When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”
Malcolm Gladwell's article in the May 11th issue of the New Yorker doesn't mention Artur Davis, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, or any other politician (save George Washington). It's about an underdog girls basketball team that almost won a national championship. Almost is key here. The girls won when they played by the written rules – but where defeated when forced to adhere to the unwritten rules.
Such is the fate of many political campaigns – not just in Alabama – and I couldn't help but notice the parallels between Gladwell's article: “How David Beats Goliath” and Davis' campaigns against Earl Hilliard in 2002 and his run for governor now.
Everything the “experts” know about Alabama politics says that Davis doesn't have a chance. Yet, he's running hard, raising money, and collecting supporters anyway. It's early, but getting a jump on opponents is the only chance an underdog, insurgent campaign has to win.
Although it sounds odd to call a candidate who starts off with a campaign war chest of over $1 million an “underdog,” Davis really is. If his run for governor is successful, it will be because he's chosen to break the “unwritten” rules that have governed Alabama politics for, well, as long as I've been playing the game (about 25 years now).
First, let me briefly explain about the basketball analogy… Gladwell profiles a Redwood City, CA team of mostly 12-year-old girls. For the most part, they weren't accomplished basketball players. The coach, a player's father, was originally from Mumbai and grew up with cricket and soccer – not basketball. He was confused by the game initially.
He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent’s attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadivé thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?
So he trained his girls to pay the “press” all the time. And it worked!
The Redwood City players would jump ahead 4–0, 6–0, 8–0, 12–0. One time, they led 25–0. Because they typically got the ball underneath their opponent’s basket, they rarely had to take low-percentage, long-range shots that required skill and practice. They shot layups. In one of the few games that Redwood City lost that year, only four of the team’s players showed up. They pressed anyway. Why not? They lost by three points.
While the girls won, they also generated a great deal of hard feelings. Note that they weren't breaking any written rules of basketball – just the unwritten code that once a team scores, they decorously move back to their own goal and play defense.
But in basketball, in politics, in just about any situation you can describe, when the underdog plays defense – the underdog loses. If you play a game or run a campaign according to the rules of a stronger opponent, you lose.
The most famous example? David vs. Goliath.
In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones.
“And it happened as the Philistine arose and was drawing near David that David hastened and ran out from the lines toward the Philistine,” the Bible says. “And he reached his hand into the pouch and took from there a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead.” The second sentence—the slingshot part—is what made David famous. But the first sentence matters just as much. David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up. “The sudden astonishment when David sprints forward must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target,” the poet and critic Robert Pinsky writes in “The Life of David.”
Yes, all this does tie in with the Davis campaign! I'm not comparing Davis himself with young King David; only saying there's a distinct similarity in tactics.
Artur Davis has chosen not to play by Goliath's (in this case, the Alabama political establishment's) rules. Learn what I think those are in Part II… because this post was turning out to be so long that nobody – not even my mother or Mooncat – would read the whole thing.
Well, ok… here's a taste of the unwritten rules… just to keep you hanging until tomorrow…
- Start at the bottom.
- Wait your turn.
- Genuflect before the gatekeepers.
- Don't rock the boat.