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In 2020, Bernie Bros aren’t just men.
Since he began his first presidential run in 2015, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has faced allegations of sexism against himself and his campaign. Most recently, anonymous sources in Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) campaign alleged that Sanders told Warren a woman couldn’t win the presidency at a private meeting in 2018.
This attack, and others like it, don’t have the traction they did in 2016, when the primary race between Clinton and Sanders was largely defined by gender in the media.
This time, Sanders’ female supporters hit back at what they view as a dirty trick from a struggling Warren campaign. #WomenForBernie trended the next day. Variations like #Hotties4Bernie and #BernieBabes have been gaining traction as well.
The latest iteration of this smear came to a head at Tuesday night’s debate. CNN framed the issue—a dispute over the contents of a private meeting between two people—as indisputable fact during a segment of questioning and allowed Warren to assert her side of the story without explicitly stating her version of events.
CNN: “Sen. Sanders, I do want to be clear here, you’re saying that you never told senator Warren that a woman could not win the election?"— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) January 15, 2020
SANDERS: "That is correct."
CNN: “Sen. Warren, what did you think when senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?" pic.twitter.com/BZ1NajmQE9
Following the debate #WomenForBerrnie trended again as many female Sanders supporters expressed their displeasure with Warren and CNN. Male and female Sanders supporters also replied to Warren’s tweets with snake emoji to indicate their frustration with Warren’s tactics.
The "Bernie Bro" narrative is endlessly galling because it erases the women who make up his base. To paint this picture of sexism is to paint over the millions of women who support Sanders. Do you see how fucked up that is? #WomenForBernie— Caitlin PenzeyMoog (@PenzeyMoog) January 15, 2020
While Sanders’ coalition has been around 50% female, the 2020 Sanders campaign has been defined by vigorous, vocal female support. The future, it turns out, is female Bernie Bros.
For female Sanders supporters, frustration with prevailing media narratives has been a common refrain since the Vermont senator became a national political star. While women have always made up a large percentage of Bernie’s base, the term “Bernie Bro” has worked to erase Sanders’ female support. His campaign and its supporters have made fighting the stigma of the Bernie Bro central to his 2020 campaign.
And it seems to have worked.
Longtime Sanders supporter and Democratic Socialists of America, Los Angeles Labor Committee Coordinator Haley Potiker said, “I appreciate the way the Sanders campaign has gone about inoculating against the Bernie bro myth. They aren’t simply showing statistics of how many women support Bernie. They’ve also gone out of their way to elevate women’s stories, which gives supporters like me opportunities to see ourselves reflected in the campaign and the movement. It breaks down the shallow, neoliberal, corporate feminist idea that socialist women don’t exist or that we are outliers with no place in the Bernie campaign.”
Where once it was a way to paint Sanders supporters as misogynist, female-identifying Sanders boosters have reclaimed “Bernie Bro” and used it as a way to articulate their support for the Vermont senator.
Hi! I'm a wife, mother, sister, auntie, and daughter, but apparently I'm also a "Bernie Bro" because I think women should have equal pay, maternity pay, childcare, education, healthcare, and be able to retire while they are still able to enjoy it. I'm such trash. #WomenForBernie— Tania Jennings (@taniapdx) January 14, 2020
Before we understand how the “Bernie Bro” has changed, we need to go back to the beginning.
The popular origin of the term dates back to a rather innocuous piece written in 2015. In the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer wrote “Here Comes the Bernie Bro,” specifically about the behavior of male Sanders fans on social media. The piece lists the acts of an imagined or composite Bernie supporter online with examples like, “The Berniebro is very irate when CNN takes its online poll results down. The Berniebro posts about that, too.”
Meyer’s work is funny to look back on now, as the piece is more Dave Barry than propaganda, but it turned out to be the kindling of a digital firestorm.
Though Meyer’s article wasn’t the first usage of the term, instances of “Bernie Bro” on Twitter increased by an order of magnitude following its publication. Quickly, the “Bernie Bro” became a key part of the discourse for Sanders supporters and detractors alike.
