Like many other supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders who use the internet, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Bernie Bros. Do they exist? Am I one, since I’ve shouted — well, let’s call it a passionate assertion — in public about Neera Tanden’s Twitter? Are they an invented trope meant to delegitimize Sanders’s existing supporters as a serious political movement? If they exist, are they doing any harm by putting off potential supporters? If they don’t exist, why do a lot of his supporters nonetheless act like gigantic assholes on the internet? Do they demand a response by the Sanders campaign? And so on and so on, as these questions spiral outward the more you pay attention to the largely odious political discourse.
Some necessary caveats before we address these questions. Most voters are not very “online,” which renders these projections onto a greater voting base entirely useless. Every candidate has their way-too-involved assholish supporters, and we could break down a taxonomy of the obsessive Biden/Pete/Kamala/Warren/etc. stans, who have directed plenty of reprehensible rhetoric at Bernie and his supporters. (The evidence suggests that Bernie just has more of them who are on the internet, hence the stereotype.) Twitter is just Twitter — only 22 percent of Americans are on it, and a recent Pew study suggested 97 percent of political tweets are generated by 10 percent of its user base — and though its dramas flow to and from external vectors (particularly to cable news, which has a magnifying effect on any seemingly irrelevant online bullshit), measuring its exact impact remains vague and subject to heavily variable interpretation. Even as a stereotype, the magnification of the white, male “Bernie Bro” as a demonic phenomenon is measurably stupid given that a meaningful portion of Bernie’s supporters are non-white and non-male, and besides, those non-white and non-male supporters are plenty capable of acting like assholes, too. (And no, calling a woman a “bro” is not clever.)
Those caveats should be enough to dispel the idea that Bernie’s base exclusively comprises the angry and online. But it is not, because if you’re online and have two eyes you’d have to be willfully obtuse to ignore that there’s something to the idea that an observable portion of Sanders’s fans have a similarly rude approach to advancing his candidacy, even if it is, again — a point I will stress repeatedly — a minority. (A disproportionately visible minority, but a minority nonetheless.)
Based on my experience, which is really all any of us have to go on, a few stylistic markers are: a frequent deployment of the ironic humor popularized by Weird Twitter (eg. “I love Too suck titties”); a tendency toward the histrionic that’s easily conflated with ironic humor (eg. “I love Too vote for the senile granmpa pissing himself”); a pretty solid Marxist education, or at least a pretty solid familiarity with vocabulary (“neoliberalism,” “late capitalism,” etc.); a love of the vitriolic textual combat native to message boards, which many of these people probably used; a hivemind tendency to uniformly swarm against the main character of the day, whether it’s a journalist who wrote something poorly researched about Bernie, a campaign surrogate from a rival candidate talking shit, or literally just anybody who says something stupid about Bernie. There’s also an extremely atypical obsession with the social norms and happenings of Twitter (someone likely to unironically say “I’m sure you already saw this tweet, but”); an apparently real belief that behaving this way basically all the time is not only normal (though they’ll sometimes play it off with self-deprecation by claiming they have “brain worms”) but fine; youth, because Bernie supporters are overwhelmingly younger and young people are frighteningly competent at talking shit on the internet; a completely earnest affinity for the anti-capitalist, and anti-imperial politics Bernie has supported all his life; a big heart, if you are willing to get past the hundreds of “hey, shut da fuck up” posts.
The ongoing debate just concerns whether any of this is exceptional, and I believe it’s because the unifying tone of the Bernie adherents is fundamentally different in a way that explains why it’s easily caricatured. A key appeal of the Sanders campaign, aside from his policies, is the enduring clarity of his moral instincts. Since he was a college student, through his days as mayor of Burlington, Vermont through his decades-long time in Congress, Bernie has consistently been on the right side of history: about civil rights, about gay rights, about the CIA, about abortion, and on and on and on. This was one crucial distinction between his and Elizabeth Warren’s campaigns, which often (though not exclusively) overlapped on the issues: While Warren evolved from her staunch conservatism to a more widescreen progressivism over the years, Bernie was on track from the beginning. A frequently deployed trope on Twitter are archival clips favorably comparing Bernie’s record with that of an opponent’s, usually by dredging up some bygone speech where he said the right thing, years before it was popular.
So the thinking goes: For his entire time as an observable figure, he has been right, and nearly everyone else has been wrong.
