The “Bernie Bros” Narrative: a Cheap Campaign Tactic Masquerading as Journalism and Social Activism

The fact that it may be an effective political smear does not make it any less ugly or deceitful.

The concoction of the “Bernie Bro” narrative by pro-Clinton journalists has been a potent political tactic — and a journalistic disgrace. It’s intended to imply two equally false claims: (1) a refusal to march enthusiastically behind the Wall Street-enriched, multiple-war-advocating, despot-embracing Hillary Clinton is explainable not by ideology or political conviction, but largely if not exclusively by sexism: demonstrated by the fact that men, not women, support Sanders (his supporters are “bros”); and (2) Sanders supporters are uniquely abusive and misogynistic in their online behavior. Needless to say, a crucial tactical prong of this innuendo is that any attempt to refute it is itself proof of insensitivity to sexism if not sexism itself (as the accusatory reactions to this article will instantly illustrate).

It’s become such an all-purpose, handy pro-Clinton smear that even consummate, actual “bros” for whom the term was originally coined — straight guys who act with entitlement and aggression, such as Paul Krugman — are now reflexively (and unironically) applying it to anyone who speaks ill of Hillary Clinton, even when they know nothing else about the people they’re smearing, including their gender, age, or sexual orientation. Thus, a male policy analyst who criticized Sanders’ health care plan “is getting the Bernie Bro treatment,” sneered Krugman. Unfortunately for the New York Times Bro, that analyst, Charles Gaba, said in response that he’s “really not comfortable with [Krugman’s] referring to die-hard Bernie Sanders supporters as ‘Bernie Bros'” because it “implies that only college-age men support Sen. Sanders, which obviously isn’t the case.”

It is indeed “obviously not the case.” There are literally millions of women who support Sanders over Clinton. A new Iowa poll yesterday shows Sanders with a 15-point lead over Clinton among women under 45, while one-third of Iowa women over 45 support him. A USA Today/Rock the Vote poll from two weeks ago found Sanders nationally “with a 19-point lead over front-runner Hillary Clinton, 50 percent to 31 percent, among Democratic and independent women ages 18 to 34.” One has to be willing to belittle the views and erase the existence of a huge number of American women to wield this “Bernie Bro” smear.

But truth doesn’t matter here — at all. Instead, the goal is to inherently delegitimize all critics of Hillary Clinton by accusing them of, or at least associating them with, sexism, thus distracting attention away from Clinton’s policy views, funding, and political history and directing it toward the online behavior of anonymous, random, isolated people on the internet claiming to be Sanders supporters. It’s an effective weapon when wielded by Clinton operatives. But, given its blatant falsity, it has zero place in anything purporting to be “journalism.”

To see the blatant disregard for facts in which this narrative is grounded, let’s quickly look at two of the most widely cited examples of online “Bernie Bro” misogyny from this week’s deluge of articles on the topic, smartly dissected by columnist Carl Beijar (“How many smears on Sanders supporters can we debunk in one week?”). A much-cheered Mashable article — headlined “The bros who love Bernie Sanders have become a sexist mob” — purported to describe the “Bernie Bro” phenomenon as Sanders supporters who are “often young, white, and predominantly male” and whose messages are “oftentimes derogatory and misogynistic.” It cited a grand total of two examples, both from random, unknown internet users. Here was one of those examples, left in response to a Facebook post from New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen about a Clinton rally she attended:

There are two small problems with this example. First, it’s written by a woman, not a man. Second, it’s not remotely sexist. If anything is sexist, it’s the branding of Carol Jean Simpson as a “bro” because she supports Sanders rather than Clinton. And while I’m sure it’s terribly unpleasant for a former governor and two-term U.S. Senator such as Jeanne Shaheen to have her favorite presidential candidate described as a “lying shitbag” and be told that she lost a supporter as a result, there’s nothing particularly inappropriate, or at least not unusual, about this kind of rhetoric being used in online debates over politics — unless you think the most powerful U.S. politicians are entitled to the reverence that London elites accord British monarchy.

