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Barry Bonds, Politics, and Tribalism

February 29, 2012

In between coaching debate and reading ridiculous numbers of books, I’m a pretty big sports fan. My first love when it comes to sports is and will always be the San Francisco Giants. The Giants were the best team in the Bay Area between 1997 and 2003 or so, which were really my formative years when it came to sports. Those were also the years when Barry Bonds was at his peak. A lot of people hate Barry Bonds – I don’t. I can’t. And Grant Brisbee, the best Giants blogger out there, has the best explanation of why.

The default position of McCovey Chronicles is that you wouldn’t understand. You weren’t there when Bonds was doing amazing things….when I think of Barry Bonds, I’m going to think about baseball. Good baseball — the best I’ve ever seen. I’ll think of the fear he put in pitchers and managers…And if you can’t think of all that when you read Bonds’s name? Well, I understand. Bonds almost certainly took advantage of chemicals that other players in baseball weren’t willing to….Just put yourself in our shoes when you get a second. Or in the shoes of Cardinals fans or Cubs fans. When 40,000 people get out of their chairs in Milwaukee next April and give Ryan Braun a standing ovation, don’t just assume that they’re all bleating goats who will chew on whatever tin cans they’re fed. This stuff’s complicated. Being a passionate fan of anything messes with your brain chemistry. That’s what made my brain spam me with feel-good chemicals after Bonds got off with a slap of the wrist. When I think of Bonds, I think about some of the fondest memories baseball has ever given me. Around these parts, that will give him a pass for an awful lot over the rest of his life, even if you can’t understand that.

There is nothing you can say about Barry Bonds that will make me hate him. I have far too many positive memories associated with the man – watching him come up in the ninth, with the Giants down two, and just knowing, KNOWING, that the Giants were about to win the game. His performance in the year he hit 73 was the most dominant performance by any baseball player that I can remember. As a Giants fan that year…with him in the lineup, it felt like nothing was really out of reach.

And you know what – I feel the same way about Ron Paul.

There’s nothing you could say about Ron Paul that would make me hate the man. You could accuse him of racism, bigotry, whatever, and I wouldn’t care. The way that Barry Bonds is associated with positive feelings about sports in my brain, that’s the way that Ron Paul is associated with positive political feelings. Bonds represents my favorite team, and Paul my favorite political philosophy. He is a leader of my tribe. You wouldn’t understand.

I have a feeling that there are a lot of Democrats who feel the same way about Barack Obama.

And a lot of Republicans who feel the same way about George Bush.

You could tell Democrats that Obama has been a worse president on civil liberties than Bush, that he’s expanded the surveillance state, made indefinite detention into a bipartisan consensus, and authorized a step no president would have dared before – assassinating an American Citizen without due process.  I’ve tried.  It doesn’t change a thing.  Despite the fact that my progressive friends were furious at Bush over his civil liberties abuses, when confronted with Obama’s record, they shrug, deflect the point, or engage in some other form of handwaving.

Barack Obama is the leader of their tribe. I wouldn’t understand.

You could tell Republicans that Bush was the worst president when it came to fiscal discipline that you can imagine, that his policies doubled the size of the department of education, started pointless and terribly executed wars, and was just a complete disaster for conservatism. Who cares. They are about to nominate Rick Santorum, who was probably the biggest team player of the Bush Years, and went along with every policy that conservatives are now trying to repudiate.

Bush was the leader of their tribe. I wouldn’t understand.

Politics isn’t about policy. Irrationality is rational. And sticking with your tribe is everything. Persuasion is possible on the margins – with people who haven’t given politics a ton of thought, or who have felt uncomfortable most of their lives. But once you’ve picked your tribe, you’ve picked your tribe. I doubt there are many people who voted for Clinton, Kerry, and Obama who will ever consider voting for a Republican or Libertarian-ish presidential candidate. To vote against a Democrat would be to vote against yourself, to vote against your own identity.

Technological solutions to politics – solutions that create a possibility for exit – are important for a lot of reasons. But most important of all might be that they let people change their political preferences without abandoning their tribe. When the Chinese moved to the special economic zones, they didn’t have to give up their membership cards in the Communist Party. If life is better in New Tegucigalpa, liberals might just go there…and they can go there without giving up their membership cards in Team Liberal.

It’s a hell of a lot easier to change the world when you can let your opponents save face.

  1. John permalink
    April 17, 2012 1:53 am

    Excellent Observation of the Human least in this country. You have so Eloquently stated in Laymans’ terms what I have felt for many years…I love your Barry Bonds analogy!…I’ve never seen him in real life but have always admired him. I was checking up on him when I found your amazing Blog…I’ve never been a Blog person but yours was worth responding to for One reason: Our world will never move Forward efficiently until we have a lot more centrist thinkers like You. I really appreciate your clear headed thinking…you remind me of my state’s most famous Statesman, The Great Compromiser–Henry clay who knew better than anyone how to get The Tribes to meet in the Middle.
    ….By the way…I think that Barry was only following a Strong example from the Big Redhead when he went that route…I don’t Judge him on that because MLB let all that happen for years…but I am sad that Barry was not wily enough to protect himself when testifying…He will always be a major Baseball hero to me and those analogies make it very easy to follow your ‘train of thought’…Keep up the Great Work..Our country needs a whole lot more like you and I believe that Deep Down there are a Lot of us out there just keeping Quiet….Thanks!,,John

  2. March 2, 2012 4:13 am

    I’m convinced.

    No, really.

    No, I’m not convinced that competition in governance is actually going to produce a better world…on the contrary. I believe that it will create a race to the bottom that will leave a significant fraction of the population worse off than they were before. It will cement the undeserved power of the hereditary elites, and disenfranchise anyone whose value cannot be measured in dollars or euros or gold or labor credits or whatever it is we end up using for money.

    What I am convinced of, is that competitive governance–whether it’s in the form of states-rights libertarianism, or the proliferation of micro-states, or whatever mechanism you care to achieve it with–will make the weaknesses of the various social systems we think we want painfully evident. As long as we have one large country, where different values have to be balanced one against the other, people can engage in endless finger-pointing and hand-waving and maintain the fiction that their tribe is RIGHT, dammit, and everything that’s wrong with the country is another tribe’s fault, as long as that’s what we have, we’re going to keep on pointing fingers and waving hands and shouting.

    Once each tribe can have their own space to have their way with no interference from the other tribes, then they’ll actually see the consequences of their policies and will be offered the opportunity to admit that maybe they weren’t quite as smart as they thought they were. They will have the opportunity to see that, hey, what do you know, laissez-faire capitalism really does produce chaos–and that a state-controlled economy really does produce stagnation–and that hey, maybe it’s a middle ground is where the sweet spot lies…

    But of course that will require that people admit they are wrong. And if there’s one thing people are really bad at, it’s admitting they’re wrong. People would much rather be right than happy.

    So even after we have our separations, even after we’ve thrown all the illegal immigrants out of THESE states and thrown all the gays out of THOSE counties and thrown all the scientists out of THOSE STATES OVER THERE and thrown the rich people out of THAT state, the accusations and finger-pointing and hand-waving will be done across political boundaries instead of within them, and we can have a good-old-fashioned war or three to work it all out.

    And then after the fires have been put out, and the wounded carried away, and the bodies counted and dumped in whatever cemetery or pit or crematorium we end up disposing of them in…



    We can start actually talking to each other again.

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