The Gospel According to Vince Lombardi

Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing — Vince Lombardi

Just in case anyone gets the wrong idea, I hate football metaphors, and I’m none too fond of football coaches either. It may be because I went to high school in the late Fifties, when every coach seemed to be a survivor of Iwo Jima, with a white sidewall haircut, a whistle around his neck, and an exaggerated idea of the value of military discipline in ordinary life. Also a sadist. Also an ignoramus. Kind of like Vince Lombardi.

Playing left tackle for one of these guys, as I did, was enough to turn me into a life-long Jacobin. I suspect that there were a lot more of us Jacobins than conventional wisdom admits, but at this point in my life it’s hardly worth arguing, except to say that I’m now an Arsenal fan, and have no idea whether the Green Bay Packers or the Dallas Cowboys still exist, let alone which of them is actually America’s Team.

Even so, I’d have to be a fool not to acknowledge that in America, football metaphors — and coaches — are always relevant. Lombardi may have been a man of few words, but in the quote above, there’s little doubt that he wasn’t talking just about football. He was also talking about life, and if he was confused about which was which, his confusion has come to be a very American confusion. As subjects of our post-war empire, we’re inclined to believe — you might say that we’re afraid not to believe — that once the inessential adornments of compassion and altruism have been stripped away, reality is essentially brutal.

We should reconsider. As a philosophy of football, particularly for a coach in the professional leagues, who’s constantly in danger of losing his livelihood if he loses too many games, Lombardi’s laconic Summa Theologica undoubtedly has some merit. As a philosophy of life, or of politics, it’s about as useful as a sledgehammer in a watchmaker’s toolkit.

This, unfortunately, hasn’t prevented it from being adopted by the leadership of both major American political parties, with consequences which it now seems that even they can’t escape. What will happen to them — and to us — once our electoral process has been reduced to a perennial War of Assassins, and what’s left of our democracy has been replaced by an empty recitation of principles which no longer govern anyone’s behavior? This is a question worth asking. In fact, in the context of our present politics, it may be the only question worth asking.

Is anyone asking it? Certainly not the Republicans. They already have their answers — all of them — and no matter how deep and abiding their unhappiness, they’re unlikely to look for new ones. The Democrats are a different story, although at the moment it appears that their traditional story, in which they appear as the defenders of the downtrodden, will soon be coming to an unhappy end.


Rahm Emanuel doesn’t look like a football coach, and he certainly doesn’t act much like one, except for the apparent delight he takes in bullying people, but like Karl Rove before him, he appears to be as uncritical in his worship of victory as Vince Lombardi ever was. In his days as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he fashioned himself into the first and foremost champion of the idea that power, not policy, was the real concern of a political party, and that getting Democrats elected was the only legitimate goal of the Democratic Party.

Most Democrats agreed that he had a point. In the Spring of 2006, it was already painfully obvious from the outcome of the previous three elections that the Democratic Party had become tragically adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and that something drastic had to be done about it. Opinions varied about what that something should be.

As Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean, with his fifty-state strategy, took the position that a systematic effort should be made to strengthen the party even in states where at the time it wasn’t competitive. The rump of the Clinton mafia — Emanuel, Terry McAuliffe, and James Carville — argued that Dean’s strategy was a waste of resources, that money spent in organizing and opening offices in red states would be better spent in targeting swing states, where independent voters held the key to electoral success.

After the successes of the 2006 election, the supporters of Dean’s fifty-state strategy congratulated themselves that they’d made their point, but by 2008, it was clear that the old ways were back in force. Barack Obama made effective use of of the fifty-state strategy, but only at the expense to the party of converting its attempts at building a viable infrastructure in red states into a de facto cult of the personality. Under the influence of Rahm Emanuel and others, he also abandoned the strategy in states such as Alaska, North Dakota and Arizona as November drew closer, and as polling results indicated that he couldn’t overcome his natural disadvantage in those states. After the election, Howard Dean was shown the door, and the cult of Obama — Organizing for America — replaced the fifty-state strategy. It may seem a churlish question, especially when posed by a more or less loyal Democrat, but it has to be asked: How does this process serve democracy?

The simple answer is that it doesn’t. Political parties may be first and foremost instruments of power, but in a democracy, they are also — or ought to be — the organized focal point of communications between the people and its elected representatives, the conduit through which needs influence policy.

When the leaders of a victorious party, as Rahm Emanuel did in 2008, smugly tell their internal critics that you can’t make policy if you can’t get candidates elected to office, what they leave unsaid is that a political party represents nothing if it doesn’t represent a consensus on fundamental political principles, serves no purpose if it doesn’t develop policy ideas which express that consensus, and cannot legitimately govern if it gets its candidates elected on the basis of propaganda rather than an honest and detailed statement of where it stands on the issues of the day.

If a party leaves voters and its own rank and file ignorant of its actual policy preferences, it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether its propaganda is true or false. The fruit of its victory will inevitably be — must inevitably be — a government which sees itself and its large donors as its only legitimate constituency, and forces the rest us to endure the spectacle of elected representatives who spend more time picking drapes for their offices than they do studying legislation, and are more adept at drilling holes in the bottom of the ship of state than they are at manning an oar.

I have just two questions for fellow Democrats who are puzzled and dismayed that they voted for a presidential candidate who, after more than nine months in office, hasn’t kept, and doesn’t look likely to keep, any of his major campaign promises. What is our victory worth now? Is it could be worse an answer we’re willing to accept for as far as we can see into the future?

According to the available sources, the Obama campaign spent between 700 and 800 million dollars getting him elected. If we want to gauge the future of our democracy, we should ask ourselves where any of us is going to come up with that kind of money. There may come a time when a presidential candidate can be persuaded that populism trumps a billion dollars, but that time hasn’t arrived yet, and certainly won’t arrive so long as our party leadership believes that winning is the only thing, and we are content to let them believe it.