for the Play Makers speaks on the merits of a balanced budget amendment, warning of the corrupt politicians playing loose with other people’s money, government overreach, and a totalitarianism born of nanny-statism, contrasted with states and ordinary American families that live within their means. The Blues shower him with scorn drowned out at the Red end of the field by chants of “Makers Not Takers! Makers Not Takers!”
The Equals had performed better in the previous season and accordingly been able to obtain one of the more popular picks in the issue draft. In their speech, the merits of Medicare-for-All, the outrages of greedy insurance companies, and the people killed by a loss of coverage, are expertly contrasted with foreign success stories in a concise but emotionally resonant way. The crowd is again divided. Reds shout in anger, while the Blues take up the chant of “Under the Law! Under the Law!” the Equals’ slogan from the previous season when they played against institutional racism.
The Yellow sections are exposed to the roar from both sides, and a number of those sitting there appear visibly uncomfortable. It is hard to say why, and commenters are too preoccupied with the impassioned debate on the game’s social media hashtag over which chant was better and the criteria by which that assessment can be made to speculate as the teams ready for kickoff and the start of the game.
The play is in many ways more physical than in the past. In an earlier era, each player knew their opponents to be men much like themselves on teams they could have ended up on just as easily. But today the sense of self-preservation is increasingly balanced by the knowledge that this divide is no longer arbitrary. And with this knowledge comes anger, anger at the enemies threatening the future of their families and communities.
Nor is a career-ending injury the fear it once was. The conferences and their supporters have grown increasingly generous in their contributions to those martyred to the cause. It has also been a boon to the many players choosing politics as a second career, and veterans wounded in half-forgotten wars must now compete for the admiration of primary voters against those wounded in televised struggles against the real enemy.
Unnecessary roughness and other penalties are still policed by referees, of course, but while a referee of either color can throw a flag, at least one official of the other color must agree for it be upheld. This practice is a source of anger, especially in games like this one in which the teams appear evenly matched, making any unfairness in the rules potentially decisive.
This anger builds steadily until well into the second quarter when the long-awaited moment arrives: A coach’s challenge. To settle the dispute between the Red and Blue officials, the review footage is broadcast and posted online for public consumption. The question is now in the hands of the fans. As the players take a timeout, the internet is flooded with content devoted to the controversy. Emotions become tweets, tweets become memes and polemics, and by the end, at least one conspiracy theory is gaining traction as the argument moves from merits to motives.
The best ideas are discussed seriously, but the focus invariably falls to the most controversial. The color commentary from the sportscasters, Red and Blue alike, laments the shrill tone of the opposition while applauding the solid blows landed by their supporters. Although a break from the past, many American fans appreciate the clarity of these designations that ended the tiresome debates over the biases of networks like ESPN by promising each fan the experience they deserve.
At the same time, the phones of the assembled fill with ads from the donations flooding into the team and the conference, or at least that share of them not split with friendly PACs. They are reminded not only of the approved truth but of the stakes, for by tradition the issue chosen by the winning team must be debated in Congress, and more importantly,its party is believed to get a boost at the next election.
Only attendees may vote on the challenge, a fact partially responsible for the full seats despite the exorbitant cost. They are often paid for by outside organizations in exchange for a cut of donations given during play. But the deciding votes inevitably come from the Yellow section, filled with the unaffiliated and unaligned. That composition brings uncertainty and accusations of unfairness from all sides, but the negative attention only serves to discourage those who might be tempted to abandon their party and primary rights for a cheaper ticket.
Half-time arrives, and each screen fills with ads for party-affiliated products endorsed by a mixture of current and former players and party politicians. In addition to their commercial value, the size of the endorsement contracts and their impact on sales are closely watched political indicators of power and influence within each party putting further pressure on supporters to use their candidate promo-codes.
This practice has deep roots in the boycotts and counter-boycotts of the preceding decade. While strange to the eyes of foreigners, the political quality labels were, in a sense, inevitable once even websites were unable to track the outrage. Many will compare the result to environmental labeling, but they are more like the symbols used to mark food products as vegan, as the political labels share the same potential to allow a single act of consumption to relegate someone to a different category of people.
And so the great brands divided, and if two brands shared the same ideology or an alternative could not be found, a new entrant would emerge to fill the gap, much as conservative news emerged to challenge the mainstream media. It has long been said that “the clothes make the man,” and that has never been truer than today.
The Yellows are interesting this respect, as a careful eye will detect a mix of branding, signaling the individual’s ideological tilt. If one looks very carefully they may even notice a few remaining members of the No Labels movement, which purchases only from the dwindling number of unlabeled products. The Reds point out that these are often imports, and therefore unpatriotic, while the Blues note the higher prices, dismissing the choice to patronize only a limited number of businesses as a mark of privilege.
That term once had another meaning, associated with one of the groups that emerged near the end of the last political era. The No Labelers, the Uniters, the FairVoters, the Braver Angels, the Bridge Alliances, never caught on with ordinary Americans.
They promised uncertainty and change to longstanding institutions to a people reluctant, as one commentator put it, “to take the only politics they knew and flush it down the bipartisan Johns of McCain, Delaney, Hickenlooper or Kasich.”
But former members of these anti-establishment groups found renewed acceptance in modern American Football, finally obtaining a politically constructive role in politics for which both parties would grant them the grudging recognition they had long craved within the system they had long resisted the efforts of the party leaderships to build.
Fewer of the Yellow seats empty during half-time, as neither set of concessions is entirely welcoming to outsiders. Yet the Yellows will not be the ones left behind after the game, for to avoid the clashes common among football ultras in other countries the fans of the winning side have the privilege of leaving first, followed by the Yellows and the defeated last of all. It is often compared to an American airline distinguishing between first and third class, and the losers will watch the winners leave with confidence as they stew in a bitterness that will fill campaign coffers during the long offseason even if the election two days later offers a different outcome.
It has become common in our own country to criticize these differences as being at odds with our way of life, but we should perhaps be more conscious of our own peculiarities. So many societies simply drift along unhappily with practices they have never liked, refusing to question the assumptions behind their institutions even as they fail.
Should we condemn these Americans for having the courage to ask themselves what they truly wanted from their politicians and their society and reforming it ensure that they got it? They have lost many worn-out traditions in doing so, it is true, but they have regained the greatest privilege of their political ancestors—to live within a system whose rules they had chosen—and see in it the proof that they were free.
Joel Horowitz lives in a state that’s bluer than California but is expected to re-elect a Republican governor for the first time since the 1860s because he talks like this. You can find Joel on Twitter at @PurpleArchivist”