Though she didn’t use the term explicitly, in the Salon piece, “Let’s storm the Sanders’ he-man women-haters club: Hillary plays the gender card, while Bernie fans rage,” liberal writer Amanda Marcotte took seriously the concepts joked about in Meyer’s piece little more than a week after it ran.
By the end of October, leftist writer Matt Bruenig had written the first piece attempting to debunk the concept of the Bernie Bro, “The Myth of the Bernie Bro,” in Jacobin.
In that piece, Bruenig identified a trend that would continue for the next four years. He wrote, “Clinton wins among all groups, but it’s clear that Sanders support is coming from young people.”
He found then, as is true today, that there is no correlation between gender and support for Sanders, but there is a strong correlation when it comes to age.
Notable center-left female political columnists like Marcotte, Rebecca Traister, Sady Doyle, Jessica Valenti, and Jill Filipovic, would use the term extensively in their writing throughout the primary and the general. “Bernie Bro” would pop up on cable news chyrons and in panel discussions. As Valenti put it, the rise of the “Bernie Bro” meant that Sanders was, “struggling to handle the sexism of some of its male supporters.”
Often, pieces like this were accompanied by examples of Twitter harassment from male-identifying, pro-Bernie Twitter accounts.
There is no doubt the female pundits of every background received harassment during the 2016 election, and center-left pro-Clinton writers were no exception.
The debate—which continues today and is centered on Warren and her supporters—became about just how much-isolated incidents of social media harassment can be representative of a candidate’s broader base.
Traister’s November 2015 piece “The Bernie Bros vs. the Hillary Bots” is probably the essay that did the most to popularize the Bernie Bro.
Not only does Traister’s piece name both sides of the debate, but she drew clear battle lines. She called male out leftist writers with whom she disagreed with online by name including Bruenig, Doug Henwood, Zaid Jilani, Conor Kilpatrick, and Ben Norton. She included no female pundits though plenty were writing at sites like Jacobin, In These Times, and the Intercept at the time. Predictably, the piece was Twitter fodder for weeks.
With lines like, “But [Bernie Bros] exist because they describe a dynamic —sexist condescension and dismissal of feminist argument—that is happening online,” Traister did more than any other political writer to frame the dynamic that would play out on Twitter for years to come.
From there, the primary discourse on social media became largely about how white male Sanders fans interacted with white female Clinton supporters. The Twitter mentions of the nation’s political columnists became national news and a term designed to describe social media commenters became representative of a candidate’s entire base in the mind’s of many in the media.
Sanders went on to lose the primary, and he has been dogged by accusations of sexism, both personally, and by proxy, ever since.
To those who aren’t very online, all of this op-ed back and forth might seem like a foreign language, but to adamant supporters and detractors of Sanders, this rhetorical battle is still fresh in their minds.
Potiker says that the “whole Bernie bro thing was a uniquely 2016 strategy, in that it was created by Hillary supporters who didn’t have many strong arguments in her favor beyond shattering the glass ceiling.”
Almost as soon as the election ended and Donald Trump emerged victorious, leftist women set out to strengthen a potential 2020 Sanders candidacy and help sharpen his message. Female writers and podcasters like Briahna Joy Gray (who is now Sanders’ national press secretary), Katie Halper, Natalie Shure, Elizabeth Bruenig, and Meagan Day pushed back on the characterization of Bernie supporters as uniformly white and male.
In May of 2017, Shure wrote a piece responding to another piece by Traister, titled “The Problem with Pro-Hillary Commentary.”
In it, Shure argued that “One reason the ‘BernieBro’ smear often struck me as flimsy is that for many Sanders supporters (hi!), Clinton’s gender was actually a major upside to her candidacy. When Clinton supporters argued that ‘actually these candidates have very similar platforms,’ it often seemed like an attempt to isolate gender as the variable to vote on. I suspect that if she were a man, she’d have done worse in the primary, not better.”
In May 2018, Gray sat down with leftist podcaster Halper to record “Debunking the Bernie Bro Myth.” Then, this year, as Sanders press secretary, Gray launched Sanders’ in-house podcast Hear the Bern.
The third episode of the podcast which aired on April 22 is titled “Black Bernie Bros Speak Out.”
In the episode, Gray uses a combination of data and testimonial to combat the concept of the Bernie Bro.
