Do the Mayans give us something to look forward to? 

New Year, Old Problems

For members of certain Mayan doomsday cults, please consider this to be my first column of the last year of the world. I will have more to say on Mayans and doomsday as the fateful date approaches, but consider this the warm-up to a big December finale.

To everyone else, I say this world is crazy enough without Mayan calendars and doomsday predictions. Things do seem to be coming unhinged, perhaps portending the end of civilization. As evidence, I point to two unsettling phenomena: the presidential primary system and the Bowl Championship Series.

It is hard to believe that for most of the history of the Republic, presidential candidates were nominated without primaries or caucuses. The first primaries were organized in the 1930s; they proliferated in the 1970s in an effort to get the nominating process out of smoke-filled rooms and into the public eye.

The intention was good, to be sure, but look where it has led us. The presidential campaign season grows ever longer and more expensive. Franklin Roosevelt was able to nail down the 1932 Democratic nomination without primaries; he wrote letters and made phone calls to key party leaders. In the 1960 campaign season, John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy on Jan. 2, and the first primary took place in March.

Compare that to primaries today. With the exception of Rick Perry, every GOP contender announced their candidacies more than a year ago, and most of them have been testing the waters in Iowa and New Hampshire even longer than that.

In a country that finds it increasingly difficult to distinguish reality from reality TV, it is not surprising that we also find it difficult to distinguish politics from sports. The run-up to the Iowa caucuses last week was covered by the national media like a horse race, with weekly polls, around-the-clock speculation, and chatter on the cable news channels. For a week CNN featured an on-screen digital clock, counting down the days, hours, and minutes until the caucus began on Jan. 3. Shouldn't this have been covered by ESPN?

It's all fun and fascinating, but is this any way to pick a president?

Syndicated columnist and commentator Matt Miller made that same point last week, writing, "The entire country is essentially coming to a halt to watch what 120,000 idiosyncratic voters in an idiosyncratic state do."

How idiosyncratic? Of the 120,000 Republicans who cast votes in the 1,774 Iowa caucuses in 2008, 58 percent self-identified as evangelical Christians, compared to 26 percent nationwide. One percent self-identified as a minority, specifically Asian or Hispanic. Not a single African American voted in the Republican caucuses in 2008.

Describing the behavior of the seven GOP candidates, Miller writes, "On one level, the groveling is amusing to watch. But on a deeper level, it's crazy when a handful of right-wing Iowans have the power to tilt the tenor of presidential debate."

And now the campaign moves to South Carolina, just as idiosyncratic and right wing as Iowa, and only slightly larger. I ask again, is this any way to pick a president?

The Bowl Championship Series, like the primary system, was created with the best of intentions. Now it is viewed as part of the general corruption of big-time college athletics.

Prior to the BCS Series, the strange evolution of American college football led to a system that ended each season with a few leading teams playing by invitation at a handful of post-season bowl games. There was no official championship. The AP sports writers and college coaches ranked the teams in their separate polls and each declared a national champion at the end of the season. Usually they could agree on a winner, but sometimes there was a split decision, leading to the gnashing of teeth among sports fans.

In 1998, the major conferences of NCAA 1-A football established the Bowl Championship Series. By this system, a combination of computers and coaches rank the teams and the No. 1 and No. 2 are paired up to play for the national title. There are so many arbitrary decisions and exclusions in the system that the BCS is the object of constant scorn by sports writers and fans alike. There is even talk of congressional action to straighten it out.

Sports writer Frank DeFord spoke for many when he said the BCS is like the Holy Roman Empire, which Voltaire described as not holy, Roman, nor an empire. Likewise, the Bowl Championship Series is not a bowl, a championship, nor a series.

But the BCS, like the long primary season, has proven extraordinarily profitable for the television industry, which is coming to dominate ever more of our politics and culture.

These two absurdities are likely to be with us for a long, long time — unless, of course, the Mayans are right. By this time next year, we should know.


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