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The Science Behind Bernie Sanders Failed Movement, Explained

2016 June 15
by Greg Satell

The presidential run of Bernie Sanders has often been referred to as a movement rather than a campaign and it certainly has all the trappings—a distinctive ideology, devoted followers and large crowds. Many believe that the Sanders movement will far outlive the current cycle and shape the political future.

To state the obvious, as a candidate Sanders did not succeed—by any objective Hillary Clinton trounced him—but I can see how the idea of his movement living on would salve some open wounds among his followers. To them, Bernie Sanders was always more than a candidate, he was a living embodiment of a shared purpose.

Yet I would argue that a much more likely scenario is that we’ll soon be forgetting Bernie Sanders and not because he failed as a politician, but because of how he failed as a leader of his movement, all too often choosing to attack rather than engage. Hopefully, in the years to come, his failure will become a cautionary tale to those who seek to effect change in society.

The Roots Of Conformity

To understand what drives movements, it’s helpful to look at a series of conformity experiments conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950’s. The design of the study was simple, but ingenious. Asch merely showed a group of people a series of cards like these:

Asch_experiment 600px

Each person in the group was asked to match the line on the left with the line of the same length on the right. However, there was a catch: almost everyone in the room was a confederate who gave the wrong answer. When it came to the real subjects’ turn to answer, most conformed to the majority opinion even when it was obviously incorrect.

Majorities don’t just rule, they influence, even—and maybe especially—local majorities. More recent research has also found that the effect extends to three degrees of social distance. So it is not only those we know well, but the friends of our friend’s friends effect how we think and behave, even for health issues like obesity and smoking.

However, Asch also showed that including one or two dissenters in the group drastically brought down the pressure to conform, which creates an urge to stamp out dissent. This presents a dilemma: Enforcing strict adherence to ideology makes for a more cohesive and passionate movement, but it can also make it hard to achieve anything of significance.

Crossing The Chasm

Another important element of movements is the diffusion of ideas framework developed by Everett Rogers, whose research showed that new ideas are adopted according to a bell curve pattern. First, small groups of innovators and early adopters spearhead the concept and later larger groups in the mainstream catch on. Eventually, even the skeptics join in.

However, in Crossing the Chasm, author Geoffrey Moore pointed out that, while successful ideas do follow the pattern Rogers described, most never make it that far. The problem, he surmised, is that there is a large gap between the mindsets of early adopters and the rest of society, so for a movement to become successful it must adapt itself to the mainstream.


Crossing The Chasm1

Moore’s ideas about “crossing the chasm” are consistent with more scholarly work on threshold models of collective behavior done by Mark Granovetter. In his version, an idea first takes hold among people most receptive to it. The fact that they adopt it makes it easier for others to join in. As more people take it on, eventually the system tips and wide adoption becomes possible.

That’s why the true face of revolution always looks more like The Good Wife than it does Homeland. It is not the passion and fervor of the zealots that create change, but when everyone else joins their cause. When accountants and marketing managers start taking to the streets, you know you have something.

So you can see the delicate balancing act that movements must perform. First, they need to create an environment of local majority similar to those in Asch’s studies in order to preserve ideological continuity. Yet they also must make inroads to those in the mainstream who are more resistant to the idea, if the movement is ever to grow and effect change.

Why Some Movements Succeed And Others Fail

To understand how all this applies to Bernie Sanders, let’s look at two movements with vastly disparate results: Occupy Wall Street and Otpor!. The former arose in the wake of the financial crisis, when young activists took over Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. Although their message of “the 99% vs. 1%” was compelling, they were back home within a few months, achieving little.

Now compare that to Otpor!, which was a similar group of activists in Serbia that sought to remove Slobodan Milošević from power, an objective that was achieved two years later. They went on to inspire and train other groups that sparked the Color Revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring. To date, they’ve helped to overthrow regimes in half a dozen countries.