Then there’s the most widely cited example, used by that Mashable article as well as one from the BBC titled “Bernie Sanders supporters get a bad reputation online.” This example originated with the New Yorker TV critic (and Clinton supporter) Emily Nussbaum, who claimed that she was called a “psycho” by the “Feel the Bern crew” after she praised Clinton. Nussbaum’s claim was then repeatedly cited by pro-Clinton media figures when repeating the “Bernie Bro” theme. The problem with this example? The person who called her a “psycho” is a right-wing Tea Party supporter writing under a fake Twitter account of a GOP congressman — not remotely a Sanders supporter. As Beijar put it:

What this illustrates is that Clinton media operatives are campaigning for their candidate under the guise of journalism and social issue activism. I don’t personally have a problem with that: I see nothing wrong with journalists being vehemently devoted to a political candidate. But it’s important to know what it is. As is true for most campaign operatives, they have thrown all concern about truth and facts into the garbage can in exchange for saying anything that they perceive will help the Clinton campaign win.

Have pro-Clinton journalists and pundits been subjected to some vile, abusive, and misogynistic rhetoric from random, anonymous internet supporters of Sanders who are angry over their Clinton support? Of course they have. Does that reflect in any way on the Sanders campaign or which candidate should win the Democratic primary? Of course it does not. The reason pro-Clinton journalists are targeted with vile abuse online has nothing specifically to do with the Sanders campaign or its supporters. It has everything to do with the internet. There are literally no polarizing views one can advocate online — including criticizing Democratic Party leaders such as Clinton or Barack Obama — that will not subject one to a torrent of intense anger and vile abuse. It’s not remotely unique to supporting Hillary Clinton: Ask Megyn Kelly about that, or the Sanders-supporting Susan Sarandon and Cornel West, or anyone with a Twitter account or blog. I’ve seen online TV and film critics get hauled before vicious internet mobs for expressing unpopular views about a TV program or a movie.

And while people in some minority groups are, just like in offline life, lavished with special, noxious forms of online abuse — people of color, LGBTs, women, Muslims — that has been true in basically every online realm long before Bernie Sanders announced that he would rudely attempt to impede Hillary Clinton’s coronation. There are countless articles documenting the extra-vitriolic abuse directed at women and minorities for many years before “the Sanders campaign” existed.

Pretending that abusive or misogynistic behavior is unique to Sanders supporters is a blatant, manipulative scam, as anyone who ever used the internet before 2015 knows. Do pro-Clinton journalists really believe that Sanders-supporting women, or LGBTs, or people of color, are exempt from this online abuse from Clinton supporters, that this only happens to people who support Clinton? (In 2008, Krugman used the same tactic on behalf of the Clinton campaign by claiming that Obama supporters were particularly venomous and cult-like.)

A tweet yesterday from a devoted supporter of Hillary Clinton.

Just as neocons have long sought to exploit “anti-Semitism” accusations as a means of deterring and delegitimizing criticisms of Israel (thus weakening and trivializing the ability to combat that very real menace), Clinton media supporters are cynically exploiting serious and disturbing phenomena and weaponizing them as tools for the Clinton campaign. Online abuse in general, and toward specific groups, is a very real and serious problem; it is not a tool to be used to advance the political empowerment of Hillary Clinton by smearing Sanders supporters as particularly guilty of it.

Clinton-supporting journalists this week made much out of the fact that the Sanders campaign felt compelled to issue a statement asking its supporters to comport themselves respectfully online, as though this proved that Sanders supporters really are uniquely abusive. That’s absurd. What that actually proved is that pro-Clinton journalists at large media outlets vastly outnumber pro-Sanders journalists — that’s what it means to say that she’s the “establishment candidate” — and have collectively used their platform to spin this harmful narrative, forcing the Sanders campaign to try to defuse it.

To put it simply: if you really think that Sanders supporters are particularly abusive online, that says a great deal about which candidate you want to win, and nothing about Sanders supporters. If you spend your time praising Clinton and/or criticizing Sanders, of course you personally will experience more anger and vitriol from Sanders supporters than Clinton supporters.

