Selective Feminism and the Myth of the Bernie Bro: The Backlash to Sanders and the Women’s Convention

The latest example of the double standard applied to abuse and harassment on the left

Politics Features Bernie Sanders
Selective Feminism and the Myth of the Bernie Bro: The Backlash to Sanders and the Women’s Convention

The media dedicated much time and energy to covering online abuse, towards women in particular, during the Democratic Primary. The vitriol was, and remains, disturbing. Posting a photo of a female campaign surrogate on Facebook, a man wrote, “Every time i see this… creature on CNN, I want to reach through the tv screen and choke her… (I don’t believe in hurting women… but i’m not sure if this is one).” Another surrogate, a black woman, has been called everything from a “bitch” to a slave to a “hood rat.” One man tweeted, “I hope you and your family die,” and another person told her to “just end her misery. A pill cocktail will do the trick…” There has even been actual physical violence against women: Two women were hit because of their allegiance to a candidate, one of them, a young woman of color, was struck by an older white man with his hand and cane.

Readers may be familiar with the term “Bernie Bro,” but they might be surprised to learn that every attack cited above was made by Clinton supporters against Sanders supporters. Though the abuse of Sanders supporters has been ignored, the Bernie Bro trope is as strong as ever.

The term has been employed by Hillary Clinton in her new book, What Happened, (and in follow up interviews) to explain her loss: “Some of his supporters, the so-called Bernie Bros, took to harassing my supporters online.” The tale is even serving as evidence of a Russian propaganda effort to inflate Sanders support online, which was discussed in a closed door Senate Intelligence Committee meeting with Twitter representatives earlier this month. A Politico piece framed the bots as part of the “toxic” online environment attributed to Bernie Bros: “Clinton supporters say they sensed early on that Twitter would be surprisingly toxic terrain.”

And the term is popping up in the current backlash to Bernie Sanders’ participation in the Women’s Convention slated to take place in Detroit at the end of the month. The event is organized by women—many of whom are of color—who planned January’s Women’s March, which brought out an estimated 5.25 million people in one of the largest (if not the largest ever) single-day protests in U.S. history. It will be keynoted by Rep. Maxine Waters (CA-D), the most senior of the 12 black women in Congress. The 40-plus speakers announced include black, Latino, queer, Asian-American, Arab-American, Native American, Muslim, and/ or queer women. All but two speakers are women. One of those other two is Bernie Sanders—currently the most popular politician in the United States.

The responses to this news have included a petition to “Remove Bernie Sanders from opening the Women’s Convention,” a #BoycottWomensConvention hashtag, condemnation from several writers, criticism from Emily’s List, condemnation from Joy Reid and Neera Tanden, who unfollowed the Women’s March account, a Twitter poll from The New York Times, and clarification from organizers. Writer Lauren Duca sarcastically asked, “Why not just have the #WomensConvention open with a choir of Bernie Bros harmonizing the word “actually”?” An Elle OpEd, “Some Advice for Bernie on Speaking at the Women’s Convention,” which laments that the “convention’s headline speaker is Bernie Sanders, who, it so happens, identifies as a cisgender man,” invokes the “Bernie Bro” term twice. (Sanders is not, in fact, the opening speaker.) The term has been revisited in “reported” pieces, not merely tweets and opeds.

Of course, individual Sanders supporters hurled vitriol at Hillary Clinton and her fans. But there is no empirical evidence that it was worse than the abuse in the opposite direction. In fact, independent observers have shown the difference between the two camps to be negligible or, in the case of one study, demonstrated that Clinton backers were actually more aggressive.

The Genealogy of a Pejorative

From the beginning, the Bernie Bro narrative used a striking double standard: the most vocal and abusive Sanders supporter was framed as yet another example of a systemic problem. Abuse from Clinton supporters was either ignored or dismissed as isolated incidents.

The actual “Bernie Bro” term first appeared in a light-hearted piece which was quick to point out that “Berniebro is not every Bernie Sanders supporter. Sanders’s support skews young, but not particularly male.” By early 2016, however, through repetition and a feedback loop of articles which cited each other and repeated random anecdotes, a handful of screenshots, misinformation, and comments by Clinton partisans and surrogates, the Bernie Bro—to mean a serious sexist assault by Sanders supporters on Hillary Clinton, her campaign, and American politics—was born.

A BBC piece titled, “Bernie Sanders supporters get a bad reputation online,” published on January 28th 2016, opened with a tweet in which New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum described harassment from an account she thought belonged to a Sanders supporter. The harasser, however, was actually a right winger posing as a GOP congressman who doesn’t actually exist, and Nussbaum corrected the error. The BBC never did. The piece distorted the considerate response from the Sanders campaign’s Mike Casca (“If you support @berniesanders, please follow the senator’s lead and be respectful when people disagree with you”) as an admission of guilt, claiming “even representatives for the Sanders campaign felt compelled to address what was happening online.”

This flawed and evidence-free article was immediately parroted by a Mashable piece (headlined “The bros who love Bernie Sanders have become a sexist mob” ), which corroborated the phenomenon by citing two Clinton supporters and one unnamed chief of staff for an unnamed Clinton-endorsing member of Congress, all of whom agreed Bernie Bros were a problem. The article also entered into evidence two screenshots of Bernie Bro Facebook comments, though one of the alleged bros was actually a woman.

