The national pastime shares an image problem with national politics: gridlock. Baseball’s “pace of play” crisis—balls are too rarely in play because defenses today are designed to exploit the rules of the game—illuminates similar perceptions about our constitutional system. In both cases, consumers—be they baseball fans or American citizens—are frustrated with inactivity.
Yet it is a myth that either politics or baseball is played well when it is designed only to amplify offensive activity, whether that means passing legislation or scoring runs. Rather, both are structured to require exceptional skill (baseball) or exceptional importance (constitutionalism) before balls or bills make it into play. Similarly, genuine traditionalists in either endeavor recognize when rules and norms need to be changed to preserve the essence of the game.
Alexis de Tocqueville knew as much. He observed that habits and mores were even more important than laws in preserving American democracy: “I am convinced that the happiest situation and the best laws cannot maintain a constitution despite mores, whereas the latter turn even the most unfavorable positions and the worst laws to good account.”
In Tocqueville’s day, the habits of democracy, inflected with the ethic of equality, penetrated social and economic life. Because Americans saw each other as equals, they empathized with one another and were therefore inclined to treat their fellow citizens politely rather than rudely. Mores mitigated the harsher edges of law.
The clearest illustration of mores in national politics is the Senate, the constitutional institution where, at least historically, custom and culture have exerted the greatest influence. Consider the filibuster. It is a product of Senate rules, but mores long governed its use.
For most of the 20th century, the filibuster was largely a theatrical device—a means of delaying but not ultimately obstructing legislation. In 1972, the Senate replaced the talking filibuster with the “track system,” allowing the chamber to conduct normal business on one track while a filibuster proceeded on the other. The rules made it possible for a cohesive minority to impose a de facto supermajority requirement for any legislation. Yet it took nearly four decades for that to occur. The reason was not a change in Senate rules. It was a shift, for which each party blamed the other, from relative civility to scorched-earth politics.
Compare that to rule 5.04(b) of Major League Baseball, which allows batters to request “time” between pitches. Umpires can grant it without limitation, and almost always do—a fact that shows the relationship between prudence and mores. Just as mores are informal, prudence operates in the space that precision cannot. The apparent need for a rule to limit batters leaving the batting box suggests an erosion of judgment: Is this time-out prudent, all things considered? It also suggests a related over-reliance on rules: Without being told not to grant more than a given number of time-outs to batters, umpires are disposed to grant nearly all of them.
Still, rules shape the exercise of prudence. They also, in Madisonian terms, supply the defect of it. As a constitutional reformer, Madison understood the need to face facts, including the fact that judgment does not always work: If ballplayers were angels, no rules would be necessary. If angels were to umpire baseball, they could be trusted with infinite latitude.
That leads to another similarity between baseball and constitutionalism: the imperative of balancing preservation and reform. Madison helped write the Constitution and explained the importance of venerating it. Upon its implementation, he immediately led an effort to amend it 10 times, accounting for more than a third of all amendments in American constitutional history. The Madison of Federalist 47 was a constitutional conservative. But constitutional conservatives recognize the need for change.
The question is what standards should guide reform. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke elucidated principles for constitutional reform: “I would not exclude alteration neither; but even when I changed, it should be to preserve. I should be led to my remedy by a great grievance. In what I did, I should follow the example of our ancestors. I would make the reparation as nearly as possible in the style of the building.”
According to Burke’s standards, change should reanimate the fundamental principles of a regime. What are those principles? Baseball and politics are defensive games less because they regard inhibiting action as an intrinsic good than because their rules are structured to require skill before action occurs.
Baseball is a gradual game. It does not operate on a clock: It is played until someone wins. The most successful teams know how to move runners around the bases steadily but deliberately. It is a workmanlike, not a heroic, sport—what George F. Will, baseball’s scholar-statesman, has called a “craft.” Home-run hitters are crucial to the game. But even for them, singles and doubles are more common.
