Check out any of the recent media coverage on 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, and you’re bound to hear sporting metaphors used to describe the election “race”. Candidates are “competing” and “running” for office. The candidates, seeking an election “win”, declare that they won’t “leave anything on the field.” Now we are in the “final stretch” of the presidential election, and the Democratic Party candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, has warned voters that, because how current President Donald Trump “plays”, the election is still up for grabs. Our national political discourse seems saturated with sporting metaphors, which begs some important questions: why do people in the U.S. use sporting metaphors when they talk about American politics? Why do we say that politicians “run” for office, and not “stand” for office? What are the origins of this sporting political discourse?
In this special “pre-election” episode, we explore the history of this kind of “sportified” political discourse so that we can have a better understanding of why the discourse persists today and to what purposes it serves. We talked with Dr. Kenneth Cohen, Associate Professor of History and Director of Museum Studies and Public History at the University of Delaware. Dr. Cohen is also Edward & Helen Hintz Secretarial Scholar and Curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Dr. Cohen is the author of the 2017 book They Will Have Their Game: Sporting Culture and the Early American Republic (Cornell University Press). In his book, Cohen explores how sport and sporting metaphors became an increasingly pivotal part of American political culture during the antebellum period. Candidates increasingly tried to appeal to the unpropertied White male electorate in the early 1800s through sporting language, using sporting terms to communicate and acquire the support of White men. The result was a hyper-masculine, misogynist political culture, as the use of these sporting metaphors served to reinforce the notion of politics as itself a “manly sport” in itself. The sportification of politics reinforced a notion of politics as a White hyper-masculine domain, restricting voting rights and disenfranchising African Americans and White women.
The question of sporting metaphors in American political discourse is a crucial, relevant topic if we are to understand the racial, gender, and class divisions of contemporary American political culture. As the history of sporting political metaphors demonstrates, the idea of politics as a masculine sport was and continues to used to privilege politics as a domain for White men and disenfranchise women and people of color. Today, we are seeing a more widespread sportified political discourse. If we are to engage with and dismantle some of the racist and misogynist issues in the broader American political discourse, perhaps one of the steps towards that objective is rethinking the sporting metaphors.
- Here’s a link to Dr. Kenneth Cohen’s brilliant book They Will Have Their Game: Sporting Culture and the Making of the Early American Republic (Cornell University Press, 2017)
- Dr. Cohen also wrote an article on this history for the journal Common Place: The Journal of Early American Life. The article is titled “THE MANLY SPORT OF AMERICAN POLITICS: OR, HOW WE CAME TO CALL ELECTIONS ‘RACES'”
- Here’s a 2010 Boston Globe editorial on the “sportification” of American culture
- According to news website Vox (2017), “CNN treats politics like sports — and it’s making us all dumber”
Sound Acknowledgements: The music on this episode was created and recorded by Somatic Podcast co-founder Sam Clevenger.