Mainstream American politics have often failed at futurecasting, preferring instead the feel-good validations of the present. Afghanistan abetted the 9/11 attacks; let’s declare war, instead of thinking for a single second about how it’ll destabilize the Middle East for a generation. The government takes too much of your paycheck; let’s lower taxes, instead of avoiding the obvious decimation of American public services. So many depressing quagmires of contemporary society are trackable back to some banal decision made years ago by arrogant men (and some women) uninterested in concepts like “risk” or “nuance,” who barreled ahead in the interest of collecting power and profit. Sometimes, these quagmires were the planned result; other times, you can debate they were the byproduct of good intentions, not that it really matters 20 years on when everything has turned to shit.
This institutional obliviousness is not really disincentivized; often the architects of some present misery are given higher and higher footholds, with little-to-no reckoning with their terrible judgment, in a system that privileges incumbency and familiarity over competency. If you have done any reading about the root causes, the vaguely apologetic rhetoric that shrouds these failures — “we didn’t know,” “we were making the best decision we could,” “we regret the outcome but wouldn’t take anything back” — pales to the firm realization that, you know, if given the choice I would not like someone who voted for the Iraq War to potentially decide on launching any future ones. (Like, you know, Joe Biden.) And within mainstream American politics, Bernie Sanders is nearly singular in his sustained resistance to the establishment logic that motivates these disastrous decisions. So the thinking goes: For his entire time as an observable figure, he has been right, and nearly everyone else has been wrong. He has never needed to evolve; his positions were fully formed from the start.
This is not exclusively true, but whatever; a record of leftist foresight and nuance that has, on balance, turned out to be mostly correct in comparison to his peers is unbelievably seductive to people cursed with paying attention in a country that broadly does not. If I can pick out a genuinely identifying characteristic among all my friends who support Bernie, from the very online to the very not, it’s that they prioritize this quality. In the context of American politics, he feels like a revolutionary, though of course he is an elected politician. That his congressional record appears middling can be hand waved off with an acknowledgment of his prevailing milieu; it’s not so easy to dismantle institutional power when almost all of your colleagues are dedicated to propping it up. But as president, when public rhetoric and private whipping can force the chains of bureaucracy? Then maybe, just maybe…
And with climate change and the endless wars and the brewing pandemics and shoddy health care and all of the myriad afflictions making life hell for a plurality of Americans, the necessity of electing the one candidate who seems to understand the urgency of wrenching back control feels paralyzingly clear to those who’ve done the reading and allowed themselves to feel one flicker of empathy. Hence the Bernie Bro affect: a righteous and logic-driven correctness about the trajectories and realities of American society, because haven’t you been paying attention, coupled with the combativeness inherent to the internet, where everyone likes to believe they are right, all of the time. Social media and all its related platforms offer an incredible opportunity to be correct, in public, and that Bernie’s overall argument looks so good on paper makes it easily repeatable when faced with the truly astonishing amount of stupid, banal bullshit repeated everyday on the internet. There is always someone to argue with.
That politics are, maddeningly and yet obviously, not always achieved by logic or righteousness is difficult to quantify, and the power afforded to folksiness or affability or hotness is beyond compare. Perhaps it does not matter, neither on the internet nor in real life, how correct a candidate or his supporters are; in fact, the entire arc of American history would suggest this. A refrain I’ve commonly observed among Bernie supporters (and on this website) is a general wariness of viewing politics as fanfiction, a rational view that nonetheless sidesteps how the entirety of American society is built to encourage such adoration, and how tsking “do better” at people who are just operating by their default programming is no real incentive to wise up. But combine that skepticism of how all this has traditionally worked with the internet’s rhetorical tics — sarcasm, vitriol, nihilism, groupthink — and the critical machine builds toward a critical mass of condescension, anger, and what might even qualify as harassment, though the attacked could just shut their computers off.
That is what I detect most within these collective spasms of Bernie-driven passion: the disbelief at how dumb all of this is, how the evidence for what we need is right there and yet the forces that be (and their followers) believe otherwise. We’re within striking distance of the first Democratic president with an actionable, clear-minded plan to remake society to benefit the downtrodden and just-getting-by since President Lyndon B. Johnson, except he doesn’t even want to start any wars. Despite his clearly troubling record, Joe Biden would obviously represent a massive upgrade over Trump — most basically, the federal government would actually be staffed in times of crisis, and he’d stop appointing unconscionably evil Republican judges to lifetime positions — but he’d hop right back on the establishment track that, due to all its computational weaknesses, helped create the conditions that led to Trumpism.
