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Learn Tug of War Strategy to Understand Politics

April 8th, 2016 by dk

Tug of War was an Olympic sport until 1920. Reviving the sport would teach us important lessons that we may not have learned in high school about physics, social psychology, and political science.

The nuance of Tug of War strategy can explain President Obama’s latest Supreme Court pick, how journalists unwittingly aid extremists, and what’s at stake in the upcoming Eugene mayoral election.

You may not have known there was strategy to Tug of War, much less nuance within that strategy. That’s because sports commentators haven’t been filling air time every four years to explain it to you. Instead, you’ve got me.

The contest may seem straightforward enough — tug harder than the other team. But there’s more to it than that. Since the opposing players are gripped to the rope, their mass is added to what your force must overcome. Theoretically, two teams of equal strength (force) will favor the side with more weight (mass).

But even that’s not the whole story. Winning Tug of War at the highest level involves rhythmic effort, strategically alternating between hangs (rest) and pulls.

Strength, mass, and strategic vision are not distributed randomly along the line. The largest player is typically the “anchor” at the end, and the smallest player is usually the first of several “heavers” at the front. This allows each player to see the opposing team, with each team’s first heaver leading the effort.

A successful line uses three different athletic skills — the mental and physical agility of a sprinter on one end, brute muscle of a weightlifter at the other, with marathoners’ endurance holding the middle. You need all three.

The biggest strategic blunder a tug-of-warrior can make is to attempt a larger step than his strength and circumstances warrant. Any athlete’s sudden loss of control can quickly ripple through the line and doom the team effort. Small moves in quick succession achieve most and risk least.

Tug of War strategy can be applied to the nation’s highest court.

Liberals have faulted President Obama for choosing Merrick Garland, the well-respected chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, to replace conservative firebrand Antonin Scalia. They were hoping Obama would replace a conservative anchor with a liberal one.

Ironically, the diminutive Ruth Bader Ginsburg has anchored the political left in the Supreme Court’s recent terms. What the liberal team lacks is a reliable first heaver — someone who can see eye-to-eye with Justice Anthony Kennedy or Chief Justice John Roberts.

If Kennedy or especially Roberts can be peeled away from the court’s now-anchorless political right, liberals can control more than its rulings. The court’s agenda is set at conference, where it takes only four votes to accept a case to be argued. By Supreme Court tradition, the newest member of the court votes last. A less reliable liberal can wield more power in this setting.

Other strategic factors in Obama’s choice have been barely noted. Garland, 63, is roughly the same age as Roberts, 61. Garland and Roberts are former colleagues, having served together on the D.C. Circuit for two years. And Garland’s current role as chief judge closely resembles Roberts’s current administrative duties. Seeing eye-to-eye — on any level — can bring competitive advantages.

Many of those advantages are invisible to casual observers and to many in the media. Battles are won most often in the close quarters of the middle, but what happens on the edges is easier to observe and describe. Journalists naturally tell the best stories they can. Statistics show extremists of every stripe draw outsized coverage.

Finally, consider a different panel of nine members, representing many points on the political spectrum. Chief Justice Roberts is first among equals on the Supreme Court. On the Eugene City Council, the mayor is last among equals, voting only to break a tie.

If Mike Clark is elected mayor, who will become the conservatives’ new anchor? If a reliable progressive is elected instead, how might alliances shift among its left-leaning centrists — those councilors who consider themselves heavers?

And you thought Tug of War was only a picnic game.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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