America's growing coalition of soccer fans looks a lot like the coalition that got Obama elected.
Last week, Ann Coulter penned a column explaining why soccer is un-American. First, it’s collectivist. (“Individual achievement is not a big factor…blame is dispersed.”) Second, it’s effeminate. (“It’s a sport in which athletic talent finds so little expression that girls can play with boys.”) Third, it’s culturally elitist. (“The same people trying to push soccer on Americans are the ones demanding that we love HBO’s “Girls,” light-rail, Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.”) Fourth, and most importantly, “It’s foreign…Soccer is like the metric system, which liberals also adore because it’s European.”
Soccer hatred, in other words, exemplifies American exceptionalism. For roughly two centuries, American exceptionalism has rested on the premise that there is a standard mode of national behavior, born in Europe, which America resists. Over the centuries, what constitutes that European standard—and America’s resistance to it—has changed. For some 19th-century thinkers, for instance, what made America exceptional was its refusal to partake of the European habit of fighting wars. For Coulter and many contemporary conservatives, by contrast, part of what makes America exceptional is its individualism, manliness and populism. (All of which soccer allegedly lacks).
But Coulter’s deeper point is that for America to truly be America, it must stand apart. That’s why she brings up the metric system. The main reason to resist the metric system isn’t that it’s a bad form of measurement. It’s that it’s a European form of measurement. So it is with soccer. Soccer’s alleged collectivism, effeminacy and elitism are simply markers of its foreignness. The core problem with embracing soccer is that in so doing, America would become more like the rest of the world.
Worse, from Coulter’s perspective, Americans like soccer for the very reason she loathes it: It connects us to the rest of the world. Earlier this year, I wrote an essay entitled “The End of American Exceptionalism,” which argued that on subjects where the United States has long been seen as different, attitudes in America increasingly resemble those in Europe. Soccer is one of the best examples yet.
To understand how the embrace of soccer undermines American exceptionalism, it’s worth understanding why Americans rejected soccer to begin with. In their 2001 book, Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman argue that in advanced industrial countries, the sports that achieved hegemony in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have generally maintained preeminence ever since.
So why didn’t soccer gain a foothold in the U.S. in the decades between the Civil War and World War I, when it was gaining dominance in Europe? Precisely because it was gaining dominance in Europe. The arbiters of taste in late 19th and early 20th century America wanted its national pastimes to be exceptional. Despite the British roots of both baseball (in rounders) and football (in rugby), their promoters worked to cleanse them of foreign associations and market them as American originals. Basketball had the good fortune to have actually been invented in the United States.
Soccer, by contrast, was associated with foreignness in an era when mass immigration was spawning Coulter-like fears that America was losing its special character. “Soccer,” Markovits and Hellerman argue, “was perceived by both native-born Americans and immigrants as a non-American activity at a time in American history when nativism and nationalism emerged to create a distinctly American self-image … if one liked soccer, one was viewed as at least resisting—if not outright rejecting—integration into America.” Old-stock Americans, in other words, were elevating baseball, football, and basketball into symbols of America’s distinct identity. Immigrants realized that embracing those sports offered a way to claim that identity for themselves. Clinging to soccer, by contrast, was a declaration that you would not melt.
So why is interest in soccer rising now? Partly, because the United States is yet again witnessing mass immigration from soccer-mad nations. A huge chunk of the soccer fans in America today are Hispanic. According to one recent study, 56 percent of Hispanic Americans said they planned to watch the World Cup compared to only 20 percent of white non-Hispanics. Twenty-six percent of Hispanics in the U.S. call soccer their favorite game; among non-Hispanics whites, it’s three percent.
This reflects a broader turn away from the exceptionalism that Coulter champions: Americans today are less likely to insist that America’s way of doing things is always best. In 2002, 60 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center that, “our culture is superior to others.” By 2011, it was down to 49 percent. This change is being led by the young. According to that same 2011 Pew survey, Americans over the age of 50 were 15 points more likely to say “our culture is superior” than were people over 50 in Germany, Spain, Britain, and France. Americans under 30, by contrast, were actually less likely to say “our culture is superior” than their counterparts in Germany, Spain, and Britain.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that young Americans disproportionately like soccer. The average age of Americans who call baseball their favorite sport is 53. Among Americans who like football best, it’s 46. Among Americans who prefer soccer, by contrast, the average age is only 37.
Beside Hispanics and the young, the third major pro-soccer constituency is liberals. They’re willing to embrace a European sport for the same reason they’re willing to embrace a European-style health care system: because they see no inherent value in America being an exception to the global rule. According to a survey by Experian Marketing Services, American liberals were almost twice as likely to watch the 2010 World Cup as American conservatives. When the real-estate website Estately created a seven part index to determine a state’s love of soccer, it found that Washington State, Maryland, the District of Columbia, New York, and New Jersey—all bright blue—loved soccer best, while Alabama, Arkansas, North Dakota, Mississippi and Montana—all bright red—liked it least.
In fact, the soccer coalition—immigrants, liberals and the young—looks a lot like the Obama coalition. Not long ago, commentators assumed that these groups could never make soccer popular on their own. The traditional “rule of thumb,” argued Markovits and Hellerman in 2001, is that for a sport to succeed in America, it must develop strong roots among the white working class. “Soccer, on the other hand, continues to be identified as ‘yuppie’ and ‘preppy’ indulged by a mixture of suburban ‘soccer moms,’ along with Hispanic immigrants.”
The willingness of growing numbers of Americans to embrace soccer bespeaks their willingness to imagine a different relationship with the world. Historically, conservative foreign policy has oscillated between isolationism and imperialism. America must either retreat from the world or master it. It cannot be one among equals, bound by the same rules as everyone else. Exceptionalists view sports the same way. Coulter likes football, baseball, and basketball because America either plays them by itself, or—when other countries play against us—we dominate them. (In fact, most of the other countries that play baseball do so because they were once under U.S. occupation).
Embracing soccer, by contrast, means embracing America’s role as merely one nation among many, without special privileges. It’s no coincidence that young Americans, in addition to liking soccer, also like the United Nations. In 2013, Pew found that Americans under 30 were 24 points more favorable to the U.N. than Americans over 50. According to a 2011 Pew poll, Millennials were also 23 points more likely than the elderly to say America should take its allies’ opinion into account even if means compromising our desires.
Coulter would find this deeply un-American. But it’s a healthy response to a world that America is both less able to withdraw from, and less able to dominate, than it was in the past. In embracing soccer, Americans are learning to take something we neither invented nor control, and nonetheless make it our own. It’s a skill we’re going to need in the years to come.
PETER BEINART is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.