Our loyalty to political party mirrors our loyalty to college ball teams. That’s not a good thing.
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Growing up a half-hour west of Bloomington, Indiana my family was surrounded by Hoosier basketball fans. This was the mid-1980’s…at the height of Robert Montgomery Knight’s reign of terror wildly successful stint as IU’s hoops coach. And while a wonderful, beautiful handful of his supporters were genteel and humble people, a great many ranged from casually arrogant to full-fanged and vituperative.
My parents, both former Purdue students, remained steadfast to their Boilermakers, and from Thanksgiving until March, they often found themselves living in a sort of emotional and psychological Bastogne. Fending off the polite jokes were fine, even fun, actually…such as this little gem:
Roses are red;
Violets are blue.
IU’s in the final four,
And Purdue isn’t.
At the center of those repeated arguments among friends (and certainly among family) stood a man of his era. To Purdue fans, Coach Knight was a volatile, chair-throwing, telephone-pounding, profane, belittling, self-absorbed embarrassment. The antithesis of professionalism and class. But among Hoosier fans, Coach was a model leader–a disciplinarian who demanded that his players conduct themselves as gentlemen, go to class every day…heck, even in classes he taught to the general student population, he kicked out students if they wore hats indoors.
Even among the most objective of objective measures–wins and losses–neither side could agree.
IU supporters argued that the Hoosiers won games because Coach Knight mastered the sport with his stifling defense and massaged favorable calls by “working the refs.” Critics countered that “stifling defense” actually meant rampant fouling, and that “working the refs” was tantamount to bullying. Supporters still marvel at how he revolutionized the game. Detractors will never forgive him for ruining it–for transforming a once artistic display of offensive coordination and grace into a grotesque orgy of colliding bodies.
So heated was the rivalry that loyal IU devotees refused to acknowledge that Purdue had a knack for cranking out engineers or for putting people on the moon. And for their part, my parents sometimes bristled at the very idea that IU might actually send out some talented doctors and lawyers into the world. Footnote 1
In the two decades since Knight’s departure from Bloomington, the once explosive college rivalry has become rather tepid. That doesn’t mean, however, that the desire to fight has faded. Rather than bicker and bad-mouth one another over hoops, modern Hoosiers (Indiana residents…not IU fans, per se) have shifted their battle fronts. So, no, we don’t hate each other over something as dumb as basketball, anymore. Now we hate each other over something even dumber than that: our voting record. It’s one thing, of course, to stand by an obstinate basketball coach with a history of verbal abuse; it’s quite another to stick to one of two political organizations which claim to be looking out for you, but are using you for their own gain.
The nature of this loyalty is largely the same. We Democrats Footnote 2 love to sit on our moral superiority and condemn our Republican neighbors for their hypocrisy. Our favorite example (of course) is Donald Trump, and our favorite moment is that infamous Access Hollywood tape.
We scoffed at Christians who had spent the last decade bludgeoning us with Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, and Monica Lewinski . All of that moral clarity, proudly worn on their shoulders like a gaudy set of epaulettes, only to turn around and hoot-and-holler for a man who bragged about grabbing a woman by her privates. For many of us, the religious right surrendered their credibility.
But hold on…we voted for Clinton…some us did it twice. When I cast my ballot in ’92, I knew about Gennifer Flowers and the Vietnam draft evasion. I knew exactly who Bill Clinton was. But I rationalized his sexual impulses and blew off his calculated move to stay out of the Army. When George W. Bush used his familial influence to stay out of Vietnam, I thought that was insidious. When Clinton executed a similar maneuver, I deemed it understandable.
