In October of 2015, Robinson Meyer wrote at The Atlantic about a phenomenon he was starting to observe among those who were #feelingthebern: The Berniebro. His piece marked (I think, and please correct me if I’m wrong) the introduction of the term to the political landscape, describing the primarily white, young men who spewed their enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders every which way. ‘The Berniebro knows a secret,’ Meyer observed. ‘The only reason you, and every other Facebook user, haven’t supported Bernie yet is your own willful ignorance.’ At the time, the rhetoric surrounding the campaign was already starting to take an aggressive tone, and it only got worse from there.
The Berniebro, the Berner, the ardent evangelist, is a distillation of the most frustrating kind of political supporter, and definitely not one limited to the Sanders campaign. Every campaign has its share of advocates who can see no wrong in their candidate, and urgently believe that everyone around them needs to be informed about this. Politics gets heated in presidential election years. This year, however, the phenomenon became especially sinister, especially with respect to female journalists and commentators who spoke out about outright harassment from Sanders supporters.
Not just disagreement or evangelism or robust political disagreement, or even shouting down and mocking, but actively sexist, loaded harassment of people who spoke out against the candidate. Almost as soon as women started to speak out, people like Glenn Greenwald gaslit them, insisting that the phenomenon was some trumped-up conspiracy, usually adding that it was obviously designed to prop up Hillary Clinton, the naturally inferior candidate. This even in the face of reams of evidence that the worst of Sanders supporters — and by no means the majority — were calling women cunts and suggesting that they get raped to death. People of colour, especially Black critics, found themselves encountering similarly slur-filled rhetoric, particularly in the case of women of colour.
It took until late January for the campaign to address the problem, with campaign organiser Mike Casca issuing a plea to Sanders supporters: Please stop harassing people in your eagerness to promote your candidate, because it is not helping. By early February, even Sanders had joined in, telling supporters that ‘we don’t want that crap.’
if you support @berniesanders, please follow the senator's lead and be respectful when people disagree with you.
— mike casca (@cascamike) January 26, 2016
It took a disturbingly long amount of time for the campaign to rise in defence of the women being attacked by hyperaggressive supporters, at which point they’d done a great deal of damage. This made it hard to tell if this was just a cynical political move or a genuine desire to address the state of political discussion in the United States, but it glided over a pretty important issue. It’s not just that Sanders supporters were harassing women and that the campaign should have said something much, much earlier. It’s not just that supporters who aren’t horrible sexist dickfaces should have spoken up to police harassers much, much earlier. It’s not just that Sanders, with his immense charisma and mobilising force, could have put this in check much earlier.
It’s specifically that these attacks are heavily rooted in sexism, and the fact that many people, including ‘progressives,’ especially brogressives, do not want to vote for a woman as president. It rapidly became apparent that Hillary Clinton was the only viable candidate going up against Sanders — in fact, it hadn’t been that long ago that everyone had treated her as the presumptive Democratic nominee. Sanders’ meteoric rise reflects disaffection and frustration on the part of Millennials cheated of an opportunity at building their lives in a landscape where class divides are extremely acute. But part of the reason he became so popular once he gained momentum, and something no one seems willing to talk about, is that he’s not a woman.
It’s 2016, but gender matters, and seeing a male alternative to Hillary Clinton was clearly appealing to some ‘progressives.’ It was a problem in 2008, too, when the ‘Obama boys‘ dominated the political landscape, taking Clinton from an almost sure ticket to an also-ran. For some, just as with many Sanders supporters, the enthusiasm was genuine and rooted in a deep love and affection for their candidate, the belief that he would be the best choice to lead the nation, excitement about breaking the colour barrier in US politics, and let’s be clear: Obama encountered heaps of racism during his campaign, including from white Hillary supporters, and Obama supporters had the same experience.
Others took up sexism along with the Obama torch, though, a move that many fellow supporters condemned. It wasn’t just about a substantive policy discussion of the differences between Clinton and Obama (of which there were many, just as there are between Clinton and Sanders). It was an outright slimy sexist attack on Clinton — her appearance, her personal habits, the history of her marriage, her family as a whole. A wide variety of smears, mostly personal, were used to attack Clinton, with people refusing to acknowledge that their opposition was heavily rooted in sexism.
Many people including myself voted for Obama in the primaries because we weighed both candidates, reviewed their policies, thought about their records, evaluated their platforms, and decided that Obama felt like the better political choice. Some people voted for him because he wasn’t Hillary Clinton. And the same pattern is repeating itself in 2016, except this time, it’s even more vitriolic, and it’s terrifying to watch.
And the fact that the Sanders campaign didn’t jump in from the get-go to speak out on harassment reflects very poorly on them, because they saw it firsthand, encountered commentary and criticism on it, and still chose to do nothing until it became a political embarassment.
Image: Bernie Sanders, Gage Skidmore, Flickr