I’m seven years old, attending my first political fundraiser. It’s for my Great Uncle, Nelson Rockefeller, who’s running for re-election as Governor of New York. The room is full of men, many holding cameras and microphones. Most of what is said is lost on me, but I know this a big deal and I can feel the vibrancy and excitement, like everyone is talking about something really important.
Months later, I go to my first baseball game at Shea Stadium. It’s 1969, the year of the Miracle Mets, and that season’s Cy Young Award winner, Tom Seaver, is pitching. The air is pulsing with energy; fifty thousand fans clapping and yelling. We stand and cheer wildly as the Mets take the lead—my initial foray into the frenzied comradery of professional sports.
Thus, began my fascination with both politics and sports, an attachment that has endured over five decades. While witnessing one from the inside and the other the outside, there’s been a common sense of belonging, of having a team you can call your own. Naturally, you root for the players on your side, but there used to be a sense of respect for your opponent, no matter how badly you wanted to beat them. Each contest needed a winner and a loser, but it was also how you played the game that mattered. Sadly, politics has lost this sense of honor and fair play.
My home team was the GOP, and what was then known as a “Rockefeller Republican,’ meant you could be fiscally conservative, but socially liberal. In our family, we felt a responsibility and commitment to public service, whether through political leadership or philanthropy. Being a national politician was a prominent, well-respected position that came with the understanding that you had an obligation to bring something of real value to the table. There was a demand for the best and the brightest and you had to have proven credentials to be a player. Today, if you can win a primary, that’s good enough, no matter your stats or egregious on-field behavior.
It’s easy to wax nostalgic about a favorite era, but back in 1980, there were 60 senators that would cross the aisle on various issues. On a good day, there might be five now. My Uncle Jay served as a Democratic Senator from West Virginia from 1985-2015 and always valued policy over partisanship. But he decided not to seek another term, as he felt the spirit of collaboration and compromise had been poisoned by political polarization. This shift in scoring started with Newt Gingrich and came to full fruition with the Tea Party. Disagreeing with your opponent also meant demonizing them; it wasn’t enough to defeat the other team, you had to hate them, too.
Perhaps the biggest transformation in both politics and sports is that each has become a very big business. The billions of dollars now involved have fundamentally altered both playing fields. But there’s one significant difference. When LeBron James earns a forty million-dollar salary, there’s total transparency because we know exactly where those funds are coming from. And we have an open look at his commercial endorsements from Nike, McDonald’s and Coke.
But the Citizens United case in 2010 that paved the way for dark money was one of the worst things that has ever happened to American politics. The fact that people can buy elections under the cloak of anonymity means they can call plays behind the scenes and directly impact the outcome of every contest. Wealthy individuals can contribute untold millions to further their personal agendas and business interests while sitting hidden in their private luxury suites.
Then, we come to the ultimate game changer, Donald Trump. If there was one rule during his presidency, it’s that there are no rules and anyone who disagrees with you is not only the enemy, but a threat to the nation’s security. Imagine the team that lost the Super Bowl, despite coming out on the short side of the score, insisting the game was rigged, and encouraging its followers to storm the NFL league office. And for their quarterback to sue and harass officials around the country, pressuring them into taking points away from the winner.
Today’s GOP boasts a roster that includes sycophants, extremists and obstructionists, who when faced with compromise in the name of public interest, aren’t merely content with taking their ball and going home, but embracing a strategy of take your ball and shove it. Regrettably, this game plan may work in the 2022 midterms, with the Biden Administration buried by multiple crises and losing creditability. Plus, the Democratic party is glaringly incompetent, disorganized and to put it mildly, lacks team chemistry. Their bench is also thin for 2024 and while I don’t believe Trump will run again, he will continue to suck all the oxygen out of the room, raise massive amounts of money and remain the party’s Commissioner-at-Large.
With baseball’s playoffs at bat and the midterm elections in the on-deck circle, where does that leave me as a Republican who voted for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden? While I reveled in the unexpected success of my home club, the San Francisco Giants, all year, I’ve watched the GOP games in dismay, knowing the only thing that’s going to change the party is to lose at least two or three elections. Badly. Thus far, there’s been no political price for hijacking the democratic system and bringing the league to a standstill. This makes me a pragmatist who’s waiting for his franchise to self-destruct in order to survive.
Given my family history and a passion for politics, some friends have asked why I haven’t run for political office. First, my district is a Democratic stronghold and a Republican’s chances of winning are infinitesimal, particularly for someone who won’t even have the backing of his own party. Second, I find the GOP’s gamesmanship in Washington so dominated by power-hungry partisanship, that I cannot imagine being associated with its lack of conscience. Unlike my steadfast allegiance to the Giants, I can’t put on a uniform I’m no longer proud to wear.
Dave Spencer is a fifth-generation Rockefeller and lives in Hillsborough, CA.