When Senator Bernie Sanders lost the state of Michigan to former Vice President Joe Biden during the March 10 primary election—a state Sanders won in the 2016 Democratic primary, a state Sanders poured a slew of time, money, and resources into in a mad dash to fight Biden’s growing momentum—the blow was undeniable. The possibility of a Biden nomination shifted from possible to very likely overnight, and the Sanders campaign knew it.
But as the fawning narrative of Biden’s reverse in fortune—from debate dud and Iowa disappointment to Southern-sweeping comeback kid with black voters and suburban women in the bag—controlled the airwaves, those who came out and voted for Sanders were given little regard. While Biden went on to win the delegate count in the states of Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Idaho, and Washington that night (Sanders won in North Dakota), the demographic similarities were the same across the board, and have been largely consistent in every single primary race thus far: Sanders has the support of Latinx voters and voters under 45 of all races. Additionally, exit polls show that Democrats support universal healthcare
It’s Sanders’s multi-racial base of Millennials and Gen-Zers, who do in fact want a revolutionary takeover of the dysfunctional healthcare system, that Biden will have to win over if he becomes the Democratic nominee. And at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has put healthcare and the social safety nets Sanders has advocated for at the forefront of Americans’ minds, it is their support that Biden will need if he expects to get a large, enthusiastic turnout against President Trump in November.
That is, if he can stop himself from calling them a bunch of “Bernie Bros” first.
Throughout his campaign, Sanders has repeatedly disavowed the actions of the so-called Bernie Bros, and has since he ran against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primary, when the term first emerged into the popular lexicon. (“It’s disgusting,” he told CNN in February 2016. “Look, we don’t want that crap [...] anybody who is supporting me that is doing the sexist things is—we don’t want them. I don’t want that. That is not what this campaign is about.”) Coined by Robinson Meyer in an October 2015 Atlantic article titled “Here Come the Bernie Bros,” Meyer characterized the archetype as white, male, and educated, with a personality that reeks of neckbeard “well, actually” energy and an obsession with sharing hot takes on social media. (“The Berniebro had an equal chance four years ago,” Meyer wrote, “of being (a) an Occupybro or (b) the kind of bro who asked, repeatedly and insistently, what Occupy’s concrete policy proposals were.”). In Meyer’s telling, the Bernie Bro was mostly harmless but certainly annoying. We all know one, fucked one, dated one, or were one. And the moniker stuck; it spoke to a specific kind of guy online that was, frankly, hard to ignore and even harder to tolerate, even if their points about neoliberalism’s failures were valid.
But as the 2016 primary continued, the Bernie Bro transformed into something more sinister: A brute of sexist vitriol and white rage, with Hillary Clinton as enemy number one and her supporters trailing just behind. While this was largely relegated to verbal sparrings on social media, the behavior of so-called Bernie Bros actually resulted in a few moments of tangible chaos, most notably one wild affair in May 2016 when Sanders supporters accused the Nevada Democratic Party convention of being “rigged” against Sanders, leading to a lot of chairs getting thrown around. The party chairwoman’s phone number was shared online, and she received a slew of death threats.
While egregious, it was a blessedly isolated incident of abject chaos, and though the average person who wields the Bernie Bro epithet around is likely unaware of it, the characterization stuck. The Bernie Bro reputation didn’t die down as the 2016 primary went on—if anything, it grew as it became clear that Sanders would not become the Democratic nominee. The Bernie or Bust mentality was born, but didn’t actually materialize in the vast majority of Sanders supporters: Only days prior to the 2016 election, 82 percent of Sanders supporters said they supported Clinton in the general, and according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study—an election survey of 50,000 voters—12 percent of those who voted for Sanders in the primary went on to vote for President Trump. (It’s worth noting that according to CNN exit polling from the 2008 general election, 15 percent of Clinton supporters voted for John McCain in the general election; perhaps if Obama lost, she too would be blamed for the decisions of her supporters despite her enthusiastic backing of Obama following a particularly nasty primary.)
