The myth of the so-called ‘Bernie bros’, that the supporters of Bernie Sanders seem to be particularly prone to making nasty misogynistic attacks on rival candidates and their supporters, seems to be one of those things that will never die. But what evidence is there for this idea? Part of the problem is that the criteria for being a Bernie bro is very vague and getting vaguer with time. Right now, it seems to consist of just two necessary and sufficient conditions: (a) that one must be a supporter of Sanders and (b) one has to have said something bad about other candidates and/or their supporters. Neither gender nor age nor ethnicity nor any other demographic feature seems to be required to be thus classified. This is indeed a wide net that has been cast and it should not be surprising that it should catch people in it. As Robinson Meyer, the person who coined the term later wrote, what we are witnessing is ‘category collapse’, where something that was intended to have very narrow usage has become so elastic as to cease to have any meaning since it could be applied to pretty much anything and anyone.
As is often the case when myths start getting undermined, believers in the myth shift the focus and go even more extreme. One commenter on this blog who seems to be particularly vexed by the issue of Bernie bros and has returned to it repeatedly has suggested that I too “engage in BernieBro-ish behavior” because of my “damn near worship of Bernie as a sinless man and, therefore, the Second Coming”.
This is category collapse with a vengeance. It is also a little odd. With apologies to the inimitable Mae West for modifying her immortal words, sinless has nothing to do with it, dearie. I have no idea whether Sanders is sinless or not and don’t really care. I respect and admire Sanders because he has been on the right side of issues pretty much all his life and fought vigorously for them, something that is definitely not true for almost all politicians. He has made a few bad votes, such as his opposition to some gun control laws some time ago, but he has acknowledged that those were wrong. He is also remarkable truthful. You would be hard pressed to find occasions where he has said things that were untrue about his history and past positions and statements, which is not the case with almost any other candidate including Joe Biden, who has been trying to rewrite his past positions on the Iraq war and on crime and Social Security and Medicare.
Furthermore, critics of Bernie bros also demand that Sanders rein in all these people though it is absurd in the days of the internet, when pretty much anyone can say anything, to hold him responsible for the actions of such people. What is odd is that this same expectation does not seem to apply to other candidates and their supporters. For example, top Sanders campaign officials Nina Turner and Briahna Joy Gray have been subjected to vicious racist attacks by supporters of other candidates but there are no allegations about these being the work of Biden bros or Warren bros or whatever.
On MSNBC, his victory in Nevada was compared to the Nazi invasion of France, one of the networks paid pundits referred to the Sanders national campaign press secretary as coming from the “Island of Misfit Black Girls” and host Chuck Todd compared Sanders’s twitter followers to Nazi “brown shirts.” Meanwhile, a surrogate for Buttigieg called on Sanders to “muzzle” his top African American campaign representative, while Mike Bloomberg’s campaign put out a statement accusing Sanders of being “Trump’s new bro” and focused overwhelmingly on attacking the comments of senior Black women on the Sanders campaign.
As another example, Hilary Rosen is a media personality who is a supporter of Joe Biden. In a TV exchange with Turner, when Turner brought up Martin Luther King’s comments made in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail expressing his disappointment with ‘white moderates’, Rosen made the astounding assertion that Turner had no standing to quote King! Rosen got immediate strong pushback from Turner for her whitesplaining of King to a black woman, and subsequently from others as well. Rosen later apologized but in her apology referred to Turner as an ‘angry black woman’ which made things worse. Sanders called on Biden to repudiate the comments by Rosen, who is not some anonymous person on the internet but a media personality with a high profile who is supporting him. So far as I am aware, Biden has yet to do so.
But we know that under the rules of this game, Sanders is responsible for everything his supporters say anywhere and must denounce each and every one every time, while other candidates need not do so. So it is Turner who is a toxic Bernie bro while Rosen is just some random person on TV and is not a Biden bro and thus he is not responsible for what she says.
But now a researcher has put the question of whether Sanders supporters are far more toxic than the supporters of other candidates to empirical test and finds that the belief does not hold up. Keith A. Spencer discusses the research.
The evidence that Sanders supporters are uniquely cruel online, compared to any other candidates’ supporters, is scant; much of the discourse around Bernie Bros seems to rely on skewed anecdotes that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Many Sanders supporters suspect that the stereotype is perpetuated in bad faith to help torpedo his candidacy.
Jeff Winchell, a computational social scientist and graduate student at Harvard University, crunched the numbers on tweet data and found that Sanders’ supporters online behave the same as everyone else. Winchell used what is called a sentiment analysis, a technique used both in the digital humanities and in e-commerce, to gauge emotional intent from social media data.
“Bernie followers act pretty much the same on Twitter as any other follower,” Winchell says of his results. “There is one key difference that Twitter users and media don’t seem to be aware of…. Bernie has a lot more Twitter followers than Twitter followers of other Democrat’s campaigns,” he added, noting that this may be partly what helps perpetuate the myth.”
“I believed that Bernie’s followers are more likely to like him because they are more likely to experience the very negative life circumstances that Bernie Sanders wants to fix. People in a negative situation are more likely to interact negatively with people, particularly those anonymous online people that they have no in-person relationship with. So I had anticipated that Bernie’s followers on average would have a much higher chance to be negative. This does not appear to be the case or at least not as much as the claims I read on Twitter, political media reports or on TV.”
But this post and this research will not persuade anyone who wants to cling to the Bernie bro myth. They will dismiss this post as just another screed from a Bernie bro who worships the sinless Sanders in expectation that he will herald the Second Coming.