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11 March 2020

As Bernie Sanders discovered, playing the underdog is easy – it’s becoming the overdog that is hard

If his path to the White House now seems vanishingly narrow, that’s because being a successful overdog requires a very different disposition.

By Ian Leslie

The day after his not-so-Super Tuesday, Bernie Sanders released a warm and fuzzy ad featuring clips of Barack Obama being nice about him. It was an act of considerable chutzpah. Sanders’s campaign was premised on a rejection of everything Obama represented: the compromises of office, and accommodation with the Democratic party establishment. Now that so many Democrat voters had swung behind the candidate most associated with those things, Joe Biden, Sanders suddenly hugged the former president close. 

It is easy to laugh at the clumsiness of this manoeuvre, but at least Sanders was making an effort to switch gears, something that until then he had been conspicuously unwilling or unable to do. Right up until the first votes were cast in the Democratic primaries, Sanders had been the underdog, Biden the overdog. After strong early showings, however, Sanders found himself in pole position, a firm favourite for the nomination. How did he respond to this new status? By carrying on exactly as before.

A more adaptable politician might have seen that to close the deal, he needed to act like the nominee-in-waiting – the king, not the kingslayer. Sanders could have softened his anti-Democrat rhetoric. He could have acknowledged that the Obama administration had done some great things. He could have emphasised his ability to connect with all Americans. He did none of this. 

Instead, he carried on vilifying the Democrat establishment and preaching socialism, while his supporters continued to abuse anyone unworthy of the great man. The reaction of voters on Super Tuesday suggests that ordinary Democrats were so spooked by all this that they flocked towards a candidate about whom they were not necessarily enthusiastic, but in whose basic sanity and decency they trusted.

Perhaps Sanders should have paid more attention to Jeremy Corbyn. After the latter’s unexpectedly strong showing in the 2017 election, the Labour leader might have used his political capital to build bridges with his opponents in the party and signal his moderation to the wider electorate. Instead, he and his supporters stuck with what had seemed to be a winning formula. They sprayed vituperation over all comers, picked fights with their own side and loaded the 2019 manifesto with even more left-wing promises than its 2017 equivalent.

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Before being too critical of either Sanders or Corbyn, it’s important to acknowledge something. They and their supporters had been set one of the most difficult of all political tests: making the transition from underdog to overdog. When you come from behind, it’s very hard to lead from the front.

Underdog movements require a specific mindset. First, you must believe that you and your fellow campaigners are united by a special insight into the nature of things. Underdogs reject received wisdom in favour of positions that most people consider extreme or absurd, at least at first. That puts the onus on internal solidarity, because until the rest of the world wakes up to your message you need reassurance that you’re not mad. Any success achieved by Sanders and Corbyn wouldn’t have been possible without the internet’s ability to aggregate and bind people with hitherto marginal views into a viable, self-reinforcing cohort.

Second, underdogs flourish by attacking enemies: in order to be an Us, there must be a Them. Groups achieve maximum cohesion when they unite against common adversaries, so underdog supporters declare that there are forces out to destroy them, making the imperative to stick together all the more urgent. For Sanders and Corbyn, the enemy is “the establishment”, which includes the other party but also their own, since the more proximate the enemy, the more acute the threat.

Third, underdogs harness the power of moral outrage. Underdog movements rely heavily on activism to achieve lift-off. Righteous anger at perfidious enemies impels supporters to donate, attend rallies and knock on doors. Expressing anger can also have the effect of making underdogs seem powerful. Psychologists have observed that we instinctively perceive people who are angry to be higher status and more competent, if less likeable. Since underdogs have to make themselves seem bigger than they are, being furious is a rational strategy.

Sanders used underdog tactics brilliantly to get much further than most predicted in 2016 and again in 2020. If his path to the White House now seems vanishingly narrow, that’s because being a successful overdog requires a very different disposition.

Overdogs are expansive. They address everyone, not just their own supporters. They assemble coalitions of support from groups who do not have much affiliation with each other. The overdog’s support is shallower than the underdog’s, because you can support an overdog without identifying with them. Their enemies tend to be fuzzier and always from the other party rather than their own. Overdogs do not need to use anger to raise their status because they are already high status, so they can focus on being likeable and stress patriotism, amity, hope.

Making the transition between these two styles can be a wrench, and not just in politics. Think about the journey that the founders of the big technology companies have been on. If the leaders of Google and Facebook can seem remarkably inept in their public statements, that’s because they achieved their early success with an underdog mindset. On the way up, they moved fast and broke things, taking on entrenched competitors and naysayers. Now that they are global overdogs they are struggling, very visibly, to adapt to their new role.

Successfully morphing from underdog to overdog is hard, and only one politician of recent times has managed it perfectly. Bernie Sanders just made an ad about him. 

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This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down