Of course, Clinton lost the electoral college in 2016 (a fact some still hold against Sanders himself), but the Bernie Bro never became a relic (or forgotten, like the “Obamaboys,” coined in 2008 by Rebecca Traister to refer to Barack Obama’s young, Daily Show-watching and “not so female-friendly” male supporters). The rage against the Trump doctrine, grudges against the DNC, quiet mutterings of “Bernie woulda won,” and Sanders’s sustained presence in American politics assured that he and his message would maintain relevance, support, and plenty of critics.
But what is a Bernie Bro really in 2020? It’s a question I’ve found myself asking repeatedly as the 2020 race stretches agonizingly forward, and Sanders looks increasingly unlikely to attain the number of delegates required to emerge victorious at the Democratic National Convention this summer. Plenty of supporters of other Democratic candidates—past and present—would gladly reference a bunch of pissed-off Sanders supporters camped out in their Twitter mentions, and insist that the Bernie Bro of 2020 is no different than the Bernie Bro of 2016. Those same people would probably sneer at my assertion that the Bernie Bro as we know should be irrelevant and that the continued mention of Bernie Bros has shrouded the reality that Sanders’s average supporter is not the neckbeard white bro that the media class and their online allies and fans have made public enemy number one. The guys of Chapo Trap House might have the most clout, the Gravel teens might have the best light trolling capabilities, and the Sanders campaign surrogates might oscillate between respectable representatives and experts in starting Twitter dogpiles. But they and their fans only have visibility for a select number of Twitter users, not a claim on Sanders’s entire base. While his base may have been perceived as dominated by white people—particularly white men—in 2016, the picture in 2020 is quite different.
Sanders has strong Latinx support, and while he struggles with black voters over 40—a shortcoming that the Sanders camp, embarrassingly, has had years to mitigate, and hasn’t—he polls very well with black Millennials and Gen Zers. And with elected officials like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashid Tliab, and Pramila Jayapal enthusiastically backing his 2020 candidacy, the idea of Sanders as the candidate of noxious men and their female counterparts, exclusively, has never looked so absurd. To overlook this is tantamount to the erasure of people of color, one of the media’s most glaring, and common, failings.
While the loudest critics of the Sanders voter may still see mostly angry men representing the Bernie Doctrine on their timelines—and gleefully declare that they will not support Sanders in the primary as a result—I see young black women, Latinas, and Asian women on mine, women of color who are never hesitant to express their displeasure at the senator’s shortcomings but able to see him as the best shot they have of living a world where universal healthcare, eliminated student loan debt, free childcare, and a common-sense climate policy are possible. Maybe being a black woman myself inherently means that the people I’m exposed to are more diverse, but the caricature of the Bernie supporter as a white dude with an anger problem—or his white girlfriend with a bad, Brooklyn-based podcast—has not necessarily been the prevailing image I’ve encountered in this election cycle, and it is obviously not the one I see in myself either, as a black woman who supports Bernie Sanders. But we make a lazy media narrative difficult to parse, and our existence requires a nuance that some cable news pundit—who is already sour toward Sanders—isn’t interested in navigating. Why acknowledge Muslims and Latinos and young black voters who support Sanders when it’s far easier to continue to push the “Sanders is the mean white guy candidate” line? Biden needs these voters too if he wants to win big in November. He can’t and won’t if he continues to antagonize them at his town halls, telling Latino anti-deportation activists critical of his policies to “vote for Trump,” reducing young climate activists at his rallies to trouble makers hellbent on tearing the party apart.
But the erasure has been incessant, to the point where it feels like a tic: From the mainstream media, from conventional Democratic politicians, from professional white feminists, from black moderate pundits, and beyond. And it’s certainly convenient: What better way to dismiss a movement dedicated to making material changes than to condemn it as a rogue group of cantankerous goons who are too uncivil to form coalitions with?