This is a cycle which has repeated itself for at least my lifetime. Footnote 3 Benghazi was a treasonous crime…but Beruit in the early ‘80s was a tragic, necessary sacrifice for world security. Hillary’s email screw-up is worthy of prison sentence…but George W’s, Jared Kushner’s, and Mike Pence’s email faux pax’ are forgivable. George W’s “war on terror” was a crime against humanity, but Barack Obama’s long-running drone attacks—often killing civilians…? That’s okay. When Reagan and Bush dreamed up NAFTA? Democrats thought it was terrible. But when Clinton put it back on the agenda, they were all for it. When Hillary pushed for socialized health care, the GOP brought forth their own plan. When Barack Obama passed that GOP plan into law, Republicans spent the next seven years serially attempting to repeal it. Footnote 4
We are all hypocrites, a nation of trolls wallowing in our proudly constructed, steaming piles of “Gotcha!” We just want to root for our teams, be loyal to a fault, and fail to grasp issues or policy on their own merits. All of it is lunacy.
And then there was all that working-class anger against the corporate elites who are keeping the common man down. We all remember that moment when finally…finally…a candidate stood up and spoke out for the common, working American. We savored that day in history when, as he campaigned for president, he said he would repeal NAFTA. We chanted his name when he said it was a terrible deal for the American worker, and he even expressed his reservations about our trade status with China.
His name was Dennis Kucinich, candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2004. Most Americans wrote him off. He was flaky. He was weird. He was also on his third marriage with that much younger wife, too. Footnote 5
When you peel away all the contradictions, suddenly all those late-night arguments gathered around the kitchen island…the ones peppered with cherry picked anecdotes, propagandist slug-lines, and distorted statistics…all of that leaves us facing an ugly truth: We are all hypocrites, a nation of trolls wallowing in our proudly constructed, steaming piles of “Gotcha!” We’re not interested in seeking common ground. We don’t want to accept differing opinions as part of the natural experience of living among neighbors. We just want to root for our teams, be loyal to a fault, and fail to grasp issues or policy on their own merits. All of it is lunacy.
Besides founding National Road Magazine, Wheeler writes for several other publications and teaches high school English to a group of lovably obnoxious teenagers. He doesn’t play much golf anymore (it makes him too angry), but he loves playing with his guitar (he only know two chords).
Featured Image “Donald Trump and Bill Clinton” belongs to the Public Domain
Footnote 1: When I was in high school I would watch IU/Purdue games at home—often on the local independent channel out of Indy. If IU won, I would walk into school the next morning with my chin tucked a little more tightly into my shoulders, bracing for the onslaught. It always came. My affiliation with Purdue, for at least that day, defined me, and none of my peers granted me the honor of a dignified loss. We ranged from ages 14-18 and had no idea what the college experience would be like. So, of course, we slung insults at one another as if we were fighting for the very preservation of the universities themselves.
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Footnote 2: I don’t know if I’m still a Democrat or not. I grew up one—the blueblood, FDR, New Deal, stand up for the working stiff sort. I’m all for the rights of the underprivileged, and I’m happy the party champions that as well. But Democrats were always at their best when they helped unions and hourly working types tell fat-cat managers and corporate tycoons to stick it. Then the whole Bernie-Hillary flap happened. Then Tom Perez rubbed out the Bernie-Ellison coalition. Then Donna Brazile announced that all of 2016 was a Hillary-fixed sham. So I don’t know what I am. If the Democrats are willing to come back to me and be what I want them to be, I’m in. If they keep up their current dysfunction, then I guess I’ll dress up as Yoda and become president of “The Force Party.”
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Footnote 3: Any historian will tell you this has gone on since the nation began. Just look into the crap that went down when Andrew Jackson ran for office a couple hundred years ago.
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Footnote 4: I never understood why we wasted so much time and energy fighting over how to pay for bloated, overpriced healthcare rather than trying to figure out why it was…you know…bloated and overpriced. Then I took a long look at the Mercedes, BMW’s, and Jaguars in the “Reserved for Doctors” parking spots. I stopped wondering about it then.
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Footnote 5: I actually liked Kucinich, and I thought his tariff comments were much needed. I also thought his wife was a perfect fit for him: funny and smart…often smarter than he was. While he and Trump made the same campaign pledges, they meant something to him. That we blew him off and instead picked the guy we all knew was “selling us something” seems noteworthy.
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