Today, the Otpor movement lives on in the form of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) and its members travel around the world to advise and hold workshops for pro-democracy activists. CANVAS has worked in over 50 countries so far and has also developed a curriculum to spread its methods, which can be downloaded for free on its website.

One particular compelling strategy they advocate  is to focus on specific pillars upon which the regime’s power rests —such as the media, bureaucracy, police, and military— to target their efforts. Yet the purpose of this targeting is not to knock the pillars out, but to draw them in. For example, they sought to get arrested not to show defiance, but to build rapport with the officers.

This approach became important later on when Serbian officers had to decide whether to shoot at the protestors or join the opposition. They chose the latter and Serbia is now not only a democratic country, but vying for membership in the European Union.

Attraction Beats Repulsion In The Long Term

It’s clear to me that the Bernie Sanders movement is much more like Occupy than Otpor!, especially given that Occupy alumni are key allies. While I must admit, there is something endearing about a 74 year-old socialist vying to lead the world’s most powerful capitalist country, the truth is Sanders never put forth any effort to attract mainstream support.

In fact, look a little below the surface and what you’ll find is a deeply resentful man who is quick to explode when he encounters a perspective he doesn’t like, someone who is dismissive of other activists and is notoriously hard to work with. With Bernie, you either see things his way or you are somehow corrupt and therefore targeted for destruction.

So it is little wonder that his disciples follow his lead, abusing female reporters, generally being obnoxious and even issuing death threats. Of course, that doesn’t include everyone who supports Sanders, but enough to repulse people who could potentially be allies. Sanders, for his part, has done nothing to discourage, much less rebuke, this kind of behavior.

And so it seems like Sanders and his followers will remain permanently in the opposition and will be unlikely to ever effect serious change. Until your movement is able to attract the support of those who do not immediately agree with you, it’s nothing more than a protest.

– Greg

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Barry Rabkin permalink
    June 19, 2016

    Let me ask and answer a question: “Should the US be changed?” Yes – the US, through its various educational programs and government departments should change the US in a manner (or a portfolio of ways) that stresses even more strongly the need to support and enable individual liberty, freedom, and responsibility. The portfolio should include more hours reading and studying our country’s Revolutionary War period, the US Constitution, and other material relating to the origins of the US (including the Magna Carta).

    Obviously, I have a belief (a very strong one), that socialism has no place in US governance whether at a Federal or State level. Yes, as a society we must care for our sickest, poorest and weakest. But the primary goal must always be to strengthen the values centered on individuals and not on communities.

    For me, the worst possible outcome in the evolution of the US would be the election of a socialist as president. I truly hope if that happens – and I admit it could because it is so much easier to take than to work hard to improve oneself regardless of how uneven the “playing field is – that I am dead at that point in time.

  2. June 19, 2016

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Barry. However, the subject of the article was not the content of Bernie Sanders’ message, but rather how he chose to spread it.

    – Greg

  3. Elizabeth Flood permalink
    July 3, 2016

    The “failure” of Bernie Sanders “movement” has more to do with chaos theory than any purportedly scientific explanation which utilizes curves. The people are all different, with different perspectives, needs, desires and circumstantial experiences. Why some individuals choose Hillary, Donald, Bernie, etc. will never be scientifically explained using what we humans currently know. Additionally, what is seen as “failure” by certain individuals may be viewed as success by others and vice versa. Each one of these offerings for the highest office in the land, which I feel should not be compared to entertainment or drama, in the end have their own personal agendas. They have all influenced the course of our human events. Reality is chaos.

  4. Dennis Terrill permalink
    July 11, 2016

    I m a socialist but i didnt vote for Bernie Sanders why? I view this kind of movement as a reform group (work within the system) True socialism is not from the top down, but from the working class. Unions the overall masses. Even in the EU today many leaders who claim they might be socialist are in fact not. Capitalism will fall when the working class in an open society will rebel. Not from the Top down. You cant make the 1% to understand this.

  5. July 12, 2016

    Thanks for sharing your views, Dennis.

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