So it seems, though we don’t really know. Not to sound glib or zen or endlessly indecisive — it’s just that we really don’t know, and you can spiral into insanity while end gaming all the possible routes of action. Even Bernie’s surrogates have admitted there’s a good chance he won’t be able to pass Medicare for All; he’s just laying the rhetorical groundwork to settle for something better than what we have now, which still might not be enough. With a Republican-controlled Congress, it’s easy to see a Bernie presidency ground into inaction for the next four years. On and on you can go, though I don’t care much for political predictions, which in the aggregate seem about as accurate as preseason NFL picks. Even the coolest of logic does not singlehandedly create a roadmap for the future; it’s much more effective in retrospect, when everything has happened and all the evidence can be curated into a total picture. Abiding so exclusively by what feels like the obvious answer, despite all of the possible ways to be wrong, is a limiting decision.
But I get it, I really do. I’ve too felt insane looking at all these seemingly facile reasons for why someone won’t vote for Bernie — “he’s too angry,” or the hysterical narcissism of earnestly claiming that the irritating move of tweeting snake emojis en masse at Elizabeth Warren supporters was enough to switch one’s support to Biden, because at least his followers aren’t so mean. Look, at least Trump supporters have the blinkered courage to admit it. Claiming interest in a more egalitarian, fair society but backing off because someone was temporarily rude to you is clown behavior; even I, in my attempts to understand, end up at “well, grow up,” and feel the old behaviors of my online education — never back down, talk your shit, search for the most devastatingly applicable insult possible — stir in my bones.
A petulant thrill arises from refusing to act differently than what’s expected, no matter your views, and I’ll always take the over bet on “people will be rude on the internet.”
I’m just positive it doesn’t lead to much, and that the catharsis and solidarity created by this approach is a fraction of what’s required to progress toward the future. I mean, think about how rootly unexplainable it is to anyone who hasn’t read 100,000,000 posts: “It’s actually okay to occasionally seem like a giant psychopathic asshole, because civility kills.” O… kay. It may feel like the world is burning down, but a lot of the old norms still apply — norms that many voters, some of whom are not even corporate sellouts, don’t want to fully abolish. There’s a quote from Marilynne Robinson I often return to, from her novel Gilead: “A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine. Above all, mind what you say. ‘Behold how much wood is kindled by how small a fire, and the tongue is a fire’ — that’s the truth.”
Super Tuesday was a stark awakening for all but the most paranoid of Sanders supporters, the turnout suggesting that while he has a staunch following, Biden still has a big advantage among the electorate whose interest in politics tops out at “that guy I know, whose ideas I think I agree with.” I know it’s suffocating to hold your nose and make nice with people who seem like idiots but that’s basically the entire history of electoral politics, assuming Bernie does not want to engage in some good old-fashioned Chicago-style ballot stuffing. This sober analysis by New York’s Eric Levitz points out that “to fully exploit its opportunities for making America a less cruel and undemocratic society in the near term — and laying the groundwork for more radical change in the long run — the left will need to make peace with the concessions and compromises inherent to electoral politics.” Even if a small percentage of Bernie supporters are enabling this perception, it’s still too easily mainstreamed — by the media, by political opponents, by campaigns, by your friend on Facebook — to avoid addressing.
It’s here where I become cynical that much will change, in terms of this online behavior and how it’s caricatured by the willfully obtuse. A petulant thrill arises from refusing to act differently than what’s expected, no matter your views, and I’ll always take the over bet on “people will be rude on the internet.” All of Bernie’s supporters could stop tweeting right now, and I bet the perception would still remain, just because of how all of this works in tandem. The timeline is too tight; the election is too close.
But that such a niche phenomenon has captivated political discourse for so long reveals fundamental ideological disagreements about how the internet should be used, cutting across generation and gender and race and so forth with no fixed understanding. It is a real issue that sprawls far beyond Bernie, and can’t be as simply waved off as “old people don’t get the internet” — evidence shows it’s plenty of young people, too. One person’s ingrained harassment is another’s victimless shit-talking is another’s revolutionary action is another’s technically right, but being an asshole about it, and in a world where everyone expresses their opinion all at once, there is no easy way to gain consensus. If the Bernie Bro is an unfair caricature — and I believe it is — that’s only because it stems from something observably real, driven by dynamics unlikely to dissipate so long as the internet exists. In a world where the truth is created by the mass of people who believe in it, righteousness is just a failed motion if you don’t have the numbers.