Candidates will embrace the underdog image

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The 2010 election season is about to begin. In less than a month, Maine Democrats and Republicans will choose their nominees for governor and other public officials. The excitement is building.

In the next few weeks, look for a number of candidates to depict themselves as the scrappy small fry; the long-shot who just might pull off an upset and win. Some of the candidates may even portray the citizens of Maine in a similar way — underestimated and unfairly portrayed as second-best. In the fall general election, third party and independent candidates may portray themselves in a similar fashion. In short, look for an embrace of the underdog.

But why would candidates try to portray themselves, and our state’s citizens, as underdogs? Because the symbol is so powerful.

In this excerpt from my upcoming book, “The Underdog in American Politics: The Democratic Party and Liberal Values,” published by Palgrave Macmillan, I explain why the concept is so appealing and how the word may have originated. Note that the poem by David Barker has a link to Maine. Barker was a famous poet from Exeter.

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It seems that everyone wants to be seen as the underdog. Romantics, idealists, and do-gooders are drawn to the defense of them. Individuals who stand up for them are considered heroic. Organizations that represent them are acclaimed. Nations that fight for their interests are praised. Culture is shaped by how underdog stories are incorporated into its fabric.

The underdog has a particular appeal to Americans. American society is defined and influenced by concerns about equality and fairness. It is also troubled by discrimination, persecution and injustice — persistent reminders that many core American ideals fall short of reality. This unease is expressed through sympathy and empathy and is often played out on the stage of American politics.

Moreover, there is a process appeal of underdogs as well. Americans love a good game; rooting for the team, person, party or company that is perceived to be behind in a contest is exciting. If ideals interrelate with the contest, all the better. Thought and emotion combine to produce political dramas.

Even though underdogs have an endearing appeal for so many, the definition of the word is ambiguous. Webster’s gives three definitions, one being “a person who is handicapped or at a disadvantage because of injustice, discrimination, etc.” The Scholastic Pocket Dictionary defines the word as a “person, team or group that is expected to be the loser in a game, a race, an election, or other contest.”

On Wikipedia, there is a section labeled “Sympathy for the Underdog.” Some of the words in that section capture a core component of the idea: “A social or ethnic group which suffers from discrimination, persecution and/or economic disability and which on that base gains the sympathy of public opinion in its own or other countries.” Thus, it seems that almost everyone, or anything, could be considered an underdog at some point in time.

Some people believe that the term came from 19th century dog fighting: the winner of the contest was the top dog while the loser of the contest was the underdog. There was even a familiar 19th century song and poem by David Barker titled “The Under Dog in the Fight.” Its lyrics describe the sentiment many feel when two participants with unequal power battle each other:

I know that the world, the great big world,

From the peasant up to the king,

Has a different tale from the tale I tell,

And a different song to sing.

But for me—and I care not a single fig

If they say I am wrong or right wrong,

I shall always go for the weaker dog,

For the under dog in the fight.

I know that the world, that the great big world,

Will never a moment stop.

To see which dog may be in the fault,

But will shout for the dog on top.

But for me I shall never pause to ask

Which dog may be in the right

For my heart will beat, while it beats at all.

For the under dog in the fight.

Perchance what I’ve said I had better not said,

Or ’twere better I had said it incog.

But with my heart and with glass filled up to the brim

Here is luck to the under dog.

Karl Trautman is chairman of the Department of Social Sciences at Central Maine Community College in Auburn.

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