The Magazine

Tocqueville and College Football

From the December 29, 2003 / January 5, 2004 issue: A defense of the Bowl Championship Series.

Dec 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 16 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

AS A POLITICAL SCIENCE professor who created one of the computer rankings that determine which two college football teams will meet in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), I find the controversy over the rankings mirrors American political culture. Indeed, it shows American character is still as Alexis de Tocqueville described it: We swing on a pendulum with excessive deference to popular opinion at one extreme, excessive deference to authoritative rule at the other. On the one hand, Americans embrace direct democracy; on the other, they embrace rule by "experts," whether in the bureaucracy or on the Supreme Court. The moderate middle ground of representative government is often distrusted.

Football fans swing between the same two extremes, as we shall see. But first a word about the BCS for those who do not follow it. Until 1998, college football had no organized national championship game but a number of traditional bowl games featuring top teams. That year, the Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta Bowls agreed to host the annual BCS championship game on a rotating basis. Playing in the game are the two top teams in the BCS standings, which combine four elements, each weighed evenly: a team's average ranking in the AP's poll of sportswriters and ESPN/USA Today's poll of college coaches, its number of losses, its strength of schedule (determined by opponents' and opponents' opponents' won-lost records), and its average score in seven computer rankings (actually in six, as the lowest is dropped). Bonus points for wins over top-10 teams are added after the initial rankings are computed.

This season, Oklahoma was the only undefeated team and was the consensus No. 1 team, until the Sooners lost badly in their last game. After Oklahoma's loss, USC and LSU vaulted ahead of Oklahoma in the coaches' and sportswriters' polls. But six of the seven computer rankings (including mine, the Anderson & Hester Rankings) put Oklahoma and LSU ahead of USC. The BCS's strength-of-schedule ratings showed that Oklahoma's was the hardest schedule of the three teams, while USC's was easiest. Among the top three teams, only Oklahoma had a victory over another top-10 team. When all of these BCS components were weighed together, Oklahoma finished first and LSU a close second, with USC an even closer third. This means Oklahoma will play LSU for the championship this year in the Sugar Bowl on January 4.

The public outcry was loud and immediate: How dare the BCS leave out USC, thereby defying public opinion as registered by the media and coaches' polls? Perhaps most striking was the nearly complete absence of any attempt to defend the polls' judgments as correct. Their correctness was held to be self-evident. The consensus view, expressed on ABC's BCS selection show, ESPN's follow-up broadcast, and apparently in living rooms and barrooms across the nation (judging by emails I received), was something along the lines of, "The polls have USC No. 1, yet the Trojans are not No. 1 in the BCS standings; therefore, the BCS standings are clearly wrong." This recalls Tocqueville's comment that in America, "the majority . . . lives in perpetual adoration of itself."

And what is the favored solution? In their zeal for overthrowing a BCS system that does not unquestioningly embrace public opinion, fans are willing to leave behind their customary place at the altar of public opinion only if they are allowed to transport themselves to their other favorite altar, that of authoritative rule. Let's scrap the BCS system and create a "panel of experts" to determine results, they say. They'll know which teams to pick.

The BCS standings, on the other hand, embody the moderate middle ground of public opinion tempered and modified by reasonable thought and more objective standards of analysis. But as in American politics as a whole, this reasonable middle ground between unchecked popular rule and unchecked rule by authorities is a lonely place.

In all walks of life, it is increasingly common for the god of public opinion to be thoughtlessly honored. When, on the fortieth anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, CNN asked Americans whether the United States would have become involved in Vietnam had Kennedy not been assassinated, the roughly 40 percent "no" response was presented not as evidence of Americans' ignorance that the United States already was involved at that point, but as an important finding to be taken seriously. When children enter our public schools, they are encouraged not to learn what other people thought about things, but rather to "think for themselves"--which is crucial, but also fruitless without insights from beyond one's own mind or beyond the minds of one's similarly underdeveloped peers. When direct democracy trumps representative democracy, this development is often praised on the grounds that "the people have spoken." In each of these arenas, we have somehow lost sight of the crucial question: Have the people spoken well, or are they just babbling?

Questioning public opinion is not elitist but rather is necessary to encourage minority views that might be more just, though initially less widely held. Tocqueville argued in "Democracy in America" that Americans were becoming (if they were not already in the 1830s) slaves to public opinion. "I do not know any country," he writes, "where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America." An unwillingness to challenge the prevailing majority view is abundantly evident in response to the BCS, but it is characteristic of our politics as well. As Tocqueville writes, "In that immense crowd which throngs the avenues to power in the United States, I found very few men who displayed that manly candor and masculine independence of opinion which frequently distinguished the Americans in former times, and which constitutes the leading feature in distinguished characters wheresoever they may be found." (Certainly Sen. Joseph Biden did nothing to demonstrate any "masculine independence of opinion" when he parroted public opinion about the BCS at a recent Senate hearing. Biden declared the system "un-American" but provided no reasoned argument with which to buttress his grandstanding.)

Tocqueville also predicted the opposite swing of the pendulum, toward embracing authoritarian rule. While this would seem a most unlikely result in a nation so generally devoted to popular opinion and popular rule, it nevertheless does occur. For example, there is hardly a domestic policy issue of note that the federal courts are not now in some prominent way involved in deciding.

Perhaps the key to this phenomenon is found in Tocqueville's insight that our love of equality--which he thought to be Americans' defining trait--can be satisfied either by all of us equally becoming rulers, or by all of us equally becoming subjects. This helps explain both Americans' distrust of Congress and the comparatively greater trust they display toward unelected government officers. And it helps to explain how such deference to authority can prevail among a people who otherwise so fervently embrace popular opinion and popular rule.

There is, of course, a middle ground between these extremes. Politically that middle ground is republicanism, which incorporates popular opinion but also checks it, limiting majority tyranny. And love them or hate them, the Bowl Championship Series standings represent a similar moderate middle ground in the world of sports. The BCS formula combines public opinion (the polls) with more objective standards (computer rankings, strength of schedule rankings, etc.) that refine such opinion. As such, it is a system combining popular opinion and justice, neither fully rewarding nor fully eschewing either.

One might add a final similarity between college football fans and Americans generally: Fans who clamor for a generic playoff fail to foresee what ill-effects such a change would have on college football's uniquely dramatic regular season. This failure to foresee the unintended effects of policy change is also a common feature of our politics. (On the whole, however, college football fans admirably exhibit far more respect for tradition than is typical in our society.)

Embracing the extremes of unchecked public opinion and authoritative rule is unhealthy. Both in the world of college football and, more important, in that of American politics, we should try to stop this wildly swinging pendulum in the middle. From that middle position, but only from that position, we can reasonably hope that what James Madison called "the cool and deliberate sense of the community" will prevail.

Jeffrey H. Anderson is a professor of political science at the Air Force Academy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.