There's a chance that all of the punditry swirling around Tuesday's Senate race in Massachusetts was deeply prophetic about the Democrat's chances in the fall 2010 Congressional elections, but the death knell of Martha Coakley's campaign might have been as simple as her comment about the Red Sox. The Red Sox are a religion in Massachusetts. And when Coakley gaffed on a radio program and indicated that former Red Sox hero Curt Schilling was a Yankee fan, many interpreted this as a signal that she was completely out of touch with the electorate, for whom Schilling and his team mean more than helath care reform, and more than a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. That is why what we at The White House Project teach our trainees who aspire to run for political office is this: culture matters.
For some, it's hard to understand how large a role our popular culture plays in our public sphere. And the White House Project has sometimes taken flack for focusing on what some consider less-than-serious emphasis on the culture. We train only women (of any and all political stripes) to run for office, the role of sports has always been a theme for us. Women athletes show the country that women are tough and persistent and we love working with groups like the WNBA, whose games have served as an unofficial opportunity to reach people about our work.
But back to Massachusetts. The way the Red Sox represent the psyche of a state is known to all. This is not state-specific. Sports play a huge role in politics and life. Either through the magic of film and television, or through actual competitive play, the sports world has served as a "farm team" for our political sector for generations. From Gerald Ford to Ronald "The Gipper" Reagan, to Governors Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwartzenegger, we have interpreted talent on the ballfields, or the facsimile thereof as a indicator of toughness on the statehouse floor or in the White House.
Sports has also enabled athletes to cross over into politics. Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier and leveraging his fame to communicate his stance on civil rights in the 1950's is one of the U.S.'s the first examples. Cassius Clay carried on the mantle in his opposition to the war in Vietnam, and Billie Jean King has used her status as one of tennis' all-time greats to advance her political agenda. In fact, an old friend in Iowa had a wonderful riff on how one's entire social and political conversation could be comprised of sports references and metaphors. All you had to say to start a conversation was, "How bout them Hawkeyes?"
The bottom line is that sports, as a manifestation of the citizenry's pride, especially when that citizenry is suffering through relentlessly bad economic news and catastrophies overseas, cannot be discounted by would-be candidates as irrelevant. Popular culture matters in politics.
As I looked at the post mortems on the Massachusetts election, accompanied by the hysterical predictions about what the implications were for the Democratic party, for the Administration's legislative agenda, and for the progress of our nation as a whole. The first thing that came to mind was, "How bout them Red Sox?"