The Psychology of "Feeling the Bern"

How a 74-year-old curmudgeon captured the hearts of American Progressives.

Posted Feb 29, 2016

Source: Bernie Sanders Campaign/Public Domain

One of the current candidates for president went from almost unknown in January of 2015 to a legitimate contender for the office by January of 2016. And his supporters aren’t just kinda leaning his direction. They’re “feeling” him. Like the Beatles who went before him, he’s filling stadiums and fomenting enthusiasm in the youth.

What kind of person is capable of generating this sort of excitement in such short order? If we pool our collective stereotypes, we might suspect that he is tall, youthful, good looking, wears thousand-dollar suits, projects calm confidence, and travels with an entourage. We might guess he is full of personal magnetism, and might even be that friendly, “alpha” type, like Jack from the Jack in the Box commercials.

And we would be wrong on almost every count. What we have before us instead is a curmudgeonly 74-year-old policy wonk who shouts and points and ignores half the stuff you’re supposed to learn from Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends And Influence People”.

If we look only at the traits of the man himself, his rise to prominence is a mystery. Like watching a good magician, we’re confused, and maybe amused. And we can choose, if we are so inclined, to simply enjoy the show and revel in the mystery of it all. But, if we want a good explanation of the trick, we’re going to have to find a way to get backstage and see what’s really going on.

The Psychology of Leadership

Social psychologists have long sought to understand influence and leadership. And, up until 1978, most explanations of leadership focused on the the traits of the individual leader (such as dominance, intelligence, competence, relationship-orientation, need for power, narcissism, and even physical height). Unfortunately, for any given hypothesis, too many leaders didn’t fit the mold. [1]

In the 1970s Henri Tajfel launched a new project in social psychology, suggesting that the concept of “social identity” should play a central role in explaining social behavior, and that individual traits are comparatively much less important. At the time, this suggestion was somewhat revolutionary, and opened up a new, and often better, style of explanation.

Tajfel’s student, John Turner, helped to extend the theory. He wanted to explain not only how groups interacted with other groups, but also how individuals behaved within groups. Turner called his new theory “Self-Categorization Theory”. And, together, Social Identity Theory and Self-Categorization Theory became known as the Social Identity Perspective. [2]

So what does the Social Identity Perspective have to say about leadership? And how does that help us explain why so many people are suddenly “feeling the Bern?”

Social Categories

The Social Identity Perspective starts with the observation that human beings tend to categorize themselves with labels. For instance, we might categorize ourselves as male, female, inter-sexual, gay, straight, bisexual, Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, American, French, Venezuelan, as a plumber, as an academic, as a business person, Christian, Muslim, atheist. And so on.

In theory there are millions of ways to categorize ourselves. We might, for instance, put ourselves in the category of those whose big toes are shorter than their second toes. Or we might think of ourselves as being above average tidily winkers.

Most of the available labels are rarely used in social situations. Instead we tend to use just a small (but very important) subset of all the labels we have at our disposal. A social identity label will tend to be used only when it has the following two features: 1) it groups us with a lot of other people who are using the same label, and 2) it has high “situational salience”.  

‘Salience’ is a term of art within the Social Identity Perspective. It basically means that we have a common cause with others bearing the label, the situation puts our common cause at stake, and the label makes it easy to identify who is in the ingroup, and who is in the outgroup.

In U.S. politics the labels ‘Republican’ and ‘Democrat’ are sometimes salient. In fact, when it comes time to vote, those two labels are often the very most salient labels.

But those are not actually the most common political categories into which voters sort themselves. When it’s not yet time to vote, people in the U.S. are more inclined to identify themselves as “progressive”, “conservative”, “libertarian” or “independent” (the categories draw from both party and ideological distinctions, and seem to express an increasing desire to avoid the terms “Republican” and “Democrat”).

At this point in the election cycle, in the early primaries, when we’re figuring out who should become the next president, the categories “progressive” and “conservative” are extremely salient for many people. And, for the most part, those who identify as “conservative” are looking for a conservative leader to vie for the presidency. While those who identify as “progressive” are looking for a progressive leader to vie for the office.

None of what has been said so far is meant to be particularly revolutionary or insightful. It’s mere “set-up” for the million dollar question:

What causes one person to emerge as a leader of a given social group, as opposed to others who might lead them?

Leadership from the Social Identity Perspective

John Turner had a hypothesis about leadership.

It was this: Every group will have a “most prototypical member”. And that most prototypical member will have the most influence in the group. [3]

So what makes someone the most prototypical member of a group? There are two factors at play.

First, the most prototypical member of a group must be perceived to have a high degree of similarity with other group members. And, in national politics, similarity is largely a matter of vision, values, and policy.

