When Liberals Lose, They Blame the Voters. Leftists Can’t.

Bernie Sanders struggled last night not because voters are stupid, but because he's proposing a way of doing politics that's different from anything they've ever seen. Convincing them of that alternative is extremely difficult — but it's not impossible.

Voters cast ballots at a polling station in San Francisco, California, on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty

When liberals lose elections, they blame the voters. The candidate was too smart, too good to be appreciated by the ignorant rubes in the electorate. Voters don’t know what’s good for them (and they deserve what’s coming).

Leftists don’t have that luxury. We are committed to the idea that people are basically rational, that they do the best they can looking out for themselves and those they care about, despite living in an economic and political system that makes it extraordinarily difficult to do so. When we fail, we know it’s not because people are stupid.

That makes results like last night’s hit even harder to take. For a moment after Nevada, it looked like Sanders was unstoppable, except through backroom chicanery. He had won the first three contests (a feat never accomplished before), and the opposition looked hopelessly divided and inept. The establishment consolidated when it had to, however, and his campaign was routed in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday.

When it came to Super Tuesday, it seems that voters decided on their choice in the days just before the primary. In state after state, Biden won these voters by massive margins, and the variation in their share of the electorate correlates strongly with Sanders’s performance.

This pattern suggests some of the reasons why Sanders’s campaign was never going to be easy. While Democratic talking heads now get high-minded and puffy at the suggestion that the actions of party elites affect voter preferences, there is no way to read these results and not conclude that the party’s consolidation around Biden mattered a great deal.

That doesn’t mean that voters are mindless robots taking orders from above. The dynamic is more complicated than that. Most people’s lives don’t revolve around politics. It’s a messy, complicated field, and gathering reliable information about it costs time and attention that could be spent elsewhere. Moreover, one person becoming more well-informed about politics isn’t likely to substantially affect their ability to change anything. Faced with these trade-offs, most people, quite rationally, don’t devote much time to learning about politics.

Taking Cues

Instead, people use cognitive shortcuts to inform them about political dynamics. One key shortcut is what political scientists call elite cues. Most people have a pretty good idea about which party they think best represents their interests and beliefs. As a result, instead of gathering information themselves, on many issues they look to what party elites are signalling, and adjust their stance accordingly.

Crucially, this isn’t a theory of voter stupidity. It’s a rational response to the costs and benefits of gathering information about politics. Moreover, much research on elite cueing suggests that more educated voters are actually more responsive to elite cues than less educated ones, because they are more likely to pay closer attention to what party elites are signalling.

It’s not difficult to see how this process played out in the last week. Before South Carolina, there were no unified cues coming from Democratic Party elites. As we know, the majority of Democratic voters see ousting Trump as their main priority in a candidate, and the party was offering no unified message on who it believed was most electable. In that situation, large numbers of voters remained undecided. When the party consolidated, these voters took the cue.

That party consolidation played a key role in Biden’s victory is no consolation for Sanders supporters, however. His campaign’s bet has always been that by offering people a chance to vote for things that would massively improve their lives, it would be possible to mobilize layers of the electorate that have been until now alienated from politics.

Yet what’s now clear is that the Sanders campaign isn’t simply attempting to change what’s at stake in an election, but also to change the ways most people make decisions about politics. This is an extraordinarily difficult task.

In the long term, accomplishing this requires building alternative institutions for people to rely on for information. Elites aren’t the only source of cues. Unions, once, were an important source of information for voters. People’s social lives can also provide cues. Among white evangelicals and many black Democrats, churches are an important source of political cues. In order to win, the Left needs to rebuild social and political institutions that can compete with party elites. The majority of voters, quite rationally, do not read about politics on their breaks.

In the short term, there is still a tremendous amount to be done. Most Democratic voters are voting on electability, and the Left is not going to be able to change that. From here on out, elite cues are going to be unified in pointing to Biden as the most electable candidate. Yet Biden’s weaknesses on this front are obvious, and it is worth remembering that last time Sanders and Biden directly confronted each other, in January over Social Security, it didn’t end well for Biden.

The task from here on out is to combine two tasks, both of which have headwinds against them. First, the Left needs to convince voters that Bernie’s platform of economic justice and solidarity has the best chance of defeating Donald Trump. Second, it needs to translate the work of campaigning into the more long-term work of building institutions that working-class people identify with and trust to defend their interests.

Sanders didn’t lose last night because voters are stupid or misled. He lost because he is trying to win people to a way of doing politics that is foreign to virtually their entire experience of politics. This is what it means to make a political revolution. No one said it was going to be easy.