Now that we’re smack dab in the middle of the NCAA basketball tournament, what better time to take a look at fan psychology?
The appeal of this sporting event is manifold: The timing in Spring brings many out of hibernation, looking for some excitement; given the sheer number of games, spectacular upsets are inevitable; and the elimination process, whereby bracket diagrams can trace out the winners and losers—especially in this era of softened standards and shades of gray—adds a sense of both finality and anticipation to the proceedings.
However, while this little analysis explains the popularity of the tournament, it does not explain why people are avid fans of a particular team. One reply would be that as a graduate of college “X,” you would be inclined to favor that team in all athletic contests. But then, even if this is true, what is your dog in the fight, exactly?
If you have wagered on your team achieving some specific outcome in the tournament, success for them directly equals money for you. If you have not bet on the game, then what? Why should you be fulfilled or more happy if your team wins? Are you in charge of alumni donations, student admissions, or athletic recruiting—all of which would improve in light of a victory?
The argument is that you have a “rooting interest” in the team, it is fun to follow them, it’s good conversation fodder, and there it ends. This time, though, let’s not end there, since fandom is not limited to sports or entertainment. I wish that it were.
Ideally, politics should involve ideas beyond “vote for me because there is a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ after my name.” Years ago, it actually did. The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 pitted Lincoln, the Republican challenger, against Douglas, incumbent Democratic senator from Illinois. In the wake of the recent Kansas-Nebraska act and Dred Scott decision, slavery and whether or not it would exist in the territories were hot-button issues, to say the least. The country was divided, and war, of course, would follow.
Lincoln was to lose that election, but gained unbeatable PR, while Douglas’s reputation suffered—mostly because he had to articulate the official policy of the Dems. Douglas would go down in flames in the presidential election of 1860. Lincoln won against a badly divided opposition, but actually did very little personal campaigning, essentially letting the passions of the issues play themselves out.
Rest assured that very few Americans at that time were clinging to mere party logos. As it happened, the Democrats split into northern and southern factions, and the Republicans themselves were formed in 1854 by anti-slavery refugees from the Whig, Free Soil, and Democratic parties. Clearly, the ideas were of paramount importance.
After the Civil War, the battle lines were still drawn, and the regional breakdown of party loyalty was to remain fairly constant for decades. With the rise of the labor movement, increased immigration, and women’s suffrage, American politics would descend to fandom. To be sure, FDR was the biggest beneficiary of that state of affairs.
At present, there seem to be far more disaffected Republicans than Democrats, probably because the Dems have been out of power, and are simply looking for their “team” to put up some victories, while doctrinal differences within the GOP have had time to fester. Thus, we have mindless bickering between the parties, as fans of one or another figure rally behind their hero.
In reality, though, these heroes are just as low-rent as heroes in sports and entertainment. Conservatives can poke fun at the obnoxious John Kerry, plastic-faced Nancy Pelosi, or inveterate phony Hillary Clinton, while those on the Left never miss an opportunity to attack George W. Bush. How different is that from the dozens of websites that mock pop celebrities?
Not very different at all, and the saddest part is that the politicos are hardly any brighter than the IQ-challenged celebs. While I am no fan of either Lincoln or Douglas, they were mental giants compared to our current crop of “leaders.”