“If anything defines [Bernie’s] voters, it’s class,” she says, echoing Bruenig. She adds that 70% of Bernie’s national staff are women.
Prominent leftist female writers have followed Gray’s lead. In Teen Vogue, Women’s March co-founder Linda Sarsour wrote, “Yes, Women of Color Support Bernie Sanders. It’s Time To Stop Erasing Our Voices.”
In the New York Times, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the author of #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation wrote “Don’t Think Sanders Can Win? You Don’t Understand His Campaign.”
Even the focus placed on the endorsement of Sanders by three-quarters of “The Squad”—Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)—by the campaign can be viewed, in part, as a piece of the campaign to destroy and remake the Bernie Bro.
Sanders 2020 campaign could bear the same title as that 2015 Bruenig piece, “Debunking the Bernie Bro Myth.”
Kristian Hernandez, a North Texas organizer and member of the National Political Committee of DSA, says, “I think that his supporters that don’t fit the ‘bro’ image have either leaned into it by posting about it ironically or have been intentionally visible about their support as people who don’t fit that mold. As far as the campaign, I am seeing real efforts to connect to multi-racial working-class organizations that are already organizing within the most impacted communities.”
The campaign has encouraged rank-and-file female supporters to articulate why they support Bernie with #MyBernieStory. Using the hashtag, diverse Sanders supporters post front-facing videos explaining their support for Bernie.
This coordinated effort by women on the left to combat and reclaim “Bernie Bro” seems to have caught some center-left pundits flatfooted. Recently, Marcotte—still an anti-Sanders partisan four years later—went viral for a thread criticizing Bernie supporters and calling them sexist, as she sometimes did in 2016.
Objecting to calling them the “cool kids”, but the Jacobin left’s turn against Warren was overdetermined from the second she actually ran. These “leftists” have paleoconservative views on women in executive leadership. pic.twitter.com/8gDFFb4PW8— Amanda Marcotte (@AmandaMarcotte) December 9, 2019
However, this time she was met with prompt, organized resistance from female Bernie supporters. Marcotte’s mentions were flooded with comments like this one from socialist New York state senator Julia Salazar challenging her premise.
Remember that NYC-DSA, the largest DSA chapter in the country, democratically voted to endorse both myself and @AOC before either of us had much organizational support.— Julia Salazar (@JuliaCarmel__) December 9, 2019
DSA members spent time and labor to win this. This year we won big victories for working people because of it. https://t.co/G1YtEAvMYy
Bernie volunteer April Dalaman explains:
“We have fought against these lies by bringing the truth to light with facts. Young women actually make up more of Bernie’s base than men do. Sanders is more popular with People Of Color than white people. He has the youth vote. The proof is just an easy Google search away. Instead of slandering Bernie and his base, people should do their research and keep an open mind to his ideas that will benefit us all.”
While the Twitter war over Bernie Bros continues to rage, it seems that the mainstream liberal side of the argument has expended its credibility. A search of the term tends to result in more quote tweet dunks on liberal pundits and operatives than notes of agreement.
Thanks to the Bernie Bro left, the brakes on our car are making a hideous scraping noise. https://t.co/5RjMpTAZxD— DrLearnALot🌹 (@DrLearnALot) December 11, 2019
Een those lukewarm on Bernie are keen to leave “Bernie Bro” in 2016.
I generally like Amanda Marcotte but trying to resurrect the “Bernie Bro” myth to explain the left’s waning interest in Warren — when substantive policy & philosophical differences btw her and Sanders as well as Warren’s M4A bait & switch better explains it — is just lazy.— Skepacabra 🌹 (@Skepacabra) December 10, 2019
The Warren camp’s recent attempt to revive allegations of sexism against Sanders was met with skepticism online and anyone who has been following the evolution of the Bernie Bro would have seen this coming.
Even the most bitter anti-Sanders partisans can see that Bernie has an army of female Bernie Bros behind him. Whether the “Bernie Bro” label has any lingering power to sway female voters away from Sanders will remain a matter of intense disagreement through the 2020 primary, even if it’s an issue that should have been left for dead long ago.
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Disclosure: Brenden Gallagher supports Bernie Sanders for president.
Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.