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Dawn of the Bernie Bro

How about that primary cycle? Pretty wild, huh? Seems like just yesterday we were naively looking toward November 2016 with some flavor of hope and not abject terror. Nostalgia’s one heck of a drug.

This time’s a little different. We’ve had a few more candidates. Big names have come and gone. Remember Kamala? Remember Beto? I know you didn’t forget about John Delaney. Now, though, as of today, we’re down to two. Biden and Bernie. Technically, Hawaiian representative Tulsi Gabbard is still in the race, a fact I’d better mention if I don’t want her to call me racist on Twitter. She’s currently polling in the low single digits, though, which makes her a bit of a longshot for the nomination.

As a quick note, the rest of this piece is going to assume you’re either voting in the Democratic primaries or you have some interest in voting Democrat once we hit the final boss that is the General Election in November. If your mind is pretty well made up that you’re voting for a Republican (either Donald Trump or Bill Weld, both of whom have an equal shot at the nomination, if my advanced statistical analysis holds up), maybe give this one a pass. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very impressed that you even found this page (to be fair, if you’re a Democrat, I’m about as impressed), but perhaps your time is better spent MAGA-ing elsewhere. Or KAG-ing, I suppose, now that the country’s been completely repaired with no outstanding flaws.

Okay. We’re back. This is too long already. Let’s talk about Bernie. This has been a pretty insane couple of weeks for the Sanders campaign. He went from second place to undisputed top dog to party pariah to… I guess second place. Through it all, there’s been a lot of discussion about his policies, his record, and his electability in the general election. This is all good stuff to talk about, and it’s probably what most folks are talking about, because most folks aren’t on Twitter. But I want to talk about Twitter, because that’s where the enthusiast press is at. If it’s not where you get your news, it’s probably where your newsmakers talk about theirs. And right now, if your finger is even remotely close to the pulse of Twitter politics, you’ve heard about the Bernie Bros.

They’re everyone’s absolute nightmare, showing up, insulting you, your hair, your job, your kids, and that thing you tweeted seven months ago but forgot about, and everyone else should have forgotten about because who has time to go back seven months, especially when you have your Twitter set to automatically tweet out Instagram posts in 2020.

The “Bernie Bros” are, according to their detractors, Sanders’s supporters on Twitter and the internet at large. If you ask the folks most bothered by them, they’re representative of the average Sanders voter: loud, rude, uncompromising, and ultimately uncivil. And honestly? They’re enough of a reason to commit to never supporting the awful man who led them to coalesce.

But that’s kinda silly.

First, the idea that we should stake the political future of the country on whether or not we like some of the candidate’s supporters is nuts. Would you really set aside a chance at a better future because someone who has never met Bernie Sanders was mean to someone else on Twitter? Refuse to entertain ideas that could improve the country because a guy on the internet made a mean meme about your favored politician? Moreover, let’s assume the implications of judging a candidate by their online supporters – if the actions of DaddyBernie2020 on Twitter are enough to put you off of the Sanders campaign forever, what’s to stop an international adversary (let’s say, I dunno, pRussia. They haven’t been around for a while, so they should be a perfect hypothetical) from rigging up a bunch of sock puppet accounts, trashing other candidates and their supporters, and reaping the benefits further down the line?

I don’t mean to get into conspiracy territory – and I won’t for the rest of this piece, I promise – but maybe we shouldn’t be surprised in October if (nominee) Biden supporters online start seeming a little bit rowdier. And maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if the blame gets pushed on Sanders supporters or in-party elements rather than anonymous faces online.

Don’t get me wrong – if folks are being naughty in the name of a candidate and it gets big enough to have progressed into the domain of actually hurting people, it’s absolutely on the candidate to do what they can to stop and disown that behavior. Worth noting, Bernie Sanders has done this recently. But is the behavior of the Bernie Bros outright hurtful? Or is it, at most, a little disrespectful?

And look, I’m all about positivity. A candidate whose campaign inspires negativity seems a little off-putting no matter what. But is that really what’s happening here? If you watch what Sanders says, his primary campaign messages seem to be unity, equality, and economic justice. He talks about “revolution”, but it’s never been a violent revolution. It’s certainly not “lock her up” territory. So is this reputation top-down, or is it more that these messages have brought in political outsiders, young people who take to Twitter to act like young people.

