There’s an experiment used in stereotype research in which the subject is given a name and asked to describe what the person looks like. In the past, this method has been useful in measuring implicit racial bias. For example, one study found that when a white person was given a “black” name—particularly a male one— they tended to picture someone bigger, more menacing.
Now imagine doing the same experiment where participants are asked what a Bernie Sanders supporter looks like. Depending on their political leanings, they might paint a picture of a bespectacled white guy in his mid-thirties with an incipient bald spot and a beard—in other words, a “Bernie Bro.”
Like so many stereotypes, this one is false yet durable. In reality, it would be hard to physically represent the average Bernie supporter because the Vermont senator has a diverse base that defies easy categorization.
Contrary to the persistent myth of the white male “Bernie Bro,” Sen. Sanders’ supporters are on average less likely to be white or male than any other Democratic contender.
According to a representative nationwide survey of nearly 4,200 Americans by the Pew Research Center, Sanders’ supporters are 49 percent white. For Warren and Biden, the proportions are 71 percent and Biden 56 percent, respectively. On average, candidates have a 50–50 male-to-female ratio, whereas Sanders’ base is 53 percent women.
Showcasing the diversity of the Sanders coalition, Saturday’s massive rally in Queens seemed designed to put to rest the “Bernie Bro” narrative once and for all. It was the first campaign event since Sanders secured the endorsement of Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.
The trio represents three-fourths of “the Squad,” a high-profile group of young women of color in Congress. The other, Ayanna Pressley, who self-identifies as progressive rather than democratic socialist, has declined to endorse anyone at the moment.
At the rally, the line-up of speakers was stacked with women of color. In addition to Ocasio-Cortez, it featured Queens district attorney candidate Tiffany Caban, long-time Sanders stalwart Nina Turner as well as New York state senators Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar.
The enthusiastic endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib and other young rising stars that symbolize the multiracial future of the Democratic Party could sound the death knell of the “Bernie Bro” stereotype, which has already started to lose some of its bite.
As a gendered epithet, “Bernie Bro” was at the peak of its usefulness in a two-way race between Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Many of her supporters saw electing the first woman president—irrespective of her politics—as a worthy feminist goal in and of itself.
In this context, and in light of the widespread and virulent misogyny wielded against Clinton from the right, charges of sexism became a powerful shield to ward off the challenge from her left.
For his part, Sanders refused to go negative, stuck to substantive policy differences and scrupulously avoided even a hint of sexism in his campaign rhetoric. Examples of him behaving in a “sexist” way had to be manufactured, the most notable of which was the “finger-wagging” incident.
But as self-described “female Bernie Bro” Katie Halper explained, such mannerisms, often “misdiagnosed as scolding sexism,” are “equal opportunity” and characteristic of Jewish Brooklynites like herself and Sen. Sanders. (She calls it jewsticulating).
It should be noted that he was also wagging his finger when he defended Clinton from rightwing attacks: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about [Hillary’s] damn emails!”
In order to smear the Sanders campaign, Clinton’s supporters had to figure out a way to present it as misogynistic that didn’t involve Sanders or his staffers actually doing anything sexist, and so the “Bernie Bro” was born.
The brilliance of this tactic is that it has such a low threshold of proof. All one has to do is screenshot toxic Twitter posts—about four different ones will do—by random sexists who support Sanders. That’s all the “evidence” needed to show that “Bernie Bros” are real and comprise the bulk of his base.
This sort of proof is especially dubious, given how easy it is to put #FeelTheBern and a rose emoji in your display name. One article on the “Bernie Bro” phenomenon that appeared in The New Yorker (and subsequently cited in several major media outlets) recounted an incident in which the author was harassed by a “Bro” who turned out to be a Tea Party conservative.
And there’s no need to make a tangible connection to Bernie, either. He’s guilty by virtue of the fact that he’s supposedly not doing enough to “rein in” his wayward sons.
Of course Sanders has some problematic fans who definitely fit the bill. All candidates do. An intense political fight, combined with the lizard-brained nature of online interaction, brings out the worst in people.
Female Sanders surrogates, such as Susan Sarandon and Nina Turner, are subjected to the kind of abuse and harassment online that would put the worst “Bernie Bro” to shame. Armando Lloréns-Sar, a long-time writer for Daily Kos, tweeted to Turner that Sanders is “paying [her] to fuck him.”
Throughout the 2016 elections and beyond, the “Bernie Bro” stereotype was solidified through held repetition and reinforcement in countless news articles and online discussions. There’s even an entire Wikipedia page devoted to the term.
The narrative was nurtured by the leaders of well-funded organizations with ties to Clinton like the Neera Tanden, director of the Center for American Progress, and David Brock, a former conservative and head of the watchdog group Media Matters. Clinton herself invoked “Bernie Bros” as a partial explanation for why she lost in her book What Happened.
Even before members of The Squad threw their weight behind Bernie, there were signs that “Bernie Bro” was starting to lose some of its potency as a pejorative. A search of the term on Twitter will turn up few examples of the phrase used sincerely as a slur. Even then, it’s often deployed only by marginal accounts or weirdos with monomaniacal grudges against the Senator.
You’re more likely to see Sanders supporters self-apply the label mockingly, like Katie Halper does, as a way to rob it of its power. Women and people of color will add it to their display names or Twitter handles to flip the script.
Bernie backers and staffers, like press secretary Briahna Joy Gray, stepped up this sort of messaging during and after the rally:
There are also some key differences this time around that fundamentally reduce the effectiveness of “Bernie Bro” as a weapon.
One is the composition of the field.
If this were a two-way race between Warren and Sanders, the issue of sexism might be foregrounded more. However, 42 percent of the group most predisposed to call someone a “Bernie Bro,” i.e. Clinton voters, is backing Biden. It’s hard to call out sexism in Bernie’s camp when you support an inappropriately handsy candidate with an awful record on women’s issues.
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The other factor is the changing composition of Sanders’ base (51 percent non-white) and campaign team (70 percent [unionized] women).
The label “Bernie Bro” is about creating categories of “us” and “them” along the lines of “woke” and “unwoke.” Ironically, one of the least “woke” things a person could possibly do is to negate the voices of women and people of color.
Leslie Lee, III, a writer and podcaster, skewered the Clinton crowd for this perfectly last go-round with the hashtag #BernieMadeMeWhite.
Likewise, it’s not particularly “woke” for white feminists to tisk-tisk women of color for choosing to endorse a candidate whose politics align with theirs. In a tweet, Forward columnist Jane Eisner wrote of the Squad’s endorsement: “I find it fascinating that women of color overlook female and minority candidates to endorse a white guy.”
The fact that Eisner was forced to backpedal and delete the tweet might be a good indicator of which way the wind is blowing. In the wake of the endorsement, critics of Sanders will have a harder time weaponizing this kind of crude identity politics against him.
But should things turn into a race between Sanders and Warren—fundraising numbers hint at this possibility—we might start seeing charges of sexism used to neutralize policy arguments more and more.
Conventional wisdom has it that a candidate should differentiate themselves from the field. Warren’s puts out store-brand versions of Sanders policies, like Medicare For All and student debt forgiveness, but more market based and means tested.
After all, if the two are virtually identical (they’re not), then why vote for the white male? That basic argument was made on MSNBC by pundit Emily Tisch Sussman, who happens to be the daughter of a billionaire financier and major Clinton donor. Sussman argued that Warren’s plans had evolved and were “more detailed” than Sanders’, so if you’re still voting for him, you’re “showing your sexism.”
And what if Sanders tries to differentiate himself from Warren on purely ideological grounds? As it turns out, that’s also sexism.
So while the phrase “Bernie Bro” itself is likely to lose some of its punch owing to the fact that Sanders will have charismatic, well-liked women of color out front as the public face of his campaign, it’s doubtful that the same sort of cynical bad-faith tactics that the phrase embodies are going anywhere.