What does it mean to be a good loser in politics?
In all of these cases, the students and I asked: How do losers fight to win again? How do losers position themselves, in loss, to be victorious in the future? How can losers shape their loss to defend themselves from further loss, and, perhaps, recast their loss as an actual victory?
As I watched the Democratic National Convention, these questions returned to mind with immediate meaning. How will Bernie Sanders and his supporters respond to their defeat? Can they respond in a way that will keep their progressive movement alive?
In my article “Narratives of Defeat: Explaining the Effects of Loss in Social Movements,” I argue that how those who lose respond to their loss can make a difference in their future opportunities for victory.
The right way to lose
Bernie Sanders has embraced the strategy of political learning, where defeat is acknowledged and accepted as a learning opportunity, anticipating a future in which things can be done differently “next time,” and recognizing what doesn’t or won’t work.
By accepting loss and identifying the Republican nominee as the target for further party mobilizing, Sanders is positioning himself, and those willing to follow him, for a second try at his political revolution.
Sanders has faced up to the reality of losing the nomination. As he said in his convention speech, he is working well with the Clinton campaign, and he has identified the new – if only temporary – goal of defeating Donald Trump.
Sanders is recasting his loss and regaining his footing, which may help him to advance his policy issues and to leverage a President Clinton into adopting a policy agenda that he and his supporters favor.
Sanders has already succeeded in having a major impact on future presidential nomination procedures. Despite losing the nomination, Sanders also achieved a platform victory, arguably producing the most progressive Democratic platform in the party’s history – or certainly one more progressive that might otherwise have been the case.
Mistakes to avoid
Two other responses to loss, however, can be strongly self-defeating. Some of Bernie’s supporters – unlike the candidate himself – are embracing these responses.
First, it is not helpful when losers claim that their loss is the result of cheating by others.
Sanders’ supporters, who “felt the Bern,” have directed their disappointment in defeat at former DNC Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and at the Clinton campaign. They claim that the DNC leadership, and Wasserman Schultz specifically, “rigged” the primary nomination process to favor Clinton and to disadvantage Sanders.
Identifying “cheating” as the basis for loss makes it difficult for losers to remobilize. Blaming cheaters for Sanders’ defeat signals a strategic weakness in the campaign itself and recognizes (even if untrue) that those who were defeated were outwitted. The resignation of Wasserman Schultz and her removal from the list of convention speakers may be satisfying in the short term, but it offers no meaningful way forward for those whose candidate has lost the nomination. As Sanders makes his peace with the Clinton campaign, his supporters may eventually blame Sanders himself for betraying the cause of “a new political revolution.”
Blaming others for “betrayal” is similarly self-defeating. A claim that one’s loss is the result of betrayal signals a structural weakness. Asserting that betrayal by your own side caused your defeat is a strong signal that you could not even rely on your own movement for support. And attributing blame on the basis of betrayal is a poor basis for remobilization. It is more likely to mean the beginning of the end for one’s movement.
Signs of betrayal claims emerged as early as April in the Sanders campaign. Ralph Nader accused “big union leaders” for having “betrayed” Sanders by their endorsement of Clinton. By the time Sanders himself endorsed Clinton on July 12, social media was rife with complaints of betrayal. Sanders’ own supporters booed him as he spoke to the delegates from the convention floor.
By issuing accusations of betrayal against other Democrats and Sanders himself, Sanders’ supporters will have nowhere to go, and they will not be able to recuperate their loss in a way that will permit them to move forward.
To be clear, the reason Sanders did not win the Democratic Party’s nomination for president is that Democrats preferred the alternative, Hillary Clinton. Black Democrats, Midwestern Democrats, Democrats in California and Florida and New York and Ohio, Democratic women, Democrats in primary states – these Democrats chose Hillary Clinton to be their nominee. She won more votes (and won them through the difficult route of proportional representation) than did Senator Sanders. Hillary Clinton won not because of emails sent by the former chair of the DNC or because Clinton “cheated.” Clinton won because more Democrats voted for her than voted for Sanders in primaries and caucuses.
It’s hard to lose, and it’s harder still to lose in an arena where your opponents – in this case, Clinton supporters – are reveling in their victory. Learning how to lose, however, is important. Losing well means that, even in defeat, it is possible to rise again.
Will Sanders and his supporters be gracious in defeat now so they can be victorious in the future? The future of his revolution may depend on it.