For instance, because most conservatives share these attitudes, a prototypical conservative will tend to oppose taxes, support a strong military, and advocate for traditional family values. Some conservatives want cuts in military spending, but, under most circumstances, such conservatives will not emerge as leaders. And, on the other side of the divide, a prototypical progressive will tend to favor redistribution of wealth and social justice.

Second, the prototypical member will also provide a high degree of contrast with the most salient out-group(s).

For instance, if the most salient out-group is “progressives”, then a prototypical conservative will oppose redistribution of wealth and whatever social justice cause the progressives are working toward. Likewise, if “conservative” is the most salient out-group, then a prototypical progressive will oppose a sprawling military and tax cuts for the wealthy.

It’s the ratio that’s important here. The most prototypical member will have the largest ratio of out-group difference to in-group difference. Turner called this ratio “meta-contrast”. And his precise view was that the most prototypical member of a group in a given situation will have the highest meta-contrast in that situation.

So, in part, the trick to becoming leader is to highlight your similarities with the in-group, while also magnifying your differences with the out-group.

But there’s an important third strategy at play, too: changing the out-group.

If the most salient out-group is “progressives”, then the most prototypical conservative will be the one advocating for tax cuts and opposing whatever social justice cause the progressives are working toward. If the most salient out-group is “terrorists”, then the most prototypical conservative will be the one advocating for increased military spending and advancing our surveillance capacities. And, if the most salient out-group is undocumented immigrants, then the most prototypical conservative will be the one telling people he’s going to “build a wall”.

Multiple out-groups can be salient at the same time, and, especially during campaign season, many will be. But, because we all have limited attention spans, you can’t be fighting too many out-groups at the same time. Two or three will usually be singled out as the most salient out-groups. And which out-groups capture the imagination of the in-group will influence who is seen as the most prototypical member.

In summary, there are three ways to emerge as the most prototypical member of your group: 1) accentuate your similarities with the in-group, 2) magnify your differences with the out-group, 3) cause the in-group to focus on a different out-group.

How Bernie Came to Be the Prototypical Progressive

Bernie Sanders has been beating the same drums since Richard Feynman played the bongos. He has weighed in on many issues (such as women’s rights, climate change, and immigration policy), but three main issue have been his bread and butter for as long as anyone can remember. Bernie is (and forever has been) concerned about economic inequality, the corrupting influence of money in politics, and racial justice.

In 1985, Bernie Sanders was not a prototypical progressive. In 2016 he is. Bernie has, for the most part, had the same vision, values and policies he’s always had. And he is contrasting himself with the same outgroups he always has: the billionaire class, wealthy campaign donors, and a discriminatory justice and political system.

So, if Bernie hasn’t changed, what has?

The United States has changed. And, as a result, the concerns of progressives have shifted. And we can trace this shift for each of Bernie’s big three issues.

Economic Inequality

When Bernie first started speaking out about economic inequality the top 1% of income earners made somewhere in the neighborhood of 10% of national income. And progressives weren’t, for the most part, up in arms about that relatively modest level of inequality.

Since then, we’ve had the Reagan tax cuts, which lowered taxes on top earners from 70% to 28%. And those top rates have ranged between 28% and 39.6% ever since. The lowering of top rates had a fairly direct effect on the salaries of top executives. When top income tax rates were at 70%, executives had little incentive to negotiate for very large salaries, since they wouldn’t get to take most of it home. Under those conditions the firm was much more likely to give raises to workers in lower tax brackets, put it toward profits, or lower prices. But, with the removal of confiscatory top rates, executives have found many creative ways to justify salaries of tens of millions of dollars.

Since Bernie first started railing against economic inequality, NAFTA and CAFTA have allowed corporations to move operations to other countries, replacing relatively expensive American labor with relatively inexpensive foreign labor. The economy has replaced many of the jobs that were lost, but, for the most part, decent paying factory jobs were replaced with with minimum wage or near minimum wage service sector jobs. Over that same time, we’ve seen a weakening of labor unions, we’ve moved women and children off welfare, the minimum wage has stagnated, and we’ve seen a repeal of inheritance taxes.

As a result of all those things, and perhaps a few others, today the top 1% of income earners make somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% of all the income in this nation. And the wealth gap is even larger. Progressives are not nearly as willing to tolerate differences this large.

Dramatic increases in inequality have made progressives more open to Bernie’s message. But he’s had help with the messaging as well. Very recently a handful of thinkers and movements have risen up to play John the Baptist to Bernie’s Messiah.