In 1990, after the publication of Will’s Men at Work, Donald Kagan accused him of diminishing the heroic aspect of baseball. Kagan wrongly took this to be unconservative. He wrote: “If Mighty Casey came to bat at a crucial moment today, George Will would want him to punch a grounder through the right side to move the runner to third and leave things up to the next batter.” Will replied with characteristic concision: “If Mighty Casey, instead of swinging for the fences and striking out, had moved the runner along, he would have earned no praise from Kagan. But there might have been joy in Mudville.” Casey lacked prudence, the essence of which is the calibration of abstract principle to circumstances on the ground.
There is a similar danger of hero worship—and devaluing craft—in politics. We tend to valorize—or, as the case may be, demonize—heroic individuals like wartime presidents. Yet that both inflates the presidency and limits the horizon of politics to the views of a limited few who do not reflect or understand the subtleties of public opinion and who are often swollen with self-importance.
From Washington to Lincoln, heroes can be important in politics. But the conscious pursuit of heroic status can be perilous. Heroes arise when a magnanimous soul encounters dire times. In ordinary moments, the hunger for a historic legacy is dangerous. Lincoln—who became a hero precisely because his magnanimous soul encountered history’s crucible—captured the point as a young state legislator. In his Lyceum Address, Lincoln argued that the American Founders had performed all the heroic deeds the nation needed. The task for ordinary times was preserving their legacy. Thus the danger: Ordinary times would not satisfy pathological ambition, so those infected with it would seek to create crises as seedbeds for their legacies:
Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.–It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.
Heroes are exceptions, often necessary ones, to constitutional routines. To make them ordinary rather than exceptional encourages demagogues. It also accelerates the leisurely rhythms of constitutional time. Those rhythms require sustained effort and consensus before action occurs. That is an under-appreciated aspect of Madison’s solution to the problem of faction: Federalist 10 does argue that the multiple interests in a large republic make it unlikely that any factious majority will coalesce. But he also acknowledges that such majorities may emerge, and if they do, republican leisure would inhibit them. Because communication in 1787 was necessarily slow, passions would naturally dissipate before factions could prevail. Today, of course, communication is instantaneous, which makes patience a virtue rather than a fact of life.
But something more is involved than mere patience. There is beauty in the negative space of politics. The public tends to be obsessed with activity like cats are obsessed with motion: The fact, not the valence, of it is what matters. Yet immense activity goes into all that inactivity. Consensus is built. Narrow or overly partisan majorities are inhibited.
The same is true of baseball. Heroes and home runs have their storied place. Bobby Thompson, Kirk Gibson and Carlton Fisk rightly occupy it. But as Will observed, Mighty Casey struck out (see “prudence,” above). More to the point, obsession with offense ignores the intricate skill necessary to produce all the sublime inactivity that baseball also generates. It is not merely pitching. From defensive shifts to the silent communication and intelligence gathering that happens on the field, baseball is an elegant dance of which offense is only a component.
Will introduced his collection of baseball columns, Bunts, with an eight-page description of an interval in the 1997 American League Champion Series between Baltimore and Cleveland. The interval, less than two minutes long, was bookended by offense, but between them lay an orchestra of offensive and defensive shifting and intelligence-gathering.
That is not to say there should be no changes to the game, especially given baseball’s persistently eroding audience. The sport should be animated by a spirit of Burkean reform that adapts for the sake of conservation. No less an authority than Will, a Burkean on baseball matters, has called for rules changes to spark offense and limit delay. Such changes should be deliberate. They should reanimate the spirit of the game, which includes the beauty of inactivity.
Citizens frustrated with gridlock should treat the Constitution with similar deference. Deep and fixed partisan alliances and antipathies are antithetical to the Madisonian system. If they persist, reform might be necessary. But reform should restore. In politics as in baseball, we should protect the negative space.
Greg S. Weiner is Associate Professor of Political Science at Assumption University.