Conversely, if you spend your time praising Sanders, you will experience far more anger and vitriol from Clinton supporters. If you spend your time criticizing Trump, you’ll think no faction is more abusive than Trump supporters. If you’re an Obama critic, you’ll conclude that his army of devoted worshippers is uniquely toxic. And if you opine that the original Star Trek series is overrated, you’ll be able to write a column about the supreme dark side of nerds, armed with numerous horrifying examples. Welcome to my inbox and Twitter feed:

I got all of that — and so much more like it — without having to praise Hillary Clinton! How could that happen? We’ve been hearing that it’s Sanders supporters who uniquely spew this kind of ugliness at Clinton-supporting media figures.

Hillary Clinton is the establishment candidate. Therefore, she has far more supporters with loud, influential media platforms than her insurgent, socialist challenger. Therefore, the people with the loudest media platforms experience lots of anger and abuse from Sanders supporters and none from Clinton supporters; why would devoted media cheerleaders of the Clinton campaign experience abuse from Clinton supporters? They wouldn’t, and they don’t. Therefore, venerating their self-centered experience as some generalized trend, they announce that Sanders supporters are uniquely abusive: because that’s what they, as die-hard Clinton media supporters, personally experience. This “Bernie Bro” narrative says a great deal about which candidate is supported by the most established journalists and says nothing unique about the character of the Sanders campaign or his supporters.

As I documented last week, it is hard to overstate how identical is the script being used by American media elites against Sanders when compared to the one used by the British media elite last year to demonize Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. This exact media theme was constantly used against Corbyn: that his supporters were uniquely abusive, vitriolic, and misogynistic. That’s because the British media almost unanimously hated Corbyn and monomaniacally devoted themselves to his defeat: So of course they never experienced abuse from supporters of his opponents but only from supporters of Corbyn. And from that personal experience, they also claimed that Corbyn supporters were uniquely misbehaved, and then turned it into such a media narrative that the Corbyn campaign finally was forced to ask for better behavior from his supporters:

Just as happened with Corbyn, the pro-Clinton establishment media first created this narrative about the Sanders campaign, then seized on its being forced to respond to it — the narrative they created — as vindication that they were right all along. As the media critic Adam Johnson put it this week:

It’s the exact same script. And in both cases, it’s not hard to understand. If you were a supporter of Hillary Clinton, think of all the things she’s said and done that you would be desperate not to have to discuss or defend. Several days ago, the African-American professor Michelle Alexander, whose book The New Jim Crow about the sprawling, racist U.S. penal state is one of the most important of the last decade, wrote this on her Facebook page:

Similarly, here’s what Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic last week:

If you’re a Clinton media supporter, the last thing you want to do is talk about her record in helping to construct the supremely oppressive and racist U.S. penal state. You don’t even want to acknowledge what Alexander and Coates wrote. You most certainly don’t want to talk about how she’s drowning both personally and politically in Wall Street money. You sure don’t want to talk about what her bombing campaign did to Libya, or the military risks that her no-fly zone in Syria would entail, or the great admiration and affection she proclaimed for Egyptian despot Hosni Mubarak, or revisit her steadfast advocacy of the greatest political crime of this generation, the invasion of Iraq. You don’t want to talk about her vile condemnation of “superpredators,” or her record on jobs-destroying trade agreements, or the fact that she changed her position from vehement opposition to support for marriage equality only after polls and most Democratic politicians switched sides.

Indeed, outside of a very small number of important issues where her record is actually good, you don’t want to talk much at all about her actual beliefs and actions. Watch how many progressive endorsements of Clinton simply ignore all of that. It’s much better to re-direct the focus away from Hillary Clinton’s history of beliefs and policy choices onto the repugnant, stray comments of obscure, unknown, anonymous people on the internet claiming (accurately or not) to be supporters of Bernie Sanders. The fact that it may be an effective tactic — mostly because most Democratic media figures are equally fervent Clinton supporters and thus willing to unite to prop it up and endorse it — does not make it any less ugly or deceitful.


Top photo: Actress Susan Sarandon watches as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign event at Music Man Square, Jan. 27, 2016, in Mason City, Iowa. 

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