In 2011 Robert Reich put together a now famous chart based on recently collected data that showed just how unequal things had become. [4]  And Reich framed the data, as Bernie had for years, in terms of the share of income received by the top 1%. That same year the Occupy Wall Street movement picked up the same theme,  taking up the slogan “we are the 99%”. In 2014 Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” hit the shelves, and was an especially big hit with progressives. In Capital, Piketty laid out a history of inequality in the United States (and other countries), demonstrating that the United States was once far more egalitarian than it is today, and presented a compelling model to explain how Capitalism naturally generates inequality.

Finally, the internet matured to the point where politicians could communicate their message in more than ten-second sound bites. Popular politicking on the internet does still trade in bite-sized memes. But it can also trade in detailed discussions like those that take place at venues like SandersForPresident

As a result of all these things economic inequality has become the number one concern for progressives in 2016. And many have joined Bernie in his call for “the Billionaire Class” to start “paying their fair share.”

Money in Politics

Money has always influenced politics. And it has always been of some concern for both progressives and conservatives. But the problem has grown larger over the last three decades. In that time we’ve seen the number of lobbyists grow, we’ve seen an increase in the money corporations spend on lobbying, and we’ve seen more traffic flowing through that revolving door between legislators and regulators on the one hand, and corporate lobbyists and consultants on the other.

Though it’s sometimes difficult to link an individual dollar to an individual result, many suspect, and not without cause, that all those lobbying dollars and campaign contributions loosened up the attitudes of legislators and regulators toward corporate mergers and deregulation in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

Two relatively recent events have caused even the most casual progressives to sit up and take notice. In 2008 we had a major banking crisis, which not only played a major role in kicking off a “Great Recession”, but also led to further consolidation in the banking industry, and a very expensive bailout of the remaining banks.

It has been artfully insinuated that Wall Street’s investments in campaign donations, lobbying, and cushy personal gigs for individual politicians were instrumental for securing not only the generous bailouts, but also for securing the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999, which made it possible for banks to gamble with the nation’s money in ways that led to the eventual collapse.

The other recent event was the Citizens United ruling that opened the door to unlimited anonymous contributions from wealthy individuals and corporations, which progressives fear is making an already bad problem even worse.

As a result of these developments, progressives today have moved in Bernie’s direction, and are giving high priority to the issue of money in politics.

Racial Justice

In 1963 Bernie Sanders was arrested for protesting against segregated housing at the University of Chicago. He lists Martin Luther King Jr as one of his most formative influences. And he has been advocating for racial justice his whole political life.

While progressives as a whole have been somewhat sympathetic to racial justice issues throughout Sanders’ political career, it has become a much higher priority in recent years.

The 1960s saw great gains in racial justice. Much work was left to be done, but the gains were real. However, since the early 1980s the lot of the African American has arguably worsened. We waged a war on drugs that has been enforced much more vigorously against Persons of Color than against whites. In 1994 President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which increased federal penalties for many crimes and expanded the crimes that could be punished by death. As a result of these and other things we now have the largest prison population in the world, and a disproportionate number are African-Americans and Latinos, who are represented at more than twice their share in the general population.

There are signs of discrimination at all levels of the justice system. Compared to whites, African-Americans are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be arrested once stopped, more likely to be charged once arrested, more likely to be prosecuted once charged, more likely to be convicted once prosecuted, and more likely to receive long sentences once convicted.

These have been the facts for a long time. But the run of the mill white progressive finally started paying attention only recently. And that’s because, recently, we’ve been forced to digest the violence of the Trayvon Marin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland cases (among others).  Each of these cases is different, and not everyone judges every one of these cases the same way. But as a collection they paint a troubling picture and raise a poignant question: does the United States have an institutional racism problem?

White progressives are now listening to representatives of #BlackLivesMatter. They are listening to Black activists who have been sounding the alarm all along. And they are listening to Bernie Sanders as he rattles off statistic after statistic while painting a picture of institutional racism, both in the criminal justice system, and in the voting booth.

Why Progressives Are “Feeling the Bern”

Bernie is the progressive prototype in 2016, not because he tried to put himself at the center of the movement, but because progressives have, by historical accident, drifted in his direction. If we want to understand not only why he is seen as a leader, but also why supporters are so passionate, it’s important to keep this fact in mind.

There are two main ways to become known as a prototype of a group. One is active. The other is passive. One involves changing oneself to match the mood of the group, and the other involves just doing your thing and realizing one day that the group has moved to you.

Most candidates for President actively seek the office. Early in their careers they set their sights on the presidency, and then craft a persona that puts them at the center of their voting block. When their main constituency changes its views, they change their views. And it’s even more calculated than that. They will even switch in-groups mid-campaign. During the primaries they sell themselves as the “progressive” or “conservative” prototype, and then, once they’ve been nominated by their party, they “shift to the center” and try to sell themselves as the prototype for all Americans. In our cynical age this kind of behavior isn’t even considered bad manners. It’s just the way things are done.

