In a modern-day America, a good modest origins story is as necessary an attribute of a public figure’s self-identity as a Birkin bag is a necessary attribute of an Upper East Side trophy wife. As political season heats up and the candidates elbow each other to ingratiate themselves with the little guy, we should ready ourselves for the bi-annual onslaught of personal hardship stories. But come to think of it, the underdog story is a permanent American staple, election season or not.
Election year, however, offers a great insight into the power of such narrative, where political candidates, most of whom were born to uninspiring circumstances ranging from middle-class families to political dynasties, compete for ‘the shittiest childhood’ spot. There’s a problem there, as the candidates, raised in the postwar, economically prosperous America weren’t exactly subjects to a Great Depression or a WWII level upheaval. Here, lacking a true personal hardship story, they pivot to the story of their immigrant parents and grandparents, as if the suffering of ancestors is somehow a proof of one’s own hard life. How was it hard? Was he a barefoot 12-year old forced to work in a coalmine to feed his family? On genetic level? Damn, if only one could buy a crappy childhood!
To admit privilege, to admit the possession of power or influence, is to put oneself into a weaker argumentative position and to invite criticism. The privileged know this even if on merely subconscious level – they never miss a chance to tell a self-deprecating story. This strategy kills many birds with one stone, it deflects the critics and endears the narrator to an economically struggling audience.
In real life we’ve all met manifestations of such underdog mindset when we heard a successful person boast about how hard he worked to get where he is (usually a soapy immigrant story), and then, without missing a beat, complain about how it’s tough to live in a world where his tax dollars support all kinds of riff-raff. You see the trick here? While he’s eager to convey his success story he’s careful to mask it in a certain degree of martyrdom.
Positioning oneself as an underdog is a low-risk, high-reward strategy. Kim Davis, a Kentucky public official who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples knows this. Her ostensible underdog bona fides, validated by the stint in jail, were cemented at the moment of her release, in a surreal but too delicious to watch spectacle. The visuals of the event – the Eye of the Tiger soundtrack, the politicians jockeying to insert themselves into a photo-op with a bunch of country bumpkins, the crosses, the main character’s triumphant posture, arms in the air, akin to a pastor about to deliver a sermon to her flock, her husband in denim overalls and the scarecrow hat – were just too awesome. A fiction writer would kill to conceive and write a scene like this. But the scene was real and unscripted and thus powerful – there was no hint of irony in the entire show. Clearly, Kim Davis fancies herself to be a scrappy Rocky Balboa defeating, in an uneven and bloody fight, an all-powerful Ivan Drago. And that gives her power. She would not have that power if she merely performed her governmental duties, because a government official cannot be an underdog. What’s also interesting here is that one doesn’t even have to put up any sort of a real fight to achieve the accolades. These days one can achieve the glory of David fighting Goliath, without doing all the work. You don’t have to defeat the Goliath, you just have to bait him, make yourself into an underdog and take a stand, and next thing you know there are TV cameras and politicians and a cult following. Whether you’re in her camp or not you watched that scene in awe. The genius of that scene is undeniable. It could not have been conceived and executed as preplanned. It was a sporadic, organic display delivered in the most dramatic fashion to the hungry, rapturous audience. Somewhere, Karl Rove is biting his nails in envy.
As much as this Kim Davis’s kind of underdoggery is entertaining and attention-drawing, it can’t do much harm. 6 months from now we won’t even remember who Kim Davis was, like we don’t remember the outrage surrounding Rachel Dolezal a few months back.
It is the low-profile underdogs that worry me. It is the true elites with power, pretending to have none, that can do real harm. The greatest cache of low-profile underdogs can be found on Wall Street or among the billionaire ranks. I would argue that, among these elites, a quest for a personal narrative is as strong a motivator as monetary rewards. A smart billionaire with politics and a gospel to spread knows that denial of power is a power in itself. Acknowledgment of being in privileged position, of possessing power, would then require some kind of stewardship, a responsibility. But denial of power frees one from responsibilities. What kind of stewardship and responsibility can we expect from the majority of Wall Street players and hedgies who, with multi-million dollar paychecks, with an army of lobbyists, with a direct line to and an ear of lawmakers, still insist on describing themselves as ‘scrappy kids from Brooklyn’ – a tired metaphor, sure, but still a dominant sentiment among the finance crowd, doggedly resistant to self-reflection?
Such resistance – to the acknowledgement of one’s membership in a power elite – reveals a deep desire to be free from responsibility, to remain a child in essence, to be an immanent, passive participant, who merely reacts to events unfolding before him. Again and again, in the aftermath of the crisis, we heard one bigwig after another, defend themselves with “I didn’t know nothing” and “beyond my control” fables. They knew that to be in charge is to be accountable. To be perceived as a winner, to be transcendent, is to invite all kinds of unwelcome scrutiny. But when you’re an underdog you can use it as a shield from critics and a niche from which to attack others. Folksiness and bootstraps stories are immune from attacks by nosy journalists and Vox.com eggheads. It’s a smart positioning. One has to be a Trump to revel in the spotlight and the “winning.” But Trump has a rare quality of not giving a fuck, unlike many self-conscious “winners” on Wall Street, who feign modesty and shroud themselves in ‘poor me’ stories. Is it any wonder then, that the public, correctly, perceives them as the biggest douchebags?
2 thoughts on “Our Cult of the Underdog.”
Well, you and I already have a great immigrant underdog stories. Too bad we’ll never attain that kind of power where these stories will be even marginally useful. 🙂
Yes. And we were not even pretend-underdogs.