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Why We Hate Duke (And How It Explains Today’s Crazy Politics)

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Count yourself blessed if you have a friend like George Phillips.

An over-achiever from a tiny suburb of Nashville, and blessed early on with GQ looks, rakish charisma and a keen intellect (camouflaged by a thick country accent), George played role model for those of us cutting our political teeth on Al Gore’s first presidential campaign.  When he put family first and abandoned an obvious career in public service, I admired his moral compass (and probably should have followed his lead.)  When our mutual best friend perished suddenly at the wheel of a drunk driver, grief and honoring our buddy’s legacy sealed our bond.  Middle-aged George — looking a little more Field and Stream than GQ these days — is one of my closest confidantes and certainly one of my best friends.

I love George Phillips like a brother.

But every so often, generally on weekend nights in the winter and spring, I simply can’t stand him.  His taunting texts, teasing voicemails, and smart-aleck Facebook posts grate at me like a chisel on a chalkboard.

You see, George Phillips is a Dukie.  And when it comes to our college basketball rivalry, I am not my brother’s keeper.

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Every year or so, especially on those rare occasions when there is a Duke/UK matchup like this week (STICK IT, GEORGE: DOUBLE DIGITS, BABY!), the media revisits the mutual fear and loathing among the fans of college basketball’s two most hallowed programs.  As KSR’s Tyler Thompson brilliantly summarized here, decades of incidents and accidents have boiled our bad blood.

But beyond Duke’s floor-slapping and flopping — or even the hyper-biased sympathy for the Devils paid by the media, the refs and the NCAA — there’s something deeper and intrinsic to the Bluegrass psyche that elevates our rivalry into abhorrence and anathema.

Kentucky is profoundly diverse, and as hard as the journalists and novelists try, we are a thematically undefinable Commonwealth.  Different regions of the state are incongruously disconnected: The East is Appalachia; the West, the old Confederacy; the North, cookie-cutter Midwest suburbs.  But in addition to our Big Blue religion, we have another common cause: We resent — viscerally — the self-righteous interposition of outsiders and elitists. It’s a cultural milieu so ingrained and pernicious that it effectively bound Kentucky to the Confederate cause after the Rebels lost the Civil War.  Today, it helps explain why we’ve emerged as Ground Zero for the Tea Party movement that effectively decries “big government” programs and federal oversight which disproportionately benefit our poor state.

If there is any sturdy symbol of elite, East Coast sanctimony and hypocrisy in athletics, it’s Duke basketball.  The Georges of the world continually pepper us with their haughty insults:  How their academic standards are higher.  How their players are smarter, more virtuous.  How their recruiting is ethically purer.  How their sublimely righteous coach is focused like a laser on the integrity of the sport. (He would never sully the spirit of amateurism with a Cal-like one-and-done strategy!  Oh…wait.)

christian-laettner-stompIf there was one singular moment that best symbolizes their notoriety — and our reactive revulsion to it —  it’s not the ad nauseum-replayed “Shot,” but rather, from the same historic NCAA tournament game, the clandestinely insidious “Stomp“: An über-arrogant Devil of a Christian intentionally and imperiously assaulted a prone teenager of the Chicago inner city with the sole of his shoe…and got away with it!  That one image elegantly encapsulates the shifty, smug and supercilious Dukie image in the hearts of Big Blue Nation.

But The Stomp also serves as the perfect metaphor for our view of the American system of government.

Over the past few weeks, national wags have agonizingly speculated about the root causes of Kentucky’s Election Day results.  How could a complete political newcomer — who ran a gaffe-filled campaign, and was mercilessly taunted with nasty personal attacks from his own fellow party travelers — defeat a serious, solid, albeit unexciting opponent (a Dukie, natch)?  Even worse: How could the citizens of counties who benefited most nationally from the expansion of health insurance coverage vote for the guy who pledged to rip it away?

The answer is complicated, of course; part of a decades-long transformation of Kentucky into a solid-red bastion.  But a core underlying theme is the vision of an Establishment presumptuously stomping the little guy.

For many Matt Bevin supporters, their vote was an angry middle finger to the Washington politicians who they think want to seize their hard-earned tax dollars and regulate their signature industries out of business.  It’s the same fury that has propelled the thrice-divorced Kim Davis to emerge as their moral martyr: How dare the media patronize and marginalize our religious values? It’s also why Donald Trump is so popular here and in places like Kentucky:  Sure, he says stupid things, but he’s fighting The Man– for us! — and his angry tirades reflect the mood of an electorate that feels bruised and battered by the status quo powers-that-be.

Ironically, it was a Duke law grad (Richard Nixon) who first tapped into this politics of resentment — channeling anger over the War of Northern Aggression (on behalf of civil rights) into a political realignment of the South.  And as I’ve argued previously, perhaps another Duke law grad (Matt Jones) might help lead Kentucky Democrats out of the political wilderness by redirecting outsider anger toward the truly insufferable elites who are undermining education, suppressing wages, and threatening access to affordable health care.

Politics, like basketball fandom, is often times much more about emotion than reason.  Perhaps one day our elected leaders — Democrats and Republicans — will find a way to appeal to our hearts and our better angels instead of nearly exclusively tapping our fears and resentments.

But while we wait, George will continue to jab; and I will continue to fume.  Until of course, when we stomp on the Devils’ tails — again — this April in Houston.

Article written by Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, The Recovering Politician (Twitter: @RecoveringPol), writes about the politics of sport and the sport of politics...and sometimes about bourbon. Jonathan has been elected twice as Kentucky's State Treasurer; practices as a crisis management attorney; authored three books on faith, public policy and crisis management; serves as a Contributor to The Daily Beast, played straight man on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; reached the final table of the World Series of Poker; and with his summer camp sweetheart, raised two remarkable twenty-something daughters.