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underdog vs. winning team impulses

My floating signifier rant yesterday was tangential to the question I had set out to approach. Likely there will be a few more tangents still along the way… The section I was reading from Dynamics of Contention about the Yellow Revolution in the Philippines got me thinking about shifting and emerging political alignments — thinking about them with a “tipping point” metaphor. Picture a tug of war, where one side seems to be winning handily. When a few key actors switch sides, it suddenly shifts the balance and momentum. In the case of regimes and their challengers, the old regime may suddenly find itself weakened, perhaps beyond recovery, while a challenger movement or alignment finds itself potent and ascending.

This metaphor is considerably simpler than models I’ve been discussing here, like Ernesto Laclau’s models and diagrams (and my adaptations/bastardizations of them here). A tug of war certainly misses important pieces, primarily the typical asymmetry of power and resources between ruling regimes and their challengers. That picture is painted more accurately in Laclau’s more three-dimensional models. But a tipping point in a two-dimensional tug of war may capture something important about the psychological processes active in the minds and groups that defect from one side to the other.

Before digging into these psychological processes, a clarifying tangent is necessary; a complicating of the two-dimensional tug of war, so that we are clear about the limits of our lovely metaphors. The problem with the idea of an actor switching sides in a tug of war is that such a complete defection is extremely rare in the real world. A full conversion from one polarity to its opposite is a gross oversimplification. While such dramatic conversions are not unheard of, they are indeed rare and, importantly, shifts in hegemonic alignments do not depend on such dramatic individual conversions (i.e. on winning over your enemies). The spectrum of allies graphic below is a more instructive map of our “tug of war”:

Shifting the spectrum of allies is about moving people and groups—leaders, influentials, social bases, institutions, polity members, “new” and hitherto unmobilized actors, etc.—over just one category “to the left”. The most crucial category shift is the pulling of passive allies into the active allies category — as this is what substantially increases the alignment’s capacity. For example, when pre-movement Civil Rights leaders and their small nascent organizations “pulled” (i.e. activated) black churches, students, barber shops, etc. from the passive allies to the active allies category, suddenly all of the pre-existing infrastructure, resources, and social capacity of those constituencies and institutions went to work for civil rights, seriously boosting the burgeoning movement’s capacity and reach. Probably the next most important shift is in winning over neutrals, thereby pulling them into the passive allies category. (Some, individuals at least, are likely to move even further and become active allies.)

If an emerging movement/alignment succeeds in affecting important shifts in these categories (passive allies –> active allies; neutral –> passive allies), it is likely approaching a tipping point, where passive opponents start losing their conviction (i.e. they are “neutralized”) and the active/hard opposition eventually loses its support. If challengers can keep up their spectrum-shifting trajectory—and weather likely counter-attacks and repression—the regime will eventually find itself weakened to the point of defeat or capitulation.

This almost leads me to the point/question I had in mind when I started. It has to do with two seemingly contradictory human impulses that seem to me to be in play simultaneously during dramatic tipping points (hint: the title is a giveaway). But one more tangent is necessary first: back to floating signifiers. A tipping point is characterized, often at least, by the introduction or presence of a dramatic catalyzing floating signifier, which, perhaps most significantly, names/crystalizes/signifies the new alignment itself. This is how Laclau, as I understand him, elucidates the populist formation: (1) wariness / latent opposition toward a formidable authority figure or regime, “fermented” over time, (2) shared, even if privately, by a critical mass of groups, social blocs, institutions, polity members, etc., (3) opens the possibility of the dramatic introduction of a potent / widely resonant floating signifier, which symbolizes widespread disaffection and catalyzes/crystalizes the self-realization of the new alignment. The moment of the floating signifier’s entrance = the naming of the new / newly shifted alignment = the public realization/proclamation of specific actors’ shift from one section to a different section in the “spectrum of allies”.

Onward. What are the two seemingly contradictory human impulses that I think are at work psychologically during the shift, during the “tipping point”? They are (1) the tendency to root for the underdog, and (2) the tendency to want to be on the winning team. Both of these impulses are at work at once, I believe.

How can this be? And why does it matter? The first question is easier to answer than simple logic may suggest. Human beings tend to favor the underdog, yes. (For a fun exploration of this tendency, check out Radiolab’s On the Winning Side episode.) But we will often only cast our lots with the underdog when we believe the underdog has a fighting chance of winning. The importance of this reality for organizers and mobilizers can hardly be overstated. This explanation does not eliminate the paradox — an underdog ceases to be an underdog upon coming out “on top” — but it does allow the paradox to function in reality, with both drives potentially aligned, if only temporarily, in sympathy and support for the emergent challenger force.

Why does it matter? Because “underdog sympathy” can disappear overnight amongst parts of a challenger force’s social base once the “top dog” (i.e. regime) is defeated and the challenger force loses its underdog characteristics as it assumes political power. In such cases—where power is seized or assumed—the leadership of the challenger force finds itself exercising hegemony not only within an insurgent alignment that momentarily frames broad social relations with the logic of insurgency, but hegemony within/over the political establishment and society itself. Hitherto challengers in such a situation, if they want to maintain “underdog sympathies” amongst a broad social base, will now have to go on to fight bigger Goliaths. If, for example, you are “insurgent” candidate Barack Obama and you find yourself President Obama, you will have to go on to fight Wall Street and the entrenched plutocratic interests — and you will have to narrate and punctuate that fight with skill and finesse — or you will find yourself cast as the new popularly hated tyrant Goliath. And some ambiguous bad idea may step in as a new floating signifier—let’s call it the “Tea Party”—to signal a faux-populist, faux-underdog alignment to unseat you.

It is of course much more complicated than this. But I think this dynamic pattern is a part of the picture and worthy of strategic consideration.


  1. Pingback: Core political beliefs | In defense of anagorism

  2. Pingback: dissent and resignation | Devoke the Apocalypse.

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