Bernie Sanders has not pandered to a constituency. He has fought against inequality, corruption, and racial injustice since long before it was hip to do so. And he will continue to fight these battles even if, one day, they are no longer hip.

This is not a good blueprint for becoming President. No one has a crystal ball so accurate that they can look 40 years into the future to see where the country is headed. Standing on principle and waiting for lightning to strike is not a good strategy.

However, if lightning does happen to strike, there is nothing like 40 years of standing on principle for generating trust. People “feel the Bern” not only because he represents their interests, but also because they trust him. They trust him not to do the cynical “shift to the center”. They trust him to actually push forcefully for his agenda once elected. Supporters are not so naive that they think he will get everything he wants. But they trust him to give it an honest effort and to fight to the end.

People trust Bernie because he has been signaling trustworthiness in ways that are, in the terminology of evolutionary theory, “costly to fake”.

Bernie has held the same basic views for 40 years. He has refused to accept superPAC money. He has worked  harder than any other candidate on either side of the aisle to avoid negative campaigning. If his primary concern were to achieve office at all costs, these would all put him at a disadvantage. The only reasonable way to explain these actions is to suspect that he is sincerely and fiercely committed to his core values, and to a higher form of political discourse.

And perhaps his costliest signal of all is his tendency to identify as a “Democratic Socialist”.

The “S” Word is a Double-Edged Sword

The label, “Socialist”, even with the modifier "Democratic", puts a little distance between Bernie and the typical progressive. Most progressives are still a little uncomfortable with the label. When Seth MacFarlane introduced Bernie at a Los Angeles rally, he went out of his way to assure the audience that he, Seth MacFarlane, still believed in Capitalism.

It could be argued that the “S” word hurts Bernie with many progressives. But many are also quite surprised that it has not hurt him more than it has.

Recall that influence within a group is a function of BOTH similarity with the in-group, AND contrast with the out-group. And, while the word “Socialism” has reduced Bernie’s average similarity with the in-group, it has also amplified his perceived difference with the most salient out-groups.

If progressives are now defining themselves in contrast to "billionaires", "corporations", and the "establishment", Bernie's willingness to identify as a "Democratic Socialist" very clearly and unequivocally signals to progressives that he is not sympathetic with their enemies.

In addition, because Bernie has a well-honed message, and has had a good amount of time to make his case, progressives are learning that the term "Democratic Socialism", the way Bernie uses it, is not the same thing as a textbook Socialism. Bernie does not want to nationalize large swaths of the economy. He simply wants to reduce inequality, get money out of politics, and remedy racial injustice. He could just as well have called himself a "Social Democrat", a "New Dealer", or even a "Responsible Capitalist". But those terms would have been much weaker signals of his willingness to take on corporate interests and “the billionaire class”.


It’s not that personal qualities don’t matter. In order to be the perceived prototype, one must be perceived. One must have a platform and communicate one’s views clearly. It matters that Bernie Sanders has spent time as mayor and as a legislator at the national level. It matters that he has a finely-honed message and considerable oratory skill. And it matters that someone on his staff finally found him a comb.

It’s just that, when it comes to leadership, it matters even more that a candidate’s positions line up with those of the constituency, and stand in sharp relief with the positions of those who oppose their goals. And the more the people can trust that their leader’s attitudes are genuine, the more fervently they will follow.

I am also not suggesting that Bernie Sanders is a lock to win the Democratic nomination. At time of writing Hillary Clinton is fresh off a big win in South Carolina, and holds a lead in the national delegate race. Clinton started the race with large advantages in name-recognition, connections, and  money, and those may prevail in the end. The Democratic party is also not entirely composed of progressives.  And for some older progressives, who grew up in the cultural shadow of the Cold War, the “S” word might prove too large a chasm to cross.

But Bernie is doing far better than anyone expected. He is still given an outside shot by many experts.  And, regardless of who gets the Democratic nod, there’s no denying that progressive Americans, from coast to coast, are “feeling the Bern”.


[1] By 1948 some of the problems with trait theory were well known, and attention shifted to contextualizing traits to try to explain why the same traits were needed in one situation, and not in another. Still the explanations were still in terms of the traits of the leader. See Stogdill, 1948.

[2] Tajfel, H. & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of inter-group behavior. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Chicago: Nelson-Hall

[3]  John Turner, et al., “Reconceptualizing Personality” in Postmes and Jetten, Individuality and the Group, 2004.

[4] Reich’s Chart can be found here: