Burying the Bernie Bro Narrative

 /  Nov. 24, 2019, 6:44 p.m.


Benjamin Kerensa

Though much has changed since 2016—the natural result of three years of President Donald Trump—one of the most infuriating things to come out of the 2016 Democratic primary has regrettably stuck around: the myth of the Bernie Bro.

For those of you blessed enough to be unfamiliar with the term, it refers to two separate but related concepts. One is that Senator Bernie Sanders’ supporters are predominantly (straight, white, young, extremely online, take your pick) men whose zeal for progressive values stops short of “identity politics,” and that these men are uniquely aggressive towards those who are not “feeling the Bern,” especially if they happen to be women. Their social media holy war in 2016 employed a number of tactics, from besieging the mentions of Hillary Clinton supporters en masse (“dogpiling”) to mansplaining democratic socialism. Jamil Smith of the New Republic called them “cultish”; Emily Cahn of Mashable labeled them a “sexist mob.”

The other major premise of the Bernie Bro narrative, and perhaps the more outlandish one, is that support for Sanders is primarily driven not by ideological concerns, but rather sexist bias against female candidates—Clinton in 2016, and Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2020. One Politico article seeks to explain early support for Sanders and Joe Biden in the 2020 primary by arguing, perhaps not unreasonably, that voters “may implicitly regard the presidency as men’s birthright, something to which they are entitled.” Yet the article comes to the baffling conclusion that these voters are “unconsciously [reaching] for excuses to rationalize [their] preference” for male candidates. 

Some pundits have ditched the psychologizing and have turned to explicitly branding Sanders supporters as unrepentant misogynists. As political strategist and commentator Emily Tisch Sussman put it in a particularly groan-inducing MSNBC segment, “If you are still supporting Sanders as opposed to Warren, it’s kind of showing your sexism.” In other words, nothing besides disdain for women could possibly explain continued support for Sanders in a race where Warren has a conceivable shot at winning the nomination.

Before examining the serious flaws of the Bernie Bro trope, it is worth taking a look at the factual basis for its underlying premises. That some Sanders supporters have engaged in toxic and misogynistic harassment online is undeniable; the campaign itself acknowledged as much in 2016 and reminded supporters to “be respectful when people disagree with you.” Social media is often a vile cesspool of personal attacks and antisocial behavior, and believe it or not, the Left is not exempt. There is also truth to the claim that bias towards male candidates is a real detriment to women seeking office; as I wrote in my analysis of the Biden campaign, much of the “electability” conversation rests on the sexist assumption that female candidates are somehow too alienating for Midwestern swing voters.

Even so, the Bernie Bro narrative does not hold up under scrutiny. Though Sanders struggled to reach non-white voters in 2016, with Clinton performing markedly better among black voters in states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, it is just not true that Sanders’ 2020 coalition consists entirely of white male “brocialists.” Women make up 53 percent of Sanders’ supporters, compared to 49 percent of Warren’s supporters, and 48 percent of Biden’s and Senator Kamala Harris’. His base is not even the whitest of the 2020 Democrats’; recent polling by Politico found that white voters make up 81.8 percent of Warren’s coalition and a whopping 92.4 percent of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s, compared to 67.2 percent of Sanders’ (the 2010 census reports that 72 percent of Americans self-identify as white). Sanders leads among Hispanic voters as well, and has outpaced all other Democratic candidates in donations from that key voting bloc.

Bernie’s high-profile endorsements from Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib further testify to his desire to build a multiracial, multigender, and multigenerational coalition willing to challenge the status quo, not a gang of white teenage boys who think calling people “neoliberal shills” on Twitter counts as praxis. Claims to the contrary not only erase the diversity among Sanders supporters, but also prop up the deeply condescending notion that non-white, non-male, and non-straight voters simply align themselves with candidates on the basis of their demographic background, not deliberately chosen political beliefs. To expect that Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and Tlaib would back Warren solely because she is a woman would be to ignore that their worldviews align much more with Sanders’ and would reduce three of the most progressive members of Congress to automatons.

Much of the asinine discourse on Bernie Bros goes back to the assumed tension between class politics and identity politics. An integral characteristic of the archetypal Bernie Bro, and allegedly Sanders himself, is “class reductionism,” or the belief that fixing economic inequality will inevitably end other forms of inequality in society, among them sexism and racism. That accusation dogged the Sanders campaign in the last election cycle; in one particularly egregious moment, Clinton took a veiled swipe at Sanders by questioning whether “[breaking] up the big banks tomorrow” would “end racism.” In the process, Clinton cast Sanders as an out-of-touch old man, oblivious to the realities of white supremacy in America.

However, one could argue that the criticism inadvertently revealed a major flaw in Clinton’s own identity reductionism. These “big banks” have, both historically and contemporarily, played a considerable role in upholding structural racism through redlining and predatory lending practices that target black and Hispanic communities. Clinton was right to doubt that breaking them up would definitively end racism—economic reform alone will not end identity-based oppressions, which also manifest themselves in culture and interpersonal interactions—but she was hopelessly wrong to imply that doing so is somehow in conflict with addressing systemic racism. The two are intimately related, and Clinton failed to consider that nuance.

By contrast, Sanders recognizes that challenging and reforming the existing economic structures can mitigate some of the most pernicious effects of structural inequality. A major aspect of his plan for the Green New Deal, for example, is its focus on environmental justice, as it seeks to marry green infrastructure projects to efforts to reduce environmental hazards that disproportionately harm communities of color, like in Flint, Michigan. His plan for marijuana legalization also places emphasis on making amends for the racist effects of the War on Drugs, ensuring that revenue from legal marijuana is reinvested in communities hit the hardest, in the form of targeted development funds and grants for entrepreneurs of color. Sanders is no class reductionist, and neither are the overwhelming majority of his supporters.

It is doubtful that a significant percentage of Sanders supporters spend their free time hurling misogynistic abuse at strangers on the internet, considering that more than half of them are women. If there is one thing that transcends political divisions in today’s polarized climate, it is bad behavior online, and by no means should the abhorrent actions of a few trolls be taken as representative of an entire movement—except perhaps in the case of the alt-right, where such behavior is not only widespread, but encouraged. Critics who claim that pushing back against the Bernie Bro narrative amounts to derailing, or changing the subject to avoid responsibility for harm done to others, are supremely disingenuous. Online abuse is never acceptable, and Sanders supporters who reject the narrative do not deny that harassment in Sanders’ name occurs. What we do reject is the notion that a few rogue accounts on Twitter are somehow representative of Sanders’ base, which is dedicated to ensuring an equitable future for all Americans.

Voters are with Sanders not because he is a white man, but because he is by far the most progressive candidate in the race, and has consistently supported progressive causes since his days at the University of Chicago. Whether it is Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, Sanders’ plans are the only ones with the scope to match the urgency of the problems America faces. The Sanders campaign has invested in diversifying its base of supporters, and that effort has undoubtedly paid off. Sanders’ coalition for 2020 reflects the diversity of the contemporary United States, and his campaign integrates the interests of various communities without diluting them into a vague call for “national unity.” The Bernie Bro narrative was never really accurate, and it should be buried once and for all.

The image featured with this article is used under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 License. The original was taken by Benjamin Kerensa and can be found here.

Dave Marques

Dave Marques is a fourth-year political science major interested in American and European politics. He spent his third year studying in Berlin, Germany, where he worked as a translator for a local history app and a communications intern for the European Council on Foreign Relations . In his free time he enjoys traveling and learning foreign languages.


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