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Let’s play conservatives at their own game

A military honour guard team carries the casket of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg into the U.S. Capitol to lie in state - Credit: Getty Images

It was more a source of sadness than surprise in the USA last week when the indomitable but very frail and elderly Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away, giving the Republican president and senate a chance to rush-confirm another right-wing judge onto the bench before the (extremely) imminent election.

It was a source of some considerable sadness and no surprise whatsoever when these Republicans merrily announced their intention to do precisely that, despite having decreed, when Justice Antonin Scalia died back in 2016, that confirming a new Justice in an election year was anathema. Not ‘cheating’, necessarily, but certainly what you might call gamesmanship rather than sportsmanship.

Meanwhile, the election itself is being actively undermined from the White House, with Donald Trump (who can always be relied upon to say the quiet parts out loud) not only refusing to confirm that he’ll stand down if he loses, but also saying that it’s vital to get the Supreme Court back up to full capacity because they’ll need to adjudicate the election result.

He’s already announced his intention to ignore the vote, dispute the totals and take it to a court he’s in the process of loading in his favour. All stuff he’s entitled, or at least empowered, to do. So not ‘cheating’ exactly, but…

In our own country, as ever, we’ve been beset by examples of the same sort of thing. Our current government, having contested and won the last election on a single issue – the intention of forging ahead with their “oven-ready” Brexit deal – has now signalled it wants to drop that deal, apparently on the basis that it’s lousy and always has been. So either they hadn’t read it at the time, they were lying then, or they’re lying now. Again, not ‘cheating’, as such, but…

I’ve been pondering why conservatives seem to feel so much less compunction about gamesmanship than liberals (I’m going to be using these terms in their ‘lower case’ senses) and I have, as is often the case, stumbled upon a slightly odd analogy, but here goes: I am, by the standards of most men who grew up in Liverpool in the 1970s, pretty agnostic when it comes to football. I do, however, greatly enjoy watching the World Cup when it comes around, but on a more anthropological basis.

Football, compared to most team sports, is a blank slate. There are relatively few rules and very little structure to the game. This means it can be played in radically different ways, sometimes by two teams on the same pitch. At the World Cup, one can find oneself watching not so much two competing teams, as two competing cultures or worldviews being expressed through play.

In particular, different cultures have, it seems, completely different attitudes to the whole concept of The Rules. Some cultures regard The Rules as the framework within which the game is played. the game only exists within that framework and there can be no victory outside of it. To these cultures, and their teams, there can be no victory through cheating because they genuinely believe that if you cheated, you didn’t win.

Some other cultures – naming no names here – regard The Rules as just another obstacle between them and victory, to be circumvented like all the others. As far as these teams are concerned, anything that leads to a win – and that you can get away with – counts. It’s all legit, rules or no rules. A win is a win is a win, by whatever means it’s achieved.

This brings me back to my point: it’s not that conservatives are morally inferior to liberals (I realise I’ve just lost some of you); it’s that the two sides hold themselves to entirely different sets of ideals.

Liberals’ self-image is predicated on being ‘better people’ than conservatives. They consider that they care more about others, they give more, they include more and they play fair. They’re like those rule-abiding football nations.

Conservatives’ self-image is based on being ‘tougher’ than the opposition. They’re more focused, more goal-oriented, less fretful about what others think of them and they do whatever it takes to get the job done. They’re like the a-win’s-a-win football nations.

So ‘gamesmanship’ comes more easily to conservatives because it bolsters their self-image, whereas playing fair (or being a sucker, depending on your POV) strengthens liberals’ self-image.

The trouble liberals have is that they’re loath to confront or even acknowledge this for fear of being called whiny sore losers. But if your opponent had to cheat (or tell massive lies) to win, pointing this out isn’t sore loserdom, it’s just having a bit of self-respect (and respect for your equally defrauded supporters).

Fighting fair and fighting hard are not mutually exclusive, and until liberals realise this – and that they’re up against opponents who think nothing of fighting dirty – they’ll always be at a huge disadvantage.