Here in the final stretch of the presidential campaign, things are getting even uglier, with the other side lobbing misleading verbal attacks while our side tries to remain above the fray. With this kind of negativity and distortion, it is hard to imagine the winning candidate being able to pull the country back together.
But perhaps my experience last weekend at my eight year old's soccer game illustrates a way for all of us to put the campaign back into perspective.
My boy plays on a travel team stacked with fast and aggressive players who usually win, racing past the other team to any open balls. Ahead 4-1, they were still scrambling after the ball, trying to out-muscle the other team.
The ball trickled toward the sideline, and one of our players leaned into an opponent to get the ball. Parents of the other team waited for the referee to call a foul, but she let them play on. Outraged at this injustice, the parents began complaining among themselves about how rough our team was, how they were pushing all the time, and how the referee never seem to call fouls on our kids. They quickly decided that we were benefiting from home field advantage.
Armed with this "knowledge," they found themselves in a competitive lather. Each time two boys fought for the ball, they were convinced that it was our kids who initiated the contact, and our referee who was allowing such inappropriate aggression. Caught up in the emotions of the moment, they began verbally abusing the referee, screaming that she was blind, biased, and didn't belong on the field. When that didn't work, a couple of the dads began yelling to their kids, instructing them to push our kids down.
When they called upon one of their kids to push my kid, I must admit to feeling a strong urge to beat the crap out of the two most egregious fathers. But the urge was only fleeting, mainly because I had two pieces of information that helped me to see the situation that day more clearly than the other parents.
First, I'd managed to strike up a conversation with the referee at halftime, and learned that she was a high school freshman from the same town as our opponents. She wasn't a hired gun, favoring our team. She was a 14-year-old, struggling to figure out where to draw the line in a game between two groups of intense eight year old boys.
Which brings me to my second piece of information -- having studied human behavior for the better part of my professional life, I knew that these parents were making an honest mistake. They were unconsciously viewing the game through distorted lenses. Studies have consistently shown that people have a very difficult time observing partisan contests with objective eyes. That's why in a game between the Eagles and the Cowboys, Eagles fans will invariably believe, passionately, that the officials are biased in favor of Dallas, even pointing to specific plays that demonstrate clear evidence of such bias. Cowboy fans, of course, will believe that the officials are biased in favor of the Eagles.
I actually reflected on this phenomenon as two of the players leaned into each other that day, neither player initiating the contact, and neither player getting the better of the exchange. The opposing parents erupted in a flurry of catcalls and accusations upon witnessing this battle. They were honestly enraged, but the source of their rage, the circumstances that prompted their anger, were entering their consciousness only after being distorted by this powerful psychological lens.
It was easy at that moment to see this strange crowd as emblematic of the current presidential election. My son's team is centered in Ann Arbor, a reliably Democratic community. Our parents were sitting calmly on the sidelines, muttering under their breath about the insane parents standing 20 feet to our right. The opposing team is from a solidly Republican city just south of Ann Arbor. And they sounded to us like the kind of angry crowds we've heard about who scream epithets at McCain/Palin rallies.
But how would we Ann Arbor parents have reacted of our team was behind 4-1 in a physical game like this? I'd like to think we would remain calm, like the presidential candidate favored in our community. However, there is lots of reason to believe we would have seen the game differently, viewing the aggression as more one-sided than it was.
The McCain campaign is trailing badly in the polls. Is it any surprise that McCain supporters are calling foul so aggressively at rallies? Is it any surprise that they believe that it is Obama who was the first one to go negative in the campaign? Is it any wonder that they are convinced that it is Obama who is putting his campaign ahead of the country's best interests?
We citizens are currently standing on the sidelines observing two presidential campaigns caught up in an aggressive battle. We are all convinced that the media is biased against our candidate, just like those parents were convinced that the 14-year-old referee was taking sides.
When our psychological biases cause us to scream at our eight-year-old boys to maim other people's eight-year-old boys, it can not come as a surprise that we exchange nasty words with each other when caught up in an intense and important political campaign.
But the campaign will soon be over, and the elbow throwing will cease. Maybe then we will all realize that this campaign wasn't a game, and that we are all, as Americans, rooting for the same team.