But even if you’re uncomfortable with that, let’s consider the idea that the Bernie Bros might not really exist in the way we think they do. Their name, for one, hints at a predominantly-male support base, but the numbers suggest otherwise. Citing a poll by The Economist, while Bernie does have a greater percentage of the male vote than the female vote, among younger voters (under 45 and thus those most likely to take to Twitter to show their support) Bernie’s support is strongest among women. 

That may seem like a roundabout way of suggesting Bernie has more female support than initially implied, but we can go further. An article published in The Hill titled Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to female voters, seems to suggest by title alone that Sanders has a problem with female support, but the data in its body contradicts that premise, arguing that Bernie’s approval rating among women (77%) is higher than Biden’s (59%). (Worth noting is that this is a field in which data changes fast – it’s possible this has changed, but the Bernie Bro idea largely hasn’t).

Now, all of this is not to say that women can’t be Bernie Bros. I don’t mean to be reductive. To be fair, though, I think that is the implicit intent behind the label: to suggest that Bernie’s most loyal supporters are young men and young men alone. Still, the myth seems to fall apart when examined more closely. 

An article in Salon from about a month ago perfectly deconstructed the image of the Bernie Bro in a way I’m not going to here, but the gist is that Twitter is not representative. For one, it’s not representative of the population at large. Facebook paints a better, though still not perfect, picture of that. Folks complaining that Sanders supporters don’t act civilly on Twitter may be mistaking the social network for another, nicer website. Twitter is mean, and the Sanders supporters who think Joe Biden is a nice man who will make a fine candidate in November aren’t the ones you’re going to hear from, because they have nothing to say. On that note, consider keeping an eye out for the number of people deriding Sanders supporters in general, and compare that to the vitriol coming from the supporters themselves. Sometimes, toxicity in your own camp doesn’t seem so toxic.

Regardless, reflect on the fact that Twitter is unrepresentative (only 22% of Americans use it at all, according to Pew), and a huge portion of its audience is young (44% by that same poll). Moreover, that’s talking about users in general and not people who take part in political discourse, or those who cross enemy lines. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve seen it. You’re right, the Warren campaign will tweet something positive, and there’s always a Bernie supporter in the comments tearing it up. To be fair, though, looking at this anecdotally, the number of Never-Bernie-ers replying to Bernie’s tweets seems to be on the rise. But versus the actual broad electorate, that doesn’t mean anything.

We can judge people for their own words, and certainly for their actions. I don’t think it’s unfair to judge them for the friends they keep. Once we get into the family domain, things swing the other way, and for good reason. Bad behavior from political enthusiasts isn’t excusable, it’s super lame and we should discourage it where we can. But a supporter’s transgressions are not a candidate’s.

Maybe you don’t like Bernie. Maybe it’s that you don’t like his record or his policies, or maybe you just don’t think he’s electable versus Trump. That’s all fine, though I’d suggest you do your own research on that last point; I can’t tell you who is or isn’t electable, but growing evidence suggests pundits can’t either. 

The primary cycle is for argument and disagreement. Sure, we want to be unified against MAGAmania 2020 come fall, but pretending to be unified now isn’t going to get us there. The election of Donald Trump is a big slough in the history of American progress, but it doesn’t mean that, in our quest to do away with the current President, we should put aside discussing progressive ideas until we’re done with the task at hand. Dealing in these ideas is how we convince undecided voters to come to our side. There’s a lot to dissect from the Clinton 2016 campaign and why it didn’t work, but I’d argue one element was its focus on running against Donald Trump while Trump ran on a platform more focused on American voters.

Unity has to be the goal if we want to win this, and we absolutely need civil discourse to get there. But discouraging opposing ideas in the interest of maintaining a false piece isn’t going to get us anywhere. I hope I put forth a decent argument here against the “Bernie Bro” reputation, but I can’t definitively argue that there are none of those Bros out there in the wild. If we want to make this one count, though, let’s try to use the reasoning we have at our disposal before we resort to the tribalism so loved by our opponents. It’ll be more helpful in the end.

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