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.”
But what Markovits and Hellerman didn’t anticipate is that the same demographic changes that have helped Obama win the White House without strong white working class support are helping soccer gain acceptance without it too. Soccer’s rise is part of what John Judis and Ruy Teixeira call “George McGovern’s revenge.” In 1972, McGovern won minorities, well-educated white liberals, and the young, but still lost 49 states. Since then, however, the minority share of the American electorate has risen from 11 percent to 28 percent. Whites without college degrees, by contrast, composed only 36 percent of American voters in 2012, down from 54 percent in 1988. (The only group that figures prominently in the Obama coalition but not the soccer coalition is African Americans, who disproportionately favor basketball. Sports-wise, therefore, Democrats constitute an alliance between soccer and basketball fans while Republicans disproportionately follow baseball, golf, and NASCAR. Football, by far America’s most popular sport, crosses the aisle.)
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.