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How Bernie Sanders became the president of Reddit

Thumbs up.
Thumbs up.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

I regularly check the r/politics subreddit to see what people are interested in, and these days it seems that what they are interested in is the junior senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders.

Here's a fairly typical early afternoon.

By the same token, a not-very-persuasive Peter Beinart article urging readers "Don't underestimate Bernie Sanders" has garnered well over 10,000 Facebook shares.

In the polls, Sanders is nowhere. On the internet, he is everywhere.

How did this obscure and not especially charismatic left-winger become an internet sensation? The answer speaks to the workings of the modern social web, but also to the ways in which squeezing a nation of hundreds of millions into a narrow framework of two-party politics leaves millions of people feeling voiceless.

Bernie Sanders is viral because he's not trying to win

Sanders's virality doesn't show that he has a chance to win. If anything, it's the opposite. His virality stems, in part, from the fact that he isn't even trying. Most politicians are trying, on some level, for mainstream influence. Even a long-shot candidate like Martin O'Malley really might become the Democratic nominee if Hillary Clinton is struck by lightning or suffers some unforeseen meltdown.

Sanders isn't like that. He's not going to win no matter what, and he knows it. After all, he is an avowed socialist with zero interest in big-dollar fundraising who's not afraid to say he thinks the US should fundamentally transform itself into a different kind of country.

Give 'em hell, Bernie (Mic/ABC)

Give 'em hell, Bernie. (Mic/ABC)

That leaves him free to just come out and say things that nobody making a serious bid for national office would say. Case in point: his recent exchange with ABC News's George Stephanopoulos. Here, Sanders praised the Nordic social model. When Stephanopoulos said it would be impolitic to say America should emulate foreign nations, Sanders said he didn't care. Sanders isn't going to be president no matter what he says to George Stephanopoulos, so he might as well say what he thinks.

That's not really a path to victory, but it's certainly a path to social shares.

A small minority of Americans is a lot of people

The American party system is doubly unusual in the democratic world for having only two parties represented in the national legislature while containing many more citizens than a typical country. In Canada, there are six parliamentary parties representing a population that's about a tenth the size of America's. Tiny Israel has 10 parties in its Knesset.

Many of these parties, of course, have no hope of leading a government. But that's not their purpose in life. The idea is that their leaders will speak their minds and zealously advocate for minority viewpoints.

Nobody knows exactly how many Americans agree with Sanders that a Nordic social model would be a good idea — is it 15 percent? 5 percent? It's more than zero percent. And yet zero percent of nationally prominent politicians call for it. Sanders is changing that dynamic, and it's making him an internet superstar. After all, in a country of 310 million people, even a marginal ideological viewpoint can easily secure millions of adherents and tens of thousands of social shares.

However many budding democratic socialists there are in America, it's more than enough to put you on the top of Chartbeat even if it isn't even close to putting Sanders in the White House.

The social web is broadening the conversation

The hunt for web traffic is, famously, something that sometimes compromises journalistic quality. And certainly to the extent that Sanders mania creates a traffic incentive to overhype his actual odds of influencing national policy, that's a problem.

But to the extent that it creates an incentive to talk about his ideas — the merits of single-payer health care or a much larger welfare state — it's a useful change. Conventional political journalism is obsessed to a fault with the question of speculating about what is and is not realistic, to the exclusion of discussing the much wider range of not-so-realistic ideas that may be interesting or important.

Sanders's virality — or Elizabeth Warren's — is a reminder that the world of informing and entertaining is not circumscribed by the narrow limits of electioneering, and the incentive to chase that audience offers a useful corrective to an excessively narrow political discourse.

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