Americans Love Underdogs, But the U.S. is Anything But An Underdog

The other day, I was asked whom I was rooting for in the NBA Finals. Without even thinking I replied quite passively, “the Spurs.” When asked why, I answered with the obligatory “I don’t like the Heat.” While I wasn’t pressed on why exactly that was, I know undoubtedly much of it centered on the fact that the Heat were a superpower of sorts, a collaboration of some of the best players in the league. And that did not sit well with me.

That sort of answer is probably not at all much different than the answer given from the majority of sports fans that harbor some element of bias against the Heat. There is something about the creation of such a team, and how it was done, that does not sit well with many Americans as well. One could argue that there is something embedded within the American Psyche that point to a predisposition towards the underdog. And yet, it’s hard not to observe the seemingly glaring contradiction between that American commemoration of the underdog, and the global positioning that the United States enjoys as the world’s preeminent superpower, and ask one’s self whether there is in fact a contradiction or a failure to respond to public sentiment by foreign policy makers.

The observance of the underdog, stories of rags to riches, the legacy of Horatio Alger, are all as American as apple pie. The celebration of the underdog narrative has existed for hundreds of years. It’s why politicians find the need to brand themselves as marginalized and outsiders. It’s why advertisers position their stories as part and parcel of the underdog experience. It’s probably a large reason as to why a majority of Americans watching the Finals, regardless of political ideology, are pulling for the Spurs. Americans love their underdogs.

Contrast that with America’s unique standing in the world. The United States is the world’s largest superpower, from both an economic and militaristic perspective. With military personnel in at least 130 countries, as well as hundreds of military bases in the world (many of which are highly unnecessary even as a matter of global hegemony), the United States as it relates to the world, is by definition the antithesis of an underdog. Unsurprisingly, America evokes strong opinions worldwide, much of them quite negative.

Now to be clear, there are many in the U.S. that do not find constant U.S. involvement within the international sphere as a desirable end, whether they are libertarians or progressives, or hardly politically involved. In their book The Foreign Policy Disconnect, political scientists Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton argue that when polled, a majority of Americans would actually like to see a scaling back of some military bases (not all). They also found that a majority of Americans would like to see a move toward multilateralism as opposed to unilateralism, and more aid towards poorer nations.

And perhaps that’s the real story. Maybe there isn’t really much of a contradiction here at all, at least if public attitudes are taken into account. Maybe, those underdog sensibilities remain consistent vis-à-vis foreign policy, it’s just that like a whole host of other issues, there is a fundamental disconnect between the people and elected leaders.

Or maybe I’m just being woefully optimistic.