The Bernie Sanders underdog problem: "You may root for them, but you also know they’re probably going to lose"

Salon speaks to a psychologist about human nature, Donald Trump's "superhero" appeal and Eminem

Published March 16, 2016 9:56AM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Jonathan Drake)
Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Jonathan Drake)

Everybody, we’re told, loves the underdog – a category that crosses over culture, politics and sports. The basketball team that rises from the basement, a hip-hop star who ascends from poverty, a presidential candidate who triumphs over humble beginnings – all find supporters to root for them intensely. “But there’s something counterintuitive about it all,” a New York Times Op-Ed by a sports journalist and a psychologist argued today.

So often in life we try to associate ourselves with winning and success. We are quick to name-drop, hop on bandwagons and buy luxury brands that convey status. Why, then, do we hitch our own wagons to teams that, by definition, are more likely than not to fail?

With a presidential primary race on its way to concluding and basketball’s March Madness here, we’ll be hearing a lot about underdogs. How long has this category been around? How much power does it have?

To get deeper into these questions, we spoke to cognitive psychologist Art Markman, who teaches at the University of Texas and is the author of “Smart Thinking.”

Markman spoke from his office in Austin; the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Is the appeal of the underdog a culturally specific thing? Or is it human nature? Have people – in various cultures, at various times – had a soft spot for the person who’s not sitting at the very top.

I certainly think that for the common person it has a real appeal. David and Goliath is an underdog story, and I think it carries forward. I think for most of us, who are not sitting at the top of the food chain, we know what it’s like to be constrained in some way – by the people who have more power than we do.

So in rooting for the underdog, there’s a lot of identification around that. Very few of us are lucky enough to come at everything we do at a position of strength. So I think there is a real appeal to that … If you look at a lot of children’s stories, the prototypical hero is typically an orphan, coming from the very bottom … Harry Potter, probably the most successful children’s story in probably forever, is classic in that regard. He starts out at the very bottom, and is hated by the family who raises him, and then overcomes the greatest evil of his people. And we root for him because of that.

Clearly it works out in fiction and myth … Do you see it working in politics as well?

Once we have those cultural stories, we like to see them play out in other circumstances. So even if we’ve never read a Horatio Alger story, that schema is so deeply ingrained in the American story – that rags to riches, overcoming obstacles story – is so much a part of the culture. And I think it’s part of many cultures. It’s an inspiring story, so we do tend to get behind it.

But the interesting thing about this: There’s nothing in Donald Trump’s story that’s an underdog story.

That’s right – the other candidates talk about their humble beginnings. While he’s always telling us about how beloved, how powerful, how educated he is … He’s sort of the opposite of an underdog, and yet he’s leading his party.

What he’s doing is something different – appealing to the superhero stereotype. Not that he has superpowers, but since he’s already incredibly wealthy, can’t be bought by the special interests who have corrupted the political system.

It’s interesting that he’s appealing to voters who are more like underdogs than he is: He has a less-educated, lower-earning constituency than someone like Marco Rubio, who really does come from lower-middle-class or working-class people.

When you’re dealing with an underdog, you may root for them, but you also know they’re probably going to lose. Which has two elements to it. One is that at some point, in something like politics, you want to make sure you’re backing a winner. So no matter how appealing your underdog is, at some point you may back off that person to someone who you think is actually going to win.

The other thing is a resilience issue. If you are the favorite and you lose, that can in some cases be more devastating than being the underdog and losing, because we sort of expected you to do that. And you may be able to bounce back in the future.

That doesn’t always hold – Hillary Clinton was the favorite in the 2008 election, and she managed to weather that [loss]… But Mitt Romney has never recovered from losing … And it will be interesting to see what happens to Jeb Bush.

As appealing as the underdog story is, if we look back at political history, they’re not all underdogs. Bush Senior came from, obviously, a [wealthy] family, even more obviously, George W. Bush … Bill Clinton was a bit more of an underdog. Hillary Clinton, not really.

The underdog issue works out in celebrity culture, too – a lot of the celebrities who are the most beloved come from humble backgrounds, and that can fuel the love they receive.

And if you come from a humble background, you are more likely to play up that element of your story. There are a lot of Hollywood celebrities who are the offspring of other celebrities. That’s not a prominent part of their stories. Drew Barrymore is not trotting out her life story as an inspiration.

And there are people who cultivate personas – someone like Matt Damon is an Everyman. But he’s the Everyman from Harvard.

Certainly in pop culture, you see people who’ve overcome difficult odds or started out in poverty. That’s a critical part of the story … Those hip-hop artists who came from privilege had more trouble establishing themselves.

Who are we talking about here?

Some of the white musicians. But Eminen did well partly because he highlighted a poor upbringing – that was used to generate legitimacy.

Politically, who’s playing the underdog card the most in this campaign?

Bernie Sanders, I think. His candidacy started with a resonance to a certain segment of the Democratic base. I subscribe to [every candidate’s] emails… His message, almost from the beginning, was, “We’re not going to get any press play.” He’s probably been the most successful underdog in the campaign.

Sanders is a slight twist on the underdog – it’s not that he overcame childhood poverty, but that he’s the candidate who started from behind. It gives him a certain moral authority.

There are various ways of being the underdog. One of them could be coming from poverty. The other could be, “I have been championing an unpopular cause for as long as I can remember, and it turns out I was right.” It’s the, “I was here first,” element, with, “But will anyone listen to me because I’ve been saying this for so long?”

A lot of it is people really need something to identify with -- any place where popularity plays some role. It’s hard to vote for or follow someone you feel like you have nothing in common with, unless it’s purely aspirational for you.

Which is the way Trump’s appeal works – people can pick up some of his magic if they vote for him, go to a rally, or whatever.

He’s in the line of the very successful business-motivational speakers. “I’ve made millions of dollars – listen to me and let me show you how.”

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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