Within the Democratic Party, “woke Twitter” is punching above its weight and influencing how the candidates position themselves.
Consider two of the allegedly moderate candidates currently running for president: After confronting his “white privilege,” Beto O’Rourke advocated tearing down 600 miles of existing border fencing and called the prime minister of Israel a “racist.” And Pete Buttigieg, after being attacked for not being gay enough, has picked a fight with Mike Pence, calling the veep “fanatical,” a “social extremist,” and a “cheerleader of the porn star presidency.”
This is worth mentioning because (a) both candidates were positioned to run to the center as optimistic change agents, (b) there is little competition for this lane, and (c) there are tons of people in the market for an optimistic moderate.
Case in point, a New York Times piece this week reported data showing that progressive left-wingers on Twitter are outnumbered “roughly 2 to 1, by the more moderate, more diverse and less educated group of Democrats who typically don’t post political content online…”
Yet, these Democratic primary candidates are choosing to act in ways that would seem to undermine their moderate appeal. And the question is…why?
It has always been the case that people who are more enthusiastic and organized tend to be more intense and ideologically committed. They also tend to be the activists, volunteers, and donors that campaigns desperately need. For this reason, they exert a centrifugal force.
But presidential candidates are not passive zombies. They are guided by strategists and number crunchers who are more than capable of reading the same New York Times article that I am. In a crowded field vying for the progressive vote, why won’t even one candidate double down on the centrist brand?
The answer, I believe, is peer pressure.
Allow me to craft my hypothesis using the world of sports and entertainment.
In 2006, a UC Berkeley economics professor named David Romer published a paper demonstrating that NFL football teams should almost always go for a first down or a touchdown on fourth down. As Romer writes, choosing instead to punt or kick a field goal “departs from the behavior that would maximize their chances of winning.”
So why do they do it? As Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, explained, going for it on fourth down “may be excellent football strategy, but it's a risky career move.” In other words, it is the social context (maintaining the respect of other NFL coaches, owners, media elites, etc.)—not winning—that matters to someone trying to stay gainfully employed (as a coach or TV commentator) in a highly competitive business.
Now, imagine you are Pete Buttigieg. There is a decent chance that you could dominate the Midwestern moderate brand in the 2020 Democratic primaries: transcending identity politics and eschewing woke politics. Doubling down on this strategy may increase your odds of winning the nomination, but the potential downside outweighs the potential upside.
If you depart from progressive orthodoxy, you can expect vicious attacks on Twitter (people will say you’re a traitor and a sellout), and your future career in national Democratic politics might be jeopardized. And so, you hedge your bets. You flirt with moderation, but you still stay in the good graces of woke Twitter. You attack Mike Pence. You (ironically) play the conservative game by talking like a progressive. You punt when you should go for it on fourth down.
Losing isn’t the worst thing that could happen to you. Losing your reputation is much worse.
Further complicating the story, consider how this psychology might impact a political campaign. If you are a young person working for Joe Biden, it’s in your personal best interest that he be acceptable to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. How are you going to get your next job if Biden runs as a non-woke centrist, loses, and your work on his campaign is the last bullet point on your résumé? So what kind of advice are you going to give your candidate?
Our available analogies are not limited to football.
A couple of years ago, Malcolm Gladwell did a podcast demonstrating that the best way to shoot a free throw in basketball was underhand. Gladwell spent a lot of time talking about NBA great Wilt Chamberlain, who quit shooting that way for purely aesthetic reasons (looking cool mattered more than scoring points or getting wins). Gladwell notes that in his 1970s autobiography, Chamberlain confesses, “I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong. I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. Even now the best one in the NBA, Rick Barry, shoots underhanded. I just couldn’t do it.”
If you think masculine athletes are concerned about appearances, imagine how badly politicians feel the need to be liked and respected—not by the Middle Americans they will never meet—but by the people they interact with in their social circles and on social media.
Of course, this phenomenon isn’t limited to sports and politics.
In the early 1970s, CBS decided cancel hit rural-themed TV shows such as Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, Hee Haw, Lassie, Mayberry R.F.D., and Green Acres. This "rural purge” was notable because these shows were actually doing well in the ratings.
Here, network executives could at least assure themselves that they were staying ahead of the curve and going where demographics were headed (again, long-term thinking). Still, it’s odd to pull the plug on a winner. In all likelihood, the execs residing in Los Angeles were embarrassed by the rural programming—even if the rubes out in the middle of the country were tuning in to those shows on the regular. It turns out that looking cool and being respected by your peers is a more powerful motivator than pure profits.
Smash cut to today’s political scene: Middle America is, once again, being shunted aside in favor of more sophisticated or progressive programming.
Instead of running up the middle and making a play for the silent majority of centrists in the party, Democrats hedge their bets, pander to the left, and play it safe.
The public is hungry for a candidate who is willing to go for it on fourth down. Will the mayor from Notre Dame throw a Hail Mary? Don’t hold your breath.