Can Science Explain the Rise of Bernie Sanders?


WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 28: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) addresses a rally in support of Social Security in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 28, 2011 in Washington, DC. Sanders and four other Democratic senators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), said the Republicans' entitlement reform plan will "dismantle Social Security, delay distribution of benefits to seniors." (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Bernie Sanders

Jeremy Corbyn, Justin Trudeau, Bernie Sanders, and even Donald Trump all have something in common: nobody was expecting them. All four are part of a populist phenomenon that’s sweeping political circles in this worldwide election season. For Corybn and Trudeau, their respective chances at victory were largely shrugged off by political pundits and the media, and yet both of them defied all expectations and led their parties to decisive electoral victory.

So too is the case with Sanders and Trump. They’re pretty far away from each other politically, but they are likewise defying expectations and building enough political momentum to be considered viable contenders in the 2016 race.

Populist candidates like Bernie Sanders have been a surprise hit this election season.
Populist candidates like Bernie Sanders have been a surprise hit this election season.

The reasons why may have to do with how ideas are spread. In 2011, researchers from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute published a study called “Social Consensus Through the Influence of Committed Minorities.” In it, they lay out the results of a study that measured how popular opinion was affected by so-called “randomly distributed, committed agents.”  In other words, they measured how people tend to react when they encounter others with unwaveringly strong beliefs.

The results are telling. When just ten percent of a given social network (or group of people in contact with one another) espoused a strong opinion, the rest of the people in that network rapidly followed suite. In other words, when ten percent of a society believes something, everybody else rapidly adopts that minority view, quickly making it the majority opinion.

How is this relevant to people like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump? It’s all a matter of the company people keep.

We may think the internet has created a “golden age” of sorts when it comes to the spread of information. The old human standard of confirmation bias and ignoring dissenting viewpoints is still fully at work, however. People seek out spaces on the web where they can speak with others who think like they do. They do this through their choices of friends on social networks, the websites they interact with, and the forums they post on.

This creates little ideological bubbles, mostly isolated from each other, where certain ideas will either gain traction or die out. If one hundred conservative-leaning people all belong to a right-leaning Facebook group, for example, a meme of Bernie Sanders’ plan for universal healthcare probably won’t gain as much traction as one of Trump’s plan to halt illegal immigration. A post suggesting the minimum wage must be raised won’t gain as much traction as a post about libertarian-style economics.

If, however, ten percent of that Facebook group suddenly adopted the view that a minimum wage raise would benefit conservatives and liberals alike, that idea has a statistically high chance of gaining traction—with the caveat that the others in the group must be open-minded enough to change their mind. In other words, they can’t be “committed agents” themselves.

The problem with introducing controversial ideas, of course, is that they take root slowly in their given social network. As such, we’re left with self-reinforcing “echo-chambers” of opinion. These little ideological bubbles do battle every time a Trump supporter calls a Bernie supporter an “idiot” on a Facebook thread. They compete and out-survive each other much like genes do.

This interaction is part of a broader field of study known as memetics. It’s actually the origin of the word “memes,” but these memes are less about Scumbag Steve or Good Girl Gina than they are about pieces of information surviving in a given culture, all affected by a kind of natural selection-like mechanism.

People like Sanders and Trump have large sets of memes on their side. The ideas they espouse further reinforce ideas in their ideological bubbles. Bigger meme-bubbles absorb smaller ones, giving outsider candidates like Sanders and Trump an edge in creating robust, politically active movements.

Early on, Trump adopted opinions which unified disparate conservative memes into a strong ideological bubble. Sanders, likewise, naturally taps into memes being spread by younger left-leaning people and unifies them under one ideological bubble.

So why isn’t a more traditional candidate, like Hillary Clinton, enjoying the same kind of political momentum as Sanders or Trump? Well, she is. Candidates like Clinton simply dominate meme pools of a different demographic, one less likely to organize through grassroots means. Her ideological bubble, likewise bristling with memes, must contend with that of Sanders, whose bubble contains a host of anti-Clinton memes being spread and shared by his supporters inside that bubble.

Finally, Sanders’ and Trump’s “bubbles,” or social networks comprised of their followers, act as petri dishes in the creation of new memes. Some of these memes work to protect the “bubble” in which they’ve formed. They’re not conscious beings, of course, but are driven by a Darwinian-style process of adaption and replication. Both Trump and Sanders benefit from widespread belief within their bubbles about the nature of mainstream media. Spend any amount of time reading internet comments from either candidate’s supporters on Facebook and one thing becomes immediately clear: the meme which says “mainstream media gets it all wrong” is very strong, indeed.

Being protected from the tepid atmosphere of mainstream media, where both Trump and Sanders are routinely marginalized as outsider candidates, may be a major memetic advantage for both of them. It effectively creates strong ideological bubbles which actively spread their memes to others. A strongly pro-union Facebook group may very well become pro-Bernie Sanders if the ideas his supporters help spread are successful at replicating inside the group.

All of this points to one, inescapable conclusion: politics is a war of information, and only the most successful cultural replicators will ultimately prevail. In a loose sense, the 2016 presidential race could be called a war of memes, so it’s no surprise that populist candidates like Sanders have been so successful in organizing them into a robust and powerful ideology.


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Timothy Bertrand
Writer and journalist living in the Houston, Texas area. Follow me for breaking news, editorials, pictures of cats doing human activities, and other such content from around the web.

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