Politics is a Spectator Sport

by F.

Not long ago my wife and I had over for dinner a couple we know. Both of them are highly educated and successful, and both of them are quite interested in politics—local, national, and world.

For instance, while we were eating our pizza, the topic of Brazil came up. One of our guests, a woman who used to work at the World Bank, started talking excitedly about Brazil, the various political parties there, how things had changed in the last 20 years, and a bunch of other stuff which I can't remember.

I can't remember it because I absolutely didn't care. I mean, Brazil? What sort of impact does Brazil have on me? More importantly, What kind of impact can I have on Brazil? I have nothing against Brazil. I had a friend from Brazil once when I lived in LA. But Brazilian politics is just not something on which I would spend my time.

And I always feel bad when this happens. It's like when someone starts talking about Tibet or East Timor or Chechnya, and they've obviously read the latest Economist article or special report on it, and they're telling me all this stuff which is usually tragic. And I almost invariably think, "Shit. I've got to get up to speed on world events. I don't know anything about this."

But I've come to think that my apathy is, in fact, the correct approach, because politics is a spectator sport. Talking about Brazil is like talking about football or the Tour de France. It's chit-chat. I no longer feel there is any reason to feel bad about my apathy because such discussions are merely phatic conversation. So we could talk about football or we could talk about the oppression of Chinese dissidents. I think I'd rather talk about the former.

I don't feel bad about this attitude mostly because the outcome of such discussions will most likely not change my behavior. For instance, I'm 100% sure I'm going to vote entirely for Democrats in the next city, state, and national elections. It's unlikely I'm going to be persuaded to vote Republican so there is not much purpose in discussing political issues. I'm not a single issue voter.

Similarly for international issues. Am I registered to vote in Brazil? No. Am I a billionaire like George Soros who can destroy the economy of a single country by engaging in currency speculation? No. Am I an influential economist like Jeff Sachs whose ideas someone might actually implement? No. Hence my lack of interest.

Now, back to football.