But when I see commentary about Sanders’s “disgusting” base, I don’t primarily think of those who love nothing more than to pester people online. Sanders supporters are Muslims in Michigan who want justice for Palestinians. They’re also Latinas in Nevada who are sick of the dehumanization of their communities and mothers living paycheck to paycheck. And white Baby Boomers worried about retirement and healthcare costs alongside black college students who are passionate about racial justice. Also among Sanders supporters: A woman who is supporting him because when she was mauled by a bear 12 years ago, her primary thought was that her health insurance would likely not cover her injuries.
One of Sanders’s newest supporters is my mom, an older black woman who is in the prime Biden demographic, but after much consideration voted for the Democratic-Socialist from Vermont. Is she part of his disgusting base as well?
There have been Sanders supporters who don’t play nicely with others on the internet, who don’t realize that sneering at others who generally agree on many of the same lefty issues is not productive, who revel in the clout that comes with embarrassing some verified Twitter user over a lukewarm Sanders take. And I maintain that emoji bombing Warren—for example—was a big mistake. Not just because it was petulant and embarrassing, but also because the mainstream media seems to relish any opportunity to discredit the Sanders campaign, and some of his most vocal supporters on Twitter gave in to the bait far too easily.
Still, these isolated incidents of Sanders supporters being mean and aggressive in their desire for allies has eclipsed the diversity of Sanders’s 2020 base, most of which is not spending all day on Twitter. And it’s regretful. The so-called Bernie Bros have made up such a minuscule portion of Sanders’s base that to pontificate over them to this extent distracts from the larger platform, and their rudest tweets don’t inherently reflect the candidate any more than the salty Kamala Harris fans who have hurled insults my way or the Andrew Yang supporters who accused my colleague of being a fake Asian. None of the aforementioned candidates have condoned the shitty behavior of their supporters—unlike Trump, a demagogue who revels in the unruly behavior of his biggest fans. And nasty comments against Sanders supporters and his surrogates—including racist and sexist comments against his black surrogates and staffers like Nina Turner—is in abundance as well. It’s almost as if the internet turns even the gentlest among us into absolute ghouls who find little difficulty calling those we disagree with idiots and liars, all for the serotonin dump that comes with getting a like or retweet from a fellow ghoul amplifying a dunk on some overly earnest tweet comparing Warren to Hermione Granger. Imagine that.
When journalists, commentators, and other members of the media—people who are disproportionately white and/or wealthy—aren’t out there reporting from Sanders rallies and town halls, they’re going to report what they see on their Twitter timeline instead: People being dicks, because that’s what people do on the internet. The most obnoxious Sanders supporters have done Sanders and his real base a disservice when they—for lack of a better phrase—act a fool online. But a larger disservice is also done of Sanders supporters when they’re reduced to the behavior of some jerks online. Cable news networks and centrist media outlets have been more invested in depicting Sanders supporters as a scourge of trolls than people who ultimately want policies implemented that help the most vulnerable Americans. It at first, sounds cynical to call this Class Interests 101, but I’m reminded of what Winners Take All author and MSNBC political analyst Anand Giridharadas told the New York Times in a recent piece critiquing the cable news media’s dismal coverage of Sanders: “When you get to that level of television, everyone is prosperous at the table... I’m not sure I’ve ever sat next to an uninsured person on television. I sit next to uninsured people on the subway all the time.”
This disconnect is mirrored by those working in media treating Twitter—a platform used by only 22 percent of Americans, where the median user only tweets twice a month while 10 percent of most active users create 80 percent of Twitter’s content—as an example of the world at large, an accurate representation of the national discourse instead of a collection of candid, unfiltered takes from self-selecting groups of people who spend a lot of time online. People who work in media are more likely to encounter some DSA, red-rose emoji individual posting snark on the timeline than they are to hang out with individuals who have been working minimum wage jobs their whole lives and would love to see a $15 federal minimum wage implemented by a President Sanders. The majority of those casting votes for Sanders are rendered invisible, all in the service of pushing a narrative that is the doing of some loud people online, as witnessed by people who also spend too much time online.