Tuned In

Friday Night Lights and the Politicians Who Love It

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Photo by Josh Romney

Capping off what had already been a strong week in the debate and the polls, yesterday Mitt Romney secured the coveted Bissinger endorsement. Sports journalist Buzz Bissinger wrote a piece for The Daily Beast saying that he decided to vote for Romney after Wednesday’s debate.

Bissenger cited Romney’s strong performance and Barack Obama‘s tepid one as the reason, but I can’t help noticing a little foreshadowing as well. After the debate, one of Romney’s sons tweeted a picture of his dad and mom under a campaign sign with the slogan, “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose”–popularized in Friday Night Lights, the TV series based on the movie based on Bissinger’s book. Romney was reportedly using the slogan on the campaign trail this past weekend too, but he’s not the first to appropriate it: in May, the Obama campaign posted a photo on its Tumblr of the President throwing a football, captioned “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts.”

Now, I can only guess what, if anything, Friday Night Lights and its slogan really mean to either candidate—maybe nothing more than, “Football, something inspirational, blah blah blah, people seem to like that sort of thing.” But I do know what it means to me: a love letter to American character and community so powerful that I’m surprised today’s campaigns don’t use it all the time.

FNL is not a political show, really, though it told stories about local politics and issues like abortion. But it is very deeply a show about the kinds of principles campaigns like to talk about: values, integrity, faith, family, struggle. When FNL aired its finale, I wrote an essay about the show’s civic themes and the way this Texas story—one of the rare acclaimed dramas recently to take place in a red state—showed commonalities between red-state and blue-state ideals:

You could see the show, from the right, as an example of how the best social programs are a job, a family and self-discipline; you could see it, from the left, as an argument for the crucial importance of an underfunded government institution, the public school. You would be right both ways.

But though the show doesn’t have a particular partisan argument, that doesn’t mean it has nothing specific to say.  This year’s election has been consumed with arguments over the balance between the individual and the group—whether you’re talking the 47%, national health care programs or “You didn’t build that.” And over and over, the theme that keeps recurring in FNL is: community.

Dillon, Texas, is a poor town in rough times, and the characters in FNL have individual problems on top of that: broken homes, family illness, unemployment. What gets them through is reliance on one another, and the help of the institutions around them, both private and public. Everybody, even teenagers, is needed; everybody has to pitch in or the whole thing falls apart. Try to do it alone—whether “it” is winning a football game or caring for a grandmother with dementia—and you’ll end up drowning.

Now I’ll admit, as I’ve disclosed here before: I’m an Obama voter, and I’m likely to take all this a certain way. To me, FNL is a heartfelt story showing that nobody—however talented, however much of a superstar—builds anything alone. You’ve got teachers, friends, communities supporting you. It’s not explicitly a liberal tract, but it’s hard to reconcile it with anyone’s Ayn Randian Lone Great Man Theory of life.

But if FNL were just some sort of editorial that flattered my personal beliefs, it wouldn’t be a great drama. I think someone much more conservative than I am could just as easily look at it as an argument for how the strongest, most essential communities are those not created by the government. What really changes people’s lives in FNL is when individuals, on their own, band together to create communities of support—whether that community is at a strip club or a church. (One of the really distinctive things about FNL: few TV dramas have been as up-front and eloquent about the power of faith in the lives of believers.)

FNL’s is such a powerful, personal message that I’ll admit that I kind of hate to see it used by any campaign, even one I support. But it’s a strong, rich enough work of Americana that it’s got room for a political big tent. (I’d peg Buddy Garrity for a Romney man; Tami Taylor for Obama. And Coach? I don’t know, but I would love to see the pre-election pillow talk scene between them.) And if our politicians were to really embrace the show’s core attitudes—integrity, decency and respect even for your opponents—that, at least, is a political appropriation I could endorse with a full heart.