For years, in an attempt to spur more political participation, I’ve told audiences and readers that democracy is not a spectator sport. I felt that I was giving good advice: if you really care who wins the political battles, don’t just complain, put on a uniform and get in the game. I see now how poor an example that was. If the current presidential campaign teaches us nothing else, it’s that this, for all its choosing up sides and booing and cheering, is not a game. We don’t play games to decide who will have access to the nuclear launch codes, represent our country in meetings of world leaders (which help decide between war and peace and have a significant influence on the world – and U.S. – economies).
So if politics is not a sport, what is it? Bernard Crick, the late British political theorist, wrote a book called “In Defense of Politics” in which he noted that politics is the way a civilized people govern themselves. It’s another version of the idea that politics is war without bloodshed. Both versions share the same underlying conception of what it is we do when we hold democratic elections: we don’t merely “send messages”, “vent our grievances”, seek advantage, make ourselves feel better. What we do is decide who will have the authority, granted collectively by all of us, to play a significant role in deciding when, and if, we will take actions that will see our neighbors or their children coming home in body bags: there are times when war is not avoidable but it is important that the people we elect to make those decisions have the right temperament , knowledge, and judgment . It’s a standard that applies to governors, mayors, members of Congress, and, importantly, Presidents.
Of all the criticisms that have been leveled at Donald Trump – his misogyny, racism, sexism – this is the one that is most relevant: he is simply unfit for the job. By all three standards – temperament, knowledge, and judgment – he is not qualified to hold public office at any level of government. Because that’s so, the decision about whether to support him must not be a political calculus (do I need his voters? will it hurt me more to support him, oppose him, or remain silent?) nor a partisan calculus (I have to be loyal to my team). Whether or not to support a man for President who is both unqualified and dismissive of our most cherished American values (inclusion, religious openness, reasoned discourse, constitutional constraint, etc.) is not a political question; it’s a fundamental question about who we are and what our values are. No, politics is not a sport, we’re not playing a game. We’re deciding our future and those who would place it in the hands of a Donald Trump will have a lot to answer for.