Early Returns

When Football and Democracy Collide

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Not everyone cares this much.

Photographer: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

For those who believe the Monday after the Super Bowl should be a holiday, how about one quick politics takeaway from the game? No, nothing about patriotism -- this one is courtesy of political scientist Seth Masket, who tweeted:

For those of you who weren't watching the game, this was about a play review that could have gone either way and was determined by a little-understood rule. Masket's point is simple: Despite not actually having any expertise on the subject, just from watching the game (and, presumably, having a rooting interest), he wound up having a very strong opinion about how the rule applied at that moment.

There are a bunch of implications about this.

One is from the point of view of the voter: We are all capable of believing we have strong opinions about all sorts of things that we do not, in fact, have strong feelings about. Or, I suppose I should say, we have strong feelings, which come and go, about plenty of things we don't care about the rest of the time. Those feelings are activated by lots of different things, but especially by politicians we feel strongly about talking about some policy. 

Then think about what it means for measuring public opinion. If Masket had an instant-dial device, he likely would have registered strong opinions about how to interpret the rule and whether the rule itself was a good one or not. At least, that's the case if he was asked right at that moment. But if he was asked a week ago, and probably if he's asked a week from now, he might have declined to answer because he didn't know or care about it -- or, perhaps, he might have given the opposite answer if his within-game opinion was influenced by his rooting interest, if any.

Many people who care a lot about politics do have more detailed and hardened views on a variety of policy questions. That's only a small percentage of the population, however. It's also true, and very important, that many more of us have strong views on one or two issues, often because of self-interest but also sometimes because of group identity (where the group could be occupational, regional, gender-based, ethnic or all sorts of other things). 

All of this is very important if you're trying to assess voter opinion on anything from guns to immigration. It's also important in thinking about democracy. James Madison said in Federalist 10 that in a large polity, majorities would be rare. One way to understand that brings us back to football is to remember that nothing like a majority of Americans were rooting for either Philadelphia or New England in the Super Bowl, because a large group of us aren't football fans at all and ignored the game entirely. 

It's hard for those deeply involved in politics to understand how people could just not care at all about immigration or guns or abortion or any number of important hot-button policy questions. And yet many people -- even some who suffer obvious unfortunate consequences from political decisions -- simply don't. At least, for the moment. 

This doesn't mean we shouldn't use majority-decision rules at times, but it does suggest that democracy had better go beyond simple majority rule, because the ground it's built on is a lot shakier than one might think. 

1. Dave Hopkins on the vanishing legislative agenda for the remainder of the current Congress. 

2. Sam Rosenfeld on feminism and party sorting.

3. Quinta Jurecic, Shannon Togawa Mercer and Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare on the Devin Nunes memo: "Its preparation and public dissemination represent a profound betrayal of the central premise of the intelligence oversight system."

4. Kate Brannen with the experts at Just Security with their initial reactions to the Nunes memo

5. My Bloomberg View colleague Eli Lake on the Nunes memo

6. And Jack Goldsmith at Lawfare on Donald McGahn and the Nunes memo.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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