The messaging and Bro-misidentifying were immediately repeated in pieces with nearly identical headlines and links to each other: Jezebel’s “Bernie Sanders’ Campaign Is Concerned About the ‘Berniebro,’ As They Maybe Should Be,” Buzzfeed’s “The Bernie Bros Are A Problem And The Sanders Campaign Is Trying To Stop It”, and The New Republic’s “The Sanders campaign knows the ‘Bernie Bros’ are a problem.” The Bernie Bros are “a dangerous and unruly crowd,” causing Casca, in Buzzfeed’s telling, to issue an urgent statement (“Cool it, he begged”). Mashable’s three screenshots became “a ton” to Buzzfeed. The New Republic piece cited the Buzzfeed piece and claimed “Sanders staff is very concerned about … the ‘Bros,’ passionate fans who harass and bully Clintonites…” Jamil Smith, the writer of the piece, urged Sanders to condemn his supporters’ “trolling, misogyny, and ‘hipster racism’,” the evidence for which were the inaccurate Jezebel and Mashable pieces and a 2012 article on “hipster racism.”

One reporter claimed that the Clinton campaign had pushed the narrative behind the scenes. When the Washington Post published, “The Bernie Bros are out in full force harassing female reporters,” in June, Olivia Nuzzi, then at the Daily Beast, tweeted a screenshot of the headline and wrote, “Maybe I would buy into ‘bernie bros’ more if I hadn’t been pitched a story about bernie bros by Hillary’s camp.” It’s worth noting that the first round of Bernie Bro pieces came out just before the early primaries (on February 1, 9, 20, 27) and a week after the Clinton campaign responded to Sanders comments about Planned Parenthood being an “establishment” organization by “Pushing [the Twitter hashtag] #ImSoEstablishment behind the scenes,” “working with people who can help push this behind the scenes without our fingerprints,” and with “bloggers and columnists” to criticize Sanders “from a racial justice and reproductive rights perspective,” as they described it in leaked emails.

But that is conjecture. What is certain is that Clinton, her surrogates and her campaign have employed the trope openly. On February 7, 2016, Bill Clinton said that his wife’s defenders, “have been subject to vicious trolling and attacks” that were “too profane,” and “sexist, to repeat.” On Feb. 4, Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon told reporters, “there is a support base for Mr. Sanders… that has been shorthanded as the so-called Bernie Bros… Anyone who engages in social media in support of Hillary Clinton has encountered this element. It can be nasty… vitriolic.” The Bernie Bros were enabled by the Sanders campaign, according to Fallon: the “campaign needs to beware of the extent to which… they… let… the crudeness seep into their own words and criticisms that they hurl at Secretary Clinton.” After Clinton lost the general, her surrogates blamed the Bros, in part. Hillary for America spokesperson Karen said, “even in the primary… the Bernie Bros had a real chilling effect on a lot of women, and young women in particular.”

Actual Physical Violence against Women ignored

Perhaps the most stunning example of a double standard comes from coverage of actual physical violence—or a lack thereof. When chaos erupted at the Nevada Democratic State convention in May 2016 over the disqualification of delegates, several outlets, including The New York Times, The AP, Politico,The Washington Post, the LA Times, NBC, NPR, MSNBC as well as then DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, reported that “chairs were thrown” by Sanders supporters and used the word “violent” or “violence” in reference to Sanders supporters. The journalist whose tweets were the basis of the “thrown chairs” story admitted he hadn’t witnessed them. And footage revealed that one unidentified man raised and then put down a chair. While NPR modified its language (replacing “Sanders supporters threw chairs,” with “brandished”) none of the other outlets ever updated or clarified their reporting.

Contrast that to the coverage of actual violence—recorded on video—at another contentious delegate meeting a month later in New York, after Sanders supporters were ignored during a vote over the delegation chair for the DNC. Live stream video captures a white man, later identified as a Clinton donor, hitting Moumita Ahmed, a younger woman of color and Sanders delegate-at-large, with his hand and cane so hard you can hear a thwack. Not a single outlet which wrote about the “thrown chairs” covered this story except for Politico, which gave it one throwaway, and fairly victim-blaming, sentence in a story with the headline, “Sanders backers revolt, refuse to recognize Cuomo as delegation leader.”

The double standard is glaring. Harassment against Clinton supporters is neatly packaged in the thought-terminating label of “Bernie Bro.” Targeting of Sanders backers—including actual physical violence—has no such propaganda vehicle, and is thus never brought up as a systemic problem, much less weaponized as a campaign attack. Those of us who are insulted and smeared by aggressive Clinton partisans simply don’t exist, our testimonies and experiences get erased or minimized. Not only is there still no concrete evidence that Sanders backers were any more toxic than anyone else’s, but by continuing to prop up the canard that they were, media outlets exploit the very real, widespread problem of online harassment, and transform it into nothing more than a cheap rhetorical bludgeon.

Part Two coming soon…

Katie Halper is a writer, radio show host, filmmaker, comedian and former history teacher who identifies as a feminist Bernie Bro. You can find her writing and videos at Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Nation, Vice, and catch The Katie Halper Show on on WBAI Wednesdays at 7pm, the podcast on Soundcloud and iTunes and extra bonus content at Patreon, and follow her on Twitter.

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