Brass-knuckle politics: A sign of the times?

Al Gore and George W. Bush may be pioneering a new American sport: Extreme Politics.

In 1960, Richard Nixon thought his future depended on at least appearing to be a good loser. In 2000, the candidates seem to consider "good loser" an oxymoron, like "jumbo shrimp."

Ten days after the election, Messrs. Gore and Bush are locked in an overtime battle of spin and lawsuits so heated it makes "Survivor" look like a celebration of fellowship. The next step? Maybe James Baker and Warren Christopher will appear at press conferences wearing eye black and pads.

Perhaps it's the ethos. More than one social commentator has noted that the US is more and more a winner-take-all society, in which the rewards for victory are great, and those for placing second diminished.

Competition is heightened everywhere. Dotcoms are either wildly successful or burned toast. Entry to elite schools is as hard as it has ever been. In pro sports, the stars make more than ever, while the supporting cast has short, less-lucrative careers.

Today "Americans are at the competitive extreme," says Michael Aaron Rockland, chairman of the American studies department at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "There are many countries - capitalist countries - that don't have such a notion that you're a winner or a loser."

Public attitudes are one example of how the social context for the current race is much different than than it was for Nixon and John Kennedy.

The news is full of elder statesmen warning that the voters are on the edge of being disgusted by this whole mess. End it now, these graybeards say, for the good of the political system. The candidate who concedes even before hope is lost will earn public goodwill, position himself for a rematch in 2004, and demonstrate the durability of the Constitution.

Perhaps. But so far, if polls are any guide, the public is less concerned about the Tussle in Tallahassee than are the nation's former assistant secretaries. The Gore-Bush standoff is the most closely watched news story in America in recent years. Majorities of respondents expect the outcome to result in a legitimate president - and many voters say they can wait up to a month for the whole thing to settle out.

The role of wise man just isn't what it used to be, says Marshall Wittmann, a government analyst at the Hudson Institute and himself a former deputy assistant secretary. Voters think everyone is a spinner with their own agenda.

The courts, on the other hand, continue to command respect. TV figures Judge Judy and Judge Wapner may be today's real graybeards. "They may be the ones who have to solve this," says Mr. Wittmann. He's only half-joking.

The public may also understand that in today's America the stakes for participants are different than in elections past. Years ago, it made more sense to withdraw gracefully and wait for another opportunity. Today things move faster - politics, the economy, data, even fashion trends.

In ... and out

Perhaps the best analogy is to free agency in sports. Now that stars can change teams more easily, the balance of power can shift more quickly. General managers, who assemble teams, have become more important than field managers. There is more urgency to win today. Who knows what the National League East will look like after the trading deadline?

Thus Gore and Bush may believe this is their one best chance to become leader of the free world, and have bus loads of schoolchildren visit their birthplace for the next hundred years. The loser? Whatever happened to Michael Dukakis?

The 1995 book "The Winner-Take-All-Society," by Cornell University sociologist Robert Frank and Duke University public-policy expert Philip Cook, theorized that in many walks of US life the prize for being No. 1 was getting bigger, while the rewards for Nos. 2 and below were diminishing.

Knowing who's best

That's partly because it's getting easier to identify the top performers. At the same time, the erosion of boundaries of geography and tradition make it more likely that customers will seek out those best performers.

Thus Johnnie Cochran has all the cases he can handle, while perfectly good local defense lawyers may scramble for work. Free-agent sports stars command multiyear millions, while years-under-their-belts veterans are cut the moment their skills erode.

What some consultants call "the plight of the silver medalist" is perhaps most purely expressed in Internet business. The first to get up and running with a particular concept does a booming business. Competitors crash and burn. By some estimates, 75 percent of Internet usage involves only 5 percent of Web sites.

Finally, the public's apparent tolerance of the Bush-Gore smackdown may stem from a belief that the outcome doesn't make much difference. "If there was more difference between these two characters, we'd be much more distraught," says James Twitchell, a University of Florida professor who writes on cultural trends.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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