Our team loyalties are unshakable. That’s what makes events like the Super Bowl enjoyable — we know who love, and we know who we hate. But loyalty ought to have limits.
As Jerry Seinfeld memorably explained, we’re just rooting for laundry. The players change, the teams move, but we know who we like.
Why are we like this?
Because we follow the team. We avidly read each detail about which player has a sore toe and who is dating a cheerleader and whether the coach and the general manager had a heated argument. We master the nuances of the salary cap. And most importantly, we share. We share the victories and commiserate over the defeats. That’s why fandoms of perennial losers, like the Browns or the Padres, still stick together. (Apparenly, we even cheer for pathetic brown laundry.)
Team loyalty is crucial. If you give up on a team, you’re the loser. You’re the one who is letting everyone else down.
Team loyalty in politics
Increasingly, we treat our politics like our sports.
We are on Team Blue or Team Red.
We scrutinize every tiny detail of what our team is doing — and the evil and nasty machinations of the other side. We identify with the other members of our team. We wear the special hat, that says MAGA or MATH on it, so the other team members can see our loyalty. We even subscribe to our special media channels that explain how our team is winning and the other team is bad for America. We need to, to maintain the talking points that define our loyalty.
Here’s what I think about political loyalty: it should be hard to earn and easy to lose.
It defies human nature to give up on a candidate you’ve been enthusiastically backing. But you need to be a little less forgiving. If your candidate does something stupid, or something you disagree with, pay attention. If the candidate does so repeatedly, dump them.
This will be crucial for Democrats in 2020. Most of you are backing a candidate who is going to lose. Even so, according to an Emerson College poll, backers of Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang are so loyal that many will not back another democrat.
I think these voters might feel differently if and when their candidate drops out, but for now, their loyalty feels existential and unshakable.
The dynamic is even more fixed on the Republican side. Trump makes it feel as if leaving him is a betrayal. This makes it harder for his backers to ditch their loyalty, whatever else he does (like forgetting what state the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs play in, musing about cutting Social Security, or forgetting how to speak English).
I’m a Red Sox fan. You’d have torture me to get me to root for the Yankees. But I don’t have the same loyalty to candidates.
I know who I’d prefer to win the Democratic primary. My candidate probably won’t win. But even if my candidate is winning, if they do stuff I don’t like, I’ll dump them. I’m not rooting for laundry here.
Our loyalties shift in this country. So do the positions of the candidates. Republicans used to be for free trade until Trump came along, and the deep South Democrats used to win because they winked at racism. I’m glad the positions shift — it’s a sign that the parties are aware that the electorate is changing.
But this only works if you treat politicians as if they need to earn your loyalty every single day.
Go ahead. Be loyal to the Red Sox or the 49ers or the Super Bowl Champion Chiefs of Kansas City, Missouri. Root for that laundry! It’s the American thing to do.
But don’t be loyal to parties or candidates. Because once they believe they can count on you no matter what, they’ll be free to behave as corruptly and reprehensibly as they want, with no real consequences.
There’s a reason we have elections.