February 6, 2008
America's Enduring Love for Underdogs
Front-runners have had a rough time, lately. The unbeaten Tom Brady. The shoo-in Rudolph Giuliani. The inevitable Hillary Clinton. It seems the most dangerous place to be, nowadays, is at the front of the pack.
On the flipside, it's been a heck of a year for underdogs. The Giants over the Patriots. Mike Huckabee coming out of nowhere -- with no money or name recognition-- to trounce his opponents in the Iowa caucuses. John McCain, down-and-out and hemorrhaging staff mere months ago, now with the Big Mo coming out of Super Tuesday.
Underdogs. It seems we can't get enough of them.
Why is that?
The short answer? It appears we are biologically wired to root for the underdog.
Each of us begins life tiny and helpless. Among our first, formative experiences are visceral feelings of powerlessness (can't walk, eat or go to the bathroom on our own) and it seems almost everyone around us holds greater power (parents, grownups, bigger children).
It doesn't stop there. We go to school and find ourselves at the mercy of teachers, professors and perhaps even a few bullies. We graduate and it starts all over again; with bosses who hold our very livelihoods in their hands. And, as we move into our later years, many of us will find ourselves once again at the mercy of others: nurses, family and caregivers who keep us fed, mobile and alive.
The reason we all seem to love underdogs is because each of us knows what it feels like to be an underdog, to be a David in a world full of Goliaths.
But Underdogma is somewhat different. The first part of Underdogma is the reflexive belief that those who have less power are automatically deemed virtuous and noble. From Christ's blessed meek to Eli Manning to rock-throwing Palestinians; people tend to side with the little guy.
The second part of Underdogma is the equally reflexive belief that those who have more power are to be scorned - simply because they have more power. That's why millions of people rooted for Tom Brady to lose, why Mitt Romney and his perfect hair, teeth and bank accounts get slammed, and it's why so many people around the world hate America.
Underdogma. If it were any more obvious, this dog would bite you.
Hold up Underdogma to the issues of the day. It's startling how many of them tilt on this "axis of power." Those who have less power are deemed virtuous and noble, and those who have more power are scorned.
Just ask Exxon, Wal-Mart and Tom Brady. Don't you just hate them? Somebody should really knock them down a peg. Who do they think they are?
Well, for starters, they're Americans. One might even say they embody the American spirit.
Exxon literally feeds the engine of America. And they do it without calling for the 12th Imam to come up from his well and bring about the end of the world. Exxon offers a product that people want - heck, we couldn't live without it - and they offer it conveniently, where we need it, and when we need it. "But they're just so...filthy rich" an Underdogmatist might say. "The world's largest company. It's just so...unseemly." Or, you could look at Exxon with a sense of pride. The home-town boys done good. Better than some of the other oil options this world currently offers us.
Perhaps if Exxon had stayed with its original name - Humble Oil - people would look upon them more kindly.
Wal-Mart. As Barack Obama famously spat at Hillary in their January 21 debate: "...while I was working on those streets watching those folks (underdogs) see their jobs shift overseas, you (Hillary) were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart (big bad overdog)." Ooh, that's gotta sting.
If logic had been present at the Democratic debate - or even a cursory understanding of the American character - Hillary might have shot back with praise for a company that employs more Americans than any other while saving the average family $2,500 each year by (gasp) offering things people want at lower prices.
It's enough to make an Underdogmatist's blood boil: a big company helping out the little guy. Can't have that. Must attack.
And then there's Tom Brady. People sure loved to hate him. His good looks, his perfect season, his supermodel girlfriend. Didn't you just want him to lose?
But this is America. Shouldn't we all aim for the top? Shouldn't we all strive to have Brazilian supermodel girlfriends with umlauts on their last names? Apparently not. Less than an hour after his perfect season ended, Tom Brady was being taunted by Underdogmatists on talk shows, in chat rooms and in living rooms around the world.
So, what is to be learned from all this?
The short answer is: Underdogma is the polar opposite of the American spirit that made this country great. And, until we return to what made us so great, the most dangerous place